Too much of a woman for the boys in blue

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The Independent Online
SEXUAL surveillance shadowed Alison Halford's police career all the way to her becoming the first woman Chief Constable we never had.

It is revealed in one slight, shocking paragraph in her book No Way Up the Greasy Pole, published this week (Constable, pounds 14.95). In 1961 Halford was among a group of female rookies going through the selection procedure at the Metropolitan Police. They were paraded before a panel of senior officers 'who instructed us to remove all our upper clothing'.

They were then asked questions. 'No one bothered to ask at the time what good would be served by having a 22-year-old woman bare her breasts in front of a group of men.'

Halford's account has been corroborated by a woman who recalls a similar incident happening as recently as 1980.

The class of '61's entry into the most masculinised enclave in civil society was entirely sexualised: during a professional interrogation, the officers had stripped the women in order to see them. The absolute right to curiosity expressed their absolute control. Those women joined a force in which they were always visible.

But Alison Halford made a virtue of visibility - she brought to her profession the qualities for which women are both praised and punished: inventive organisation together with rigorous record-keeping. She wrote everything down.

Halford brought professional transparency to the management of Merseyside, a regime that was opaque and capricious. Her administration was the first step towards accountability; her chief's regime was unwritten, invisible, autocratic.

Her archive was her arsenal during an industrial tribunal that heard her charge of sex discrimination last year. It was then that she detonated the secret life of a police force, exposing everyday life at headquarters as an encounter with petulance, boozing and bullying.

Halford's story has always hovered on the edge of the politics of policing. It was when the tribunal heard the strength of her professional challenge as a moderniser - when the police reputation rather than hers was at stake - that she seemed powerful. Her tragedy is that she did not know how important she could have been.

Merseyside police were so disgraced that the tribunal was halted before the current Chief Constable, James Sharples, could take the witness stand.

Women's survival in a hostile habitat is contingent on their ability to co-operate with it. Co- operation governed Halford's professional demeanour in a hierarchy driven by coercion. She was a political ingenue, but she called a halt both to specific discrimination and a general culture of domination. While her chief reigned by tantrum, she refused to endure the routine abuse endured by her male peers. Among the men that did not generate solidarity, it aroused hatred.

'In a structure where you've got Kenneth Oxford terrorising everybody, when somebody like her says she's not standing for it, that made the men aware of their shortcomings,' reckoned a seasoned observer. That made the men unforgiving.

When Halford decided to take her case to the Equal Opportunities Commission, she informed her new Chief Constable, James Sharples. But he never shared with her the damning references he wrote. Neither he nor Her Majesty's Inspector of Constabulary, nor the Home Office ever came out into the open.

Indeed, Halford only uncovered Sharples's secret by penetrating the computer system. Not until then did she discover that his overriding grievance against her was that she had taken part in a professional debate about women's prospects in the police.

Halford's reputation never recovered from the 'swimming-pool incident', when she was messing about with a junior officer in a private pool while on call. Her book has as little to say about this event as about the strip show that inaugurated her career.

Both incidents leave her vulnerable and visible - the first as a victim, abused, the last as the accused. Both cases concerned her body and both were about abuse of authority. Hers was individual and transgressive. Her recruiting officers' was systematic and sanctioned.

Herein lies the ambiguity of Halford's place in the public domain: neither heroine nor martyr, she wears the uniform of both victim and transgressor.

Her success came from qualities associated with professional women. Respectable women may not behave publicly like men. But police culture demands that a woman becomes one of the boys. That is what Halford tried to do. That was how she came to be undone.