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Focus: Sir Paul Condon - Mission impossible

Sir Paul Condon has held onto his job by the skin of his teeth. But many, both inside and outside the police, believe that his position has been made untenable by the Stephen Lawrence inquiry. If he's failed to make the Met work in six years as Commissioner, how can he do it in the 11 months left before he retires?

t is 11 months until Sir Paul Condon retires as Scotland Yard Commissioner. Many thought he might lose his job in the aftermath of the inquiry into the death of Stephen Lawrence, but he received an unexpected reprieve, despite the disastrous conduct of his force during that murder inquiry. And, to a large extent, his survival was dependent on expressions of contrition and repeated promises to carry out fundamental reforms in his remaining days.

In l993, the year of Stephen's death, Sir Paul was given the rare accolade of a seven-year rather than five-year tenure by the Conservative Home Secretary Kenneth Clarke, with a brief to carry out reforms long before the controversy over the murder exploded. But when the Commissioner finally hands over his baton and walks off to the lucrative security consultancy will he really be leaving a force firmly set on a different course? Or will the Macpherson report simply become another well-intentioned attempt at progress which will be blocked and then buried by the antipathy of an influential and entrenched reactionary element?

For many, the only good thing to come out of the casual racist murder of 18-year-old Stephen and the subsequent shambolic actions by the police, is that the Macpherson report may point the way to something better for the future of race relations in Britain, and that the police force may be able to shed its image as a body intrinsically hostile to the black population.

Sir Paul says: "... The post-Macpherson debate will provide a unique opportunity to shape policing for the 21st century ... it is a defining moment. It rightly expects police officers to be objective, versatile, intelligent, sensitive, courageous, well-trained and dedicated to the concept of public service. This must be matched by humility and compassion ..." A lot of qualities to as-pire to for a body not particularly well-known for espousing most of them. But the Commissioner is " confident the Metropolitan Police can rise to the challenge ..."

We have, however, heard similar sentiments before from other senior police officers and politicians. Most notably there was the Scarman Report which followed the inner-city riots of the early 1980s. That too was a devastating critique of policing, that too was described as a defining moment. But its effect on policing of working-class ethnic minorities has, most civil rights activists would say, been proportionately vastly less than the publicity surrounding it.

There have been other attempts to change what has become known as "canteen culture" within the police force. Sir Paul's predecessor, Sir Peter Imbert, set up a entirely new department called " Plus", to achieve this. Some progress was made, some of the ideas it threw up were adopted, mainly by provincial forces. But within the Met itself, the UK's biggest police force, it withered with indifference and neglect. Sir Paul oversaw its downgrading and then its abolition.

This is not a peculiarly British problem. Los Angeles underwent a similar bout of soul-searching to the Lawrence inquiry after the sadistic beating of Rodney King by white police officers. After the officers concerned were acquitted by an all-white jury, a commission of inquiry was instituted.

Some of the commission's more minor recommendations were adopted, but, overall, the Los Angeles Police Department did not welcome change. One of the most challenging recommendations, that around 50 officers who were the subjects of a huge number of complaints of racism and brutality should be investigated and if necessary disciplined or prosecuted, was not seriously pursued. The police union proved its immense power to obstruct measures it found unpalatable.

Sir Paul had said, "I have no fears of a rearguard action to prevent change". Those of his men and women who "cannot change or reach these standards must leave the service". But the position of the Police Federation is somewhat unenthusiastic. It feels that the label of "institutional racism", at the core of the Macpherson findings is false and insulting. The Commissioner's acceptance of the term, with caveats, is seen by many of its members as a betrayal. What they see as the ineptitude of the Macpherson report is exemplified by the farce of informants' details being revealed in the appendix.

Mike Bennett, the recently retired chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation, and a man said to be in tune with much of (white) rank-and- file opinion is characteristically blunt: " He would have retained the support of his policemen and policewomen if he had stood by his original position - that there are individual officers who are racist, but the police service is not institutionally racist. This was a pathetic compromise to keep the politically correct lobby happy."

The question of race is not the only subject on which the Commissioner does not appear to see eye to eye with much of his staff. There has now been, for a while, mutinous complaints about how he is turning the force into another branch of the civil service with increasing bureaucracy and an obsession with cost-cutting. These may sound like predictable whines, but the fact remains that a lot of good investigators from the CID are leaving.

Sir Paul's anti-corruption drive within the force also comes in for criticism. There is little doubt that corruption, fuelled by the seemingly endless supply of drugs money, was starting to, once again, seep through the system. Action was undoubtedly necessary. But to some policemen and policewomen the way it has been done has been draconian and constraining to detective work where "you have to mix with thieves and robbers to catch them".

To push through his promises of reform against the obduracy of some of his officers, the Commissioner will need the backing of the Government. Some would say that is what was missing from successive Conservative Home Secretaries in the wake of the Scarman Report. The spin coming from New Labour is that Jack Straw is of the same mind and the Macpherson report will be the springboard for long overdue changes.

But just how much backing does Sir Paul have? Who leaked the report to the Sunday Telegraph, which carried sections with extensive criticism of the Commissioner, and what was the agenda behind the leak? The rumours going around in the corridors of Whitehall, the Yard and Fleet Street was that it came from a very senior source indeed.

It is also known that there are powerful voices in the Home Office, including minister Paul Boateng, who feel that Sir Paul's position is now untenable and it is a mistake to let him hang on. Better still to start with a fresh broom. There is, of course, no suggestion that Mr Boateng played any part in the leak.

Sir Paul does, however, receive support from some unexpected quarters. Darcus Howe, former activist with a previous history of prickly relationship with the police is, in turn, optimistic about the police's ability to reform itself and scathing about the Macpherson report.

Mr Howe said: "I feel the Macpherson report is authoritarian and gives a totally wrong picture. I do not think we need a Scottish laird to tell us about racial discrimination, something he has never experienced. I think that is an oxymoron. This is just pandering to some sections of the race relations industry."

Mr Howe is especially complimentary about one of Sir Paul's chief lieutenants, Denis O'Connor, the Assistant Commissioner tasked with combating racism within the Yard. "Denis O'Connor is serious about this and so are a few other senior officers. There are a lot of changes taking place and this will continue. Society is changing and so will the police force, it will continue with Paul Condon and those who come after him," he said.

There are, however, other black activists who demand that there is a new head of London's police force. Lee Jasper, of the pressure group l990 Trust, is adamant that Sir Paul is not the man for the job.

"He cannot carry out the necessary reforms because it can only be done in partnership with the black community, and he has lost that trust," said Mr Jasper. "There are plenty of other chief constables around at the moment who would be far more suited to the job. They are forward thinking and haven't got Paul Condon's history. We are just wasting valuable time with him."

Others, such as Simon Woolley, the national co-ordinator of the rapidly growing Operation Black Vote, said: "One of the reasons Jack Straw ordered the Stephen Lawrence inquiry was because he wanted the ethnic vote. We need to empower ourselves and get beyond if the police are prepared to reform themselves."