John Stalker: Good cop... Bad cop

Whatever is uncovered about his role in the Stockwell shooting, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair has demonstrated that he is not up to the job, says Manchester's former Deputy Chief Constable
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The Independent Online

His speech was not so much a visionary exposition of his view of policing in the future, more a piece of PR, an exercise in ostentatious listening - and a piece of damage limitation after the shocking, cold-blooded shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes at Stockwell Tube station in July.

Sir Ian is soiled goods, and I think he knows it. His remarks were those of a tired and despairing man. They might have been made at the end of a term of office rather than just a few months into one. And his speech was not even original. It might, equally, have been written by a rookie cop just starting out, falling back on tired regrets about a breakdown in social cohesion - the lack of caretakers and bus conductors. Of course such points are valid, but there have been such problems for well over 15 years. We could have done with a vision for policing now, rather than a request for readers' letters, as it were, telling the police what to think.

I am afraid that calling for "a debate" is typical of a man who has shown himself to be not up to the job. Real leaders, in business, politics, anywhere, tell people what they want. Of course they have to listen - that is a given - but they do not make it their selling point. Sir Ian, I'm afraid, is a weak manager, not a strong leader.

There is a pattern in the appointment of commissioners of the Met. A forceful boss tends to be followed by a more managerial figure. We go from a charismatic to a bureaucratic boss. Sir Ian's predecessor, Sir John Stevens, who worked in Northern Ireland- as I did - was strong.

Those in his charge may not have always liked what he did, but they knew what he wanted. His predecessor, Lord Condon, was more low-key. And now we have Sir Ian, who wants to introduce citizens' panels to direct him, reminiscent of street politics in Red China. I suspect most people who pay their taxes want the police to know already how to do their job, and to do it. Police chiefs are handsomely paid to lead and that is what they should do.

They should not over-intellectualise policing which, after all, is about dealing with the everyday problems of ordinary people. People who would like a swift and practical response to their difficulties rather than the examples of negative police weariness that so often turn up on their doorstep - if any turn up at all. He says the police can't attract enough graduates. This is strange, given that 10 years ago we could have filled with graduate applicants every vacancy in the force. For understandable reasons, the police decided they needed to attract applicants from a wider social background. But the result was that it has become insultingly easy to pass police entrance exams.

I can't pretend I have ever had high expectations of Sir Ian. When he left the Surrey force I believed he was a competent provincial policeman who had been over-promoted. But however much he may have been doing the right thing in his first few months in charge, the effect has been nullified by the Stockwell shooting. That episode is haunting him. It infects everything he does, to the extent that I believe he will have no alternative but eventually to stand down.

The Independent Police Complaints Commission is still investigating how an entirely innocent person came to be shot. Possibly it could have happened whoever had been in overall charge. My suspicion is that insufficiently experienced people were tasked with doing something they were not equipped to do, that intelligence was not appropriately filtered.

The circumstances were extremely difficult, in that police radios do not always work underground. Everything happened at great speed. London was in an extraordinary frenzy at the time. Yet Sir Ian got an awful lot wrong. He turned what had been an enormous success for the police into a PR disaster. Until the Stockwell shooting, the police were winning huge respect for the speed at which they acted upon the leads they were given.

Yet with appropriate handling, the De Menezes case need not have had the damaging effect it has had. Why did he give a press conference when he didn't know the facts? (This was the occasion when he was forced to claim that the shot man was "directly linked" to the terrorists.) He had received many public plaudits for the police's work. Maybe he couldn't resist putting himself in front of the television lights once again, even on a bad news day. But a shrewder, mentally tougher chief would have made sure he knew what was going on before he went on, as it were. He has been accused of not coming clean quickly enough about how long he had known that an innocent man had died. Doubtless the new IPCC report into Sir Ian's own conduct will tell us.

