Obituary: Sir Kenneth Oxford

Dick Hobbs
Thursday 26 November 1998 01:02

SIR KENNETH Oxford's 42-year police career in three of Britain's major forces was saturated in controversy. Although he was an investigating officer in two of the Sixties' most notorious cases, the Profumo Affair and the Hanratty murder inquiry, it was the battles over police accountability during the last decade of his career that he will be best remembered for.

Born in Lambeth in 1924, Oxford spent five years in the RAF during and after the Second World War before joining the Metropolitan Police in 1947. He was CID through and through, a committed career detective - and was involved at a relatively junior level in the Profumo and Hanratty investigations. He rose quickly through the ranks, attended the Senior Command Course at Bramshill, and in 1969 joined the Northumbria Police as Assistant Chief Constable (Crime).

The Met's detective branch had recently been tainted by a number of high profile corruption cases, which meant that all Met officers were viewed with a certain suspicion; and Oxford, very much a Londoner, must have found a move to the provinces difficult. An abrasive and forthright man, he clashed with Her Majesty's Inspector for Northumbria, yet succeeded in becoming the Deputy Chair of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) crime committee.

His forthright manner endeared him to the Merseyside Police Committee when he was interviewed for the post of Deputy Chief Constable in 1974, before being designated Chief Constable the following year. His early years in Merseyside gave few hints of the storm that was to follow.

Oxford had a clear commitment to improving facilities and restructuring the force, and its communication system. He received the congratulations of the Merseyside Community Relations Council for scrapping the "Task Force", which he felt had been responsible for some heavy-handed tactics, and expanded beat policing at the expense of motorised patrols as a means of improving police/public relations.

However he vehemently resented any demand from the Police Committee to justify his actions. For instance, when he made a case for an increase in manpower, and the financial consequences were pointed out to him, he took it as a personal attack. Later, any criticism by elected councillors or their appointees of him or his force was interpreted as a political assault upon the police service.

By the late 1970s the relationship between the police and the denizens of the working-class community of Huyton had plummeted, and a series of violent incidents culminated in the death of Jimmy Kelly in June 1979. Kelly, who had been arrested for being drunk and disorderly, died in police custody, and witnesses came forward claiming that they had seen police assaulting him. Allegations of police violence in K division, which had been ceded to Merseyside from the Lancashire Constabulary in the reorganisation of 1974, followed, and the local MP, Sir Harold Wilson, called for a public inquiry.

Kenneth Oxford responded to the wave of critical pressure that followed with a staunch refusal to discuss the case that enraged working-class Merseyside and its democratically elected repres- entatives, including both Tory and Labour groups of Merseyside Council. The most vociferous of these critics was Margaret Simey, who led the Labour Group on the Police Committee.

Simey pushed hard for an inquiry, and Oxford responded in his annual report by referring to "vituperative, misinformed comment made by members of the County Council, but more unfortunately by members of the Police Committee". A Panorama television programme inspired a similar defence, the results of an internal investigation of K Division were not put into the public domain, and nine months after Jimmy Kelly's death three pathologists gave a verdict of death by misadventure, and the Home Office rejected demands for a public inquiry.

The unresolved dispute concerning Kelly's death set the tone for what was to follow as Oxford continued to rail against anyone who questioned his attempts to improve the force's efficiency, largely through expanding its manpower. By the time urban rioting swept Britain in the summer of 1981, enlightened members of the Police Committee had been warning Oxford for several years about the situation in some of its poorest areas. However he continued to accuse the Police Authority of "criminal negligence", despite massively improved command and control facilities, huge capital expenditure and most tellingly the highest police to population ratio outside of London.

Police relations with the largely black population of Liverpool 8 were appalling, and the three days of rioting in Toxteth that July took a dreadful toll in damaged property and police casualties. One policeman was speared in the head with a six-foot railing, a police vehicle killed an innocent disabled man (two officers were later acquitted of manslaughter), and another man was severely injured when a police Land Rover was driven into a crowd. Oxford's response was chilling: "They can see the vehicles coming and they know what will happen if they get in the way." Eventually CS gas was used for the first time on the British mainland, and due to the use of inappropriate canisters designed to penetrate buildings for use in armed sieges, several serious injuries resulted.

The Chief Constable responded to his critics and to Margaret Simey in particular with both incredulity, and anger, and his lengthy report did little to appease anyone. He blamed the riot on "black hooligans", and claimed to have saved the city centre from their ravages, and made several highly personal comments regarding his attitude to the rioters claiming at one point that "they won't beat me". Yet he refused to justify his tactics which many members of the Police Committee felt were unwