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Joan Smith

Joan Smith: In the face of narcissism, the police should stick to policing

Since I was neither in Northumberland last week nor planning to visit the area, I'm not sure why I needed minute-by-minute updates on the hunt for Raoul Moat. In the week between his first shootings and the moment he killed himself in the early hours of yesterday morning, Moat gave every appearance of revelling in the huge manhunt he'd sparked off. For several days, ever-more dramatic pictures emerged from Rothbury, the village in Northumberland where the former nightclub bouncer was last seen, as armed police in helmets patrolled the streets and helicopters circled above the surrounding district.

The authorities have to respond to threats to the public, especially after Derrick Bird's rampage in Cumbria last month, but the response of Northumbria police was puzzling from the outset. Why did they apparently fail to act on a warning from Durham Prison, from which Moat was released 10 days ago, that he might pose a danger to his ex-girlfriend, Samantha Stobbart? What ended in a six-hour stand-off and Moat's suicide in fields outside Rothbury began as a classic incident of domestic violence, in which an angry man first made threats to an ex-partner and then carried them out: Ms Stobbart was shot and wounded in Gateshead and her new boyfriend, Chris Brown, was shot dead.

The police's handling of the warning is being investigated by the Independent Police Complaints Commission, but the following day Moat shot a traffic policeman, PC David Rathband, in Newcastle. As the manhunt got under way, Northumbria Police issued a curious statement, assuring the public that Moat posed a danger mainly to police officers. This seems to have been based on a rambling letter from Moat, who said he was declaring war on the police and boasted about kidnapping two men after the first shootings in Gateshead. Why the police placed so much faith in a suspect's boastful claims is another question that needs to be addressed, especially as the two "kidnapped" men were later arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit murder. And why didn't officers monitor his associates more closely, including a friend he returned to see after earlier using him to deliver a letter?

By Thursday, Moat was being treated, rightly, as a danger to the public. But suspects who bombard the authorities with messages generally have attention-seeking personalities, and it's not hard to imagine the effect on such people of endless press statements and mawkish public appeals. 'Do not leave your children with distressing memories of their father. You still have a future', Detective Chief Superintendent Neil Adamson declared in one of his appeals to Moat. I'm afraid you wouldn't have had to be the most cerebral of fugitives to work out that that future was likely to involve a long stretch at Her Majesty's pleasure, but worse was to come.

In a horribly misplaced attempt at empathy, Northumbria police circulated a note among Moat's friends which contained the following gem: 'You told us how angry you were and you also told us that you were sorry that Sam had been so seriously hurt. We understand how personal and important these things are to you'. Are Northumbria police moonlighting as counsellors? Would they like suspects to come in and 'work on their issues'? By the end of last week, what had begun as tragedy – one person dead, two wounded - had descended into gruesome farce. And a weak but narcissistic criminal had been afforded the brief satisfaction of spending his final days as public enemy number one.