Someone must have known that an awful blunder had been committed. Did someone lie to Sir Ian? My suspicion is that he asked the advice of people who didn't want to admit that they didn't know, so they took a flyer. That should not have been good enough. I remember thinking, as I watched him answering questions that day, "Well, if you don't know, does nobody know?" To blame his ignorance on it being a busy day, as he did later, just won't do.

When he criticised the West Midlands force for using a Taser gun on a suspected terrorist, he broke a fundamental tenet of British policing: that you present a united front to the world. In my time as Greater Manchester's deputy chief constable, I had plenty of rows with the Met over all sorts of things, but we all understood that you never went public. This time, Sir Ian's provincial colleagues were furious. Who was he to go grandstanding on any issue, let alone one on which, in his own case, the jury was still out? But in having a go at the West Midlands force, Sir Ian was thrashing about, self-servingly seeking to justify something about which he rightly felt guilty. This is not the action of a strong man, nor of one likely to command the respect of those under him.

The same goes for Sir Ian's implicit "Don't blame me, guv" utterances about police policies of shooting to kill suspected suicide bombers. Those rules came in under Sir John Stevens - while Sir Ian was his deputy. He now laments the fact that they were not debated in public. The possibility that others got it wrong is unspoken, but deafening. Again, not the action of a big man.

Does Sir Ian think he will save his job by lining up so closely with his namesake, the Prime Minister? I don't know, but I don't think he has won much credit - from either the police or the public - for doing so. Suicide bombing in Britain is a new phenomenon. The events of 7/7 were the biggest shock to homeland security for years. But let us not exaggerate; 7/7 was not year zero. Things are not that different from how they were when we faced unattended bags on the Tube left by the IRA. Yet there are police officers around now who talk as if they invented policing.

Terrorists operating in the 1970s and 1980s were not some benign and co-operative group. They were every bit as murderously efficient as the bombers who died with their victims on 7 July this year. And, it must be said, much more difficult to identify after the event. The IRA tended to leave fewer pointers to their identities than do modern suicide bombers.

Of course, the "new" terrorism is an appallingly real problem, but when, since 1970, was London not under terrorist threat? For 35 years the Met has coped well without resorting to the police histrionics of recent weeks. It is hysterical nonsense to say, as Blair does, that all policing has been irrevocably affected by terrorism. Londoners simply do not go about their work and lives expecting to be blown up. They worry far more about falling victim to drunken, gratuitous or random violence than they do about terrorist acts.

Routine, community-based policing will always run a separate course to police anti-terrorism efforts. To speak of "the rules of the game having changed" since 7/7 is to short-change a public and a police force that both deserve less overstatement from their leaders.

The Government's hopes of securing 90 days as the period for holding terrorist suspects without trial was due, in large part, we were told, to the police's request for such a spell. But my understanding is that the police had no realistic belief that they would ever get 90 days. It was, as the jargon has it, "an aspiration", not something they would go to the stake for. Yet Sir Ian found himself endorsing a proposal for which no substantial supportive evidence could be provided and which was unlikely ever to get through Parliament.

Whether it was the police or the Government who initiated it, they should not be using one another for political purposes. Tony Blair claimed he had the support of the security forces for the 90 days clause, but there was a silence on the subject from MI5, which was remarkable even by their standards of reticence.

Sir Ian may emerge from the IPCC's reports without a stain on his record, but I doubt it. Even if he is cleared, his Scotland Yard tenancy remains fatally compromised. He has personally (and without precedent) supported current political thinking. Rightly or wrongly, some see him as a government appendage. He remains unabashed by such comments. But he stands on his own. Commissioners of the Met are high-profile people. They are in a high-risk, politically charged job in which taking credit for good news means accepting ultimate responsibility for the bad. From now on, everything he does, well-intentioned or otherwise, is tainted by the killing of an innocent Brazilian. It takes a man of strong will to overcome a case like that. Sir Ian does not have that strong will. London cannot expect to be well served by its police force until he is replaced.