The policeman who flew too high

Ray Mallon believed in zero tolerance and went on TV, but some people didn't like it, says Jason Bennetto
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The Independent Online
HE WAS courted by politicians, loved by the media, who dubbed him Robocop, and enthusiastically promoted by his bosses. For several months last year he was probably Britain's most famous policeman.

But last week Ray Mallon was not out catching crooks or lecturing chief constables about his vision of zero-tolerance policing. He was sitting in a snooker hall, wearing a track suit and running shoes, drinking coffee.

On 1 December the meteoric rise of the head of Middlesbrough CID came to a shuddering halt when he was suspended following corruption allegations. As the police inquiry into Middlesbrough CID drags on there is a growing suspicion among supporters of Detective Superintendent Mallon that his fall is partly due to his celebrity status.

Put crudely, they suggest that Det Supt Mallon got too big for his boots and had to be put in his place. Supporters point to two revelations that suggest it is suddenly getting personal. The Cleveland police force has just set up a second inquiry to the current corruption investigation, Operation Lancet, which is believed to be looking into Det Supt Mallon's expenses prior to 1994. And in a highly unusual move traffic-police officers throughout Cleveland have also been asked to report to the second inquiry team any previous sightings of Mr Mallon's car.

Operation Lancet, which is being overseen by the Police Complaints Authority, is understood to be investigating allegations that a hard core of CID officers has been involved in trading drugs for information from criminals, and threatening and beating up suspects or potential informers. The allegations include that of a man taken to wasteland and assaulted, another threatened with being pushed from a bridge, and a third who says he was thrown into a makeshift grave as a means of intimidation. So far seven officers from Middlesbrough CID have been suspended, pending the outcome of the investigation, and a further four moved to other duties.

But Bob Pitt, a Labour member of the Cleveland Police Authority and Middlesbrough council, believes that: "Operation Lancet will come to nothing. Issues of corruption and bad practice have gone on for nearly a decade, the only way to deal with this is a full public inquiry."

The reaction in Middlesbrough to the inquiry has been unexpected. Far from shock and outrage at the unproven suggestions that senior police officers were acting like thugs and enforcers, most people appear angered at the removal of Ray Mallon. He continues to top popularity polls and many people quite openly believe that there is nothing wrong with strong- arm tactics.

Det Supt Mallon shot to fame in October 1996 when he took charge of Middlesbrough CID and immediately vowed that he would quit if he failed to cut crime by 20 per cent in 18 months. Preaching his version of the New York style of zero-tolerance policing, in which officers challenged anyone who flouted a law, however minor, he quickly became the darling of the lecture circuit and started to catch the eye of politicians with his message "we can make a difference".

He was brought in to clean up Middlesbrough after reducing the crime rate in nearby Hartlepool, says Richard Brunstrom, the Assistant Chief Constable of Cleveland Constabulary. "We told him to go there and demonstrate that zero tolerance can work."

"Teesside [the area including Middlesbrough] has a high unemployment level and a high level of violence. There was a real sense of disorder - this goes from dropping litter to fighting in the streets."

Det Supt Mallon's tactics of targeting repeat house burglars, confronting all offending, and talking tough brought down the crime rate. "It's a hard-bitten, hard-drinking macho environment. To an extent we have to meet force with force," said Mr Brunstrom.

The tactics have also brought criticism that civil liberties are being trampled on, for instance the use of CS spray has soared (about 700 times in the past year) and large numbers of people have been stopped and searched. There were also complaints that the police were merely clamping down on the small fry, leaving the organised criminals and drug barons alone.

Cleveland denies these allegations, pointing to a newly created squad to fight organised crime. As the number of crimes dropped in Middlesbrough, Ray Mallon's profile expanded. He was photographed with the then Home Secretary, Michael Howard, and with Mr Howard's successor, Jack Straw.

"Some people got jealous and got bitter," admits Mr Brunstrom, who continues to champion zero tolerance in Cleveland.

Then came Operation Lancet. In October two detectives were suspended for allegedly supplying drugs to criminals in exchange for confessions or information. Then 14 weeks ago Det Supt Mallon was suspended, accused of leaking information to the press and of "alleged activity which could be construed as criminal".

The allegations are understood to stem from claims made by a CID officer that Det Supt Mallon knew about the drug- bribery allegations, but tried to cover it up.

Very senior police officers outside Cleveland have also privately questioned whether it was possible for the head of the CID not to be aware of the allegations. "He should have known," said one.

Since his suspension, Ray Mallon, who has yet to be interviewed, has been keeping up his exercises, staying teetotal, and seeing more of his family. He has also continued to write a weekly column for the local newspaper.

Speaking from the snooker club in Middlesbrough, he is bursting with frustration, indignation, and pent-up energy. "My job is not on the line - I have nothing to fear. I have done nothing wrong and I'm certain I will be exonerated," he said.

He continued: "In any organisation if someone adopts a high profile they will make enemies. My enemies didn't like me getting my face on the television."

He added: "I look forward to coming back to work. I don't intend to retire early."