Paul Whitehouse: Defiant to the last

A brilliant career is ended in ignominy
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The Independent Online

It was an act of deliberate provocation. By promoting and giving pay rises to two officers who planned the operation that ended with the fatal shooting of a naked and unarmed man, Paul Whitehouse was sticking a finger up to the Home Office. It was to be his last gesture of defiance.

The reaction from the new Home Secretary, David Blunkett, was uncompromising and swift. Within 13 hours and 22 minutes of a Central Office of Information statement to yesterday's Today programme on BBC Radio 4, Mr Whitehouse had been drummed out of the office of Chief Constable of Sussex.

There was still a note of defiance in his resignation statement, with an apocalyptic warning to Mr Blunkett on drug dealers and the need to clear the streets. It sounded like something out of Dirty Harry. But it did not matter. It appeared to be sad hubris, a studied soundbite from an embittered man who had come to be seen as something of a disaster, an embarrassment as a police chief.

But that was not the way it used to be. Mr Whitehouse's scalp has indeed quickly established Mr Blunkett as a man of force to follow "Truncheon Jack" Straw. In turn, the departing chief constable has also won kudos from his men for standing by them over the killing of James Ashley. A macho victory for both sides.

But what is easy to forget, behind the accusations and procrastinations, is that, for a long time, New Labour saw Mr Whitehouse as very much one of its own. He was a liberal, thinking policeman whose politics were not conservative with a big C.

Mr Whitehouse's appointment in 1993 as Sussex's Chief Constable, after a period as deputy in the large, urban West Yorkshire force, was not welcomed by the old guard. But he was welcome to those trying to reform the reactionary dinosaurs who straddled the police service. Some saw him as a future deputy commissioner or even commissioner of the Metropolitan Police.

He had all the right credentials for the role of enlightened chief officer. He had been a voluntary worker in Kenya before studying at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, for both a first degree and a master's. He had also overcome serious eyesight problems that would normally have barred him from joining the police.

His wife, Elizabeth Dinsmore, was a respected solicitor and a woman of impeccably liberal credentials. She represented Assistant Chief Constable Alison Halford against her Merseyside force and the Home Office for sexual discrimination. Her work with the Equal Opportunities Commission brought her into contact with Cherie Booth, with whom she struck up a close acquaintanceship.

During the Halford case, Mr Whitehouse – so one story goes – was accosted at an Association of Chief Police Officers' conference by an avuncular colleague from a northern force. The latter said: " 'ere Paul, your missus is keeping dodgy company." Mr Whitehouse replied, unsmilingly: "She says the same about me."

Ms Dinsmore's husband got on well with the New Labour government. He was asked by No 10 to open a police memorial alongside Tony Blair and he was a natural choice for a working party set up by Mr Straw to investigate the dearth of talent available among the top ranks. The working party was also to address worries among ministers that too many chief constables had got themselves into difficulties in recent years. The Sussex chief declared: "We want to ensure that the right people get the right jobs."

Mr Whitehouse was unafraid to make controversial remarks on controversial issues. During the protests against live animal exports from Sussex ports, and while defending the right of animal traders to go about their business, he said: "I never eat veal. I don't agree with the way it is produced." Many of his officers, he added, felt the same way. The reaction was almost wholly positive.

Further approbation was in store for Mr Whitehouse from Whitehall when he refused to take up the annual cry from colleagues that all the problems of rising undetected crime could be solved by more officers. He said: "There is no evidence that the numbers of police officers reduce crime. It is much more important that the force be properly managed and equipped."

When Mr Whitehouse did decide to recruit for his force he advertised in gay magazines. And when the criticism came from upholders of canteen culture, he was robust in his defence of inclusiveness.

So far, so good, so New Labour. But Mr Whitehouse's career suddenly seemed to hit problems. In September 1997 he drove his M-registered Saab 9000 into the back of a Ford Escort that had stopped at a junction in Kent. The traffic police there took great glee in nicking their neighbouring chief constable. Mr Whitehouse pleaded guilty to driving without due care and attention. He was fined £300 and given six penalty points.

Mr Whitehouse was accompanied on that journey by his daughter Frances, 16. She was soon to make news herself, picking up convictions between 1999 and 2001 for assaults on three police officers and another for possession of an offensive weapon.

During one of the arrests, she called a policeman "no-hope, low-life scum". Then she added for good measure: "My dad was a deputy chief constable at 29. How old are you?" His son Matthew, 22, also had problems. He was arrested for allegedly stealing from a skip but was never charged.

However, a general consensus prevails that a parent is not responsible for the indiscretions of his or her children. After all, both Messrs Straw and Blair have experienced similar irritations with no lasting harm. A certain amount of sympathy attached itself to Mr Whitehouse.

All that changed with the killing of James Ashley, with the statements made by Mr Whitehouse and his colleagues, with the obfuscation that followed, and then with the searing and damning indictments of him in a number of reports into the death made by outside police forces.

Mr Whitehouse felt he and his force were being pilloried. The investigations into the shooting had taken three and a half years, when, he claims, "it should have been over in six months. The truth is that three and a half years of investigation has produced nothing for the [police] service or the Ashley family."

But whatever his protestations, Mr Whitehouse's days had become numbered. And in this, he follows the demise, to a lesser or greater degree, of several police chiefs of liberal credentials: Paul Condon, attacked over the Lawrence murder and institutional racism; Geoffrey Dear, who had to carry the can for what became known as the West Midlands "Serious Lying Squad"; and John Stalker, nobbled over the investigation into a "shoot to kill" policy in Northern Ireland.

Why did Mr Whitehouse provoke a confrontation rather than keeping his head down? A senior Sussex officer, and not an automatic Whitehouse loyalist, said last night: "I think at the end he wanted to fall on his sword. He was accused of misleading statements in the aftermath of the shooting, but he was following what intelligence he had been given by our own force. It's like a minister being given the wrong brief by his civil servant and made to look an arsehole in the Commons. But he has to carry the can. Paul felt he was trying to achieve something here, trying to change a canteen culture. But, at the same time, he had to prove his loyalty to the men, especially as a liberal, especially when the going got tough. He didn't get much help from the politicians, did he?"

He did not. The news that he was no longer wanted by Mr Blunkett came from the media. "He did not have the courtesy to speak to me himself," Mr Whitehouse said yesterday.

Perhaps the new Home Secretary felt he need not bother with someone who is yesterday's man, someone who is expendable. But, for many, it leaves a nasty taste at the end of a particularly nasty affair. We have not heard the last of Paul Whitehouse.

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