Whether it is described as retirement, resignation or simply the sack, the departure yesterday of Paul Whitehouse, the Chief Constable of Sussex, was not only necessary but overdue. Many questions still surround the 1998 police raid on a flat in St Leonards, near Hastings, in which James Ashley, unarmed and naked, was shot dead in the mistaken belief that he was a dangerous drugs kingpin. But two facts cannot be challenged. The raid was an inexcusable error, in which faulty intelligence was compounded by blundering execution. And, until yesterday, no one had been forced to assume responsibility for it.
The affair is in every respect a tragedy: for Mr Ashley and his family, for the reputation of the Sussex Police, long one of the most admired in the country, and for Mr Whitehouse himself, a reform-minded Chief Constable. It is also an object lesson into why Britain's police should only be armed in the most exceptional circumstances.
Mr Whitehouse may not have directly planned an operation which went so catastrophically awry. But neither is he being a made a scapegoat for it. Instead of remaining neutral and letting an independent investigation take its course, he attempted to absolve his men with statements that, as an official report concluded, were "at best misleading and inaccurate", and "a wilful failure to tell the truth as he knew it".
It is one thing for a commander not to abandon his men, but quite another to take part in what amounts to special pleading on their behalf. Then last week Mr Whitehouse added insult to injury by promoting two of the officers involved in organising the raid, even though they were still suspended. For David Blunkett that was, understandably, the last straw. But why, ordinary people will ask, did it need an extraordinary public demand by the Home Secretary for the Chief Constable's dismissal to bring about what should have happened long since?
It was right for Mr Blunkett to take this step. If his action presages a more hands-on approach by the Government towards individual forces, with more comparisons of performance and less autonomy for individual forces to resist change, we welcome it. The actions of Mr Whitehouse and Sussex police have shown the ease with which one force can undermine confidence in the police. Yesterday saw a small step in the rebuilding of that confidence. The sad thing is a politician, and not the police themselves, should have been called upon to take it.Reuse content