Police image damaged by accusations: A settlement in the Alison Halford case with no clear conclusion will be a new blow to the force. Terry Kirby reports

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THE ALISON HALFORD affair could not have exploded at a worse time for a police service already on its knees from a succession of miscarriages of justice, shattered public confidence and rising crime rates.

Accusations of drunkenness, misogyny and tales of senior officers eating potatoes with their fingers appeared to confirm the worst public suspicions that sections of the service are brutish and sexist. At a time when the police most need intelligent, bright recruits, the affair may have deterred many.

Support for Miss Halford is thus tempered by a realisation of the long-term damage it might have wrought. 'It has not improved the image of the police and for that reason I wonder whether it has not ultimately damaged the cause of equal opportunities,' a senior woman police officer said.

Like many, she preferred to remain anonymous since, instinctively, the police service does not approve of those who speak out - women officers now desperately fear the tag of being 'another Halford'. One who is keeping a low profile is Chief Superintendent Pauline Clare - also of Merseyside police - who is currently on her senior command course at the Police Staff College, Bramshill, the six-month passport to the highest ranks for the chosen.

Women make up only about 2 per cent of the annual intake of all courses at Bramshill. Susan Davies, the Assistant Commandant at Bramshill and one of only four women in the senior ranks - until yesterday, Miss Halford was the fifth - believes the numbers are 'much too low'.

She is optimistic they will increase if the right conditions can be created among the high proportion of women in the lower ranks. The recent announcement of part-time working experiments is a step along the road.

According to the Home Office, the total number of women officers has risen from 11,308, about 9 per cent of the force, in 1985, to a current figure of 15,400 or 12 per cent. While the number of women at superintendent and chief superintendent level has barely increased in the last five years, remaining at 1.3 and 1.7 per cent of the total, the number of women constables has risen from 12.5 to 14 per cent. Fourteen forces have no women above the rank of inspector.

Acknowledging there are still individuals who behave in a sexist fashion, both deliberately and unconsciously, Mrs Davies believes the police only reflect a male-dominated society, but adds: 'Warts and all, we are trying our best.' Would there be a woman chief constable before the end of the decade? 'I have no doubt there will be eventually, but I am not sure whether eight years is too short.'

That prediction does not offer much hope for the careers of either Mrs Davies or her colleagues Elizabeth Neville, an assistant chief constable of Sussex, Erica Norton, an assistant chief constable of Leicestershire, and Sally Hubbard, a Metropolitan Police commander working for the Inspectorate of Constabulary.

All are recent appointments and there are several others, such as Chief Supt Clare, likely to follow. But the critical point will not come for a couple of years, when all three would expect to be ready for deputy chief constable posts.

The problem remains whether they will meet the same obstacles Miss Halford claims she encountered from chief constables, police authorities and the Inspectorate of Constabulary. It was this close-knit cabal, interconnected by committee and positions of powers, that she accused of what amounted to a sexist conspiracy against her.

'There are still an awful lot of dinosaurs in our ranks,' the deputy chief constable of a large urban force, who also preferred to remain anonymous, said. Only about one-third of the 43 forces in England and Wales, he estimated, were led by the kind of men who would not be either unconsciously or deliberately sexist. 'Change is coming slowly, but I wonder how long it will be before it reaches some of the more rural northern forces.'

Unsympathetic, male-dominated police authorities are unlikely to disappear entirely. The reforms of the Inspectorate of Constabulary by Sir John Woodcock - who has been instrumental in promoting change - are still incomplete and the 'old guard' dominate.

Nevertheless, the Halford affair has given added impetus to the reformers. Without her personal demonstration, it is unlikely that the numbers of female officers alleging discrimination would have gone from 14 in 1990 to 92 so far this year. Neither would Bramshill have recently hosted a week-long European conference on equal opportunities in the police at which Bill Skitt, Chief Constable of Hertfordshire and chairman of the Association of Chief Police Officers' equal opportunities committee, felt able to read out a list of examples of sexual discrimination in the British police.

But the pain of the Halford affair is likely to be felt for some time to come.

(Photograph omitted)