This policeman has zero tolerance - of intolerance

Ian Burrell meets a man with a mission to rebuild trust between police and public
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PETER NEYROUD has a history of road protesting and acts as an adviser to Justice, the human rights lobby group. He counsels the Howard League in its battle for prison reform and campaigns on green issues in his spare time.

It might come as a surprise to discover that someone with such impeccable liberal credentials is a career police officer who seems set to become one of the most influential voices in the police service. The views of Mr Neyroud, Assistant Chief Constable of West Mercia constabulary, will be regarded with suspicion by some members of his profession, which is still struggling to purge itself of the prejudices nurtured by the canteen culture in which many officers have grown up.

But as corruption inquiries in seven forces and the devastating evidence from the Stephen Lawrence inquiry drain public confidence in the police, the energies of modern-thinking officers like Mr Neyroud will be increasingly important if British policing is not to be seen as out of step with the people it is supposed to represent.

He has been appointed vice-chairman of the new human rights working group, which was set up last month by the Association of Chief Police Officers. The group's role will be vital if forces are not to fall foul of the European Convention on Human Rights which is being incorporated into domestic law.

It will also be pivotal to the successful implementation of Tony Blair's "zero tolerance" policy of tackling crime hot spots, which has alarmed civil liberties groups.

Mr Neyroud said he hoped to build bridges through his contacts on both sides of the argument. "Potentially, hot-spot policing is very positive for human rights because it is based on high-quality information and not arbitrary spot-checks," he said. "But if you are going to conduct hot- spot policing in a very sensitive ethnic minority area, then explanation of how you are going to do it and taking people with you are going to be very important."

While pointing out that he is "not a trendy lefty", he insists that constructive dialogue with pressure groups which have long been at odds with authority is crucial to the future of British policing. "Traditionally we had been at arm's length of groups like Justice and Liberty," he said. "We need to have a constructive debate, not two people shouting at each other over a long distance."

He recently became the first senior police officer to address the national conference of Liberty, the civil rights group. "Some of my audience had very strongly held views and I think I had once even arrested one of them. But by the end of the day they were very complimentary," he said.

Mr Neyroud, 39, is not from the old school of policing. When he graduated from Oriel College, Oxford, and applied for the police's fast-track recruitment scheme, he was interviewed by the former Metropolitan police commissioner, Sir Peter Imbert, who noted: "He's too nice. He will be trampled to death on the road of life."

But he reapplied and was accepted on his third attempt, after the former West Midlands Chief Constable, Sir Geoffrey Dear, observed: "He has learned to dodge the traffic."

Mr Neyroud's interest in real traffic and the potential harm of unnecessary road-building emerged while he was still a student at Winchester College in Hampshire. He was physically ejected from one noisy public meeting over the proposals for the building of the M3, which was set to go through his parents' house.

Mr Neyroud was later placed in charge of policing the protest over the M3, which he still refers to as "that awful scar on the countryside". Never the less, he drew the line at attacks on plant and machinery - "that's beyond the pale" - and his officers arrested 27 protesters who overstepped the mark. His green protests are now restricted to a seat on the Council for the Protection of Rural England.

His views on human rights have been influenced by his experiences as a police officer. During the miners' strike of 1984 he stood in the police front line. "There were a lot of very physical situations," he said. "It was uncomfortable in the sense that nobody wanted us there."

As a detective superintendent in Hampshire, Mr Neyroud was in charge of covert policing, experience he drew on when helping to compile Justice's recent report on the lack of checks on police surveillance.

As a beat bobby in the garrison town of Aldershot, his truncheon broke as he tried to break up a fight involving soldiers. It taught him the value of defusing confrontations by talking to those involved rather than hitting them.

It was a lesson he remembered this summer as he led a siege by 40 armed officers in a Worcestershire village where a 78-year-old man was holed up with four deer rifles and 22 shotguns. After nearly five days, sections of the local media began asking what the police were waiting for.

"It was a distressing one for a commander. You keep asking and questioning what you are trying to achieve," said Mr Neyroud. "We went to enormous lengths to avoid using firearms and achieve a peaceful resolution."

Paul Condon profile, page 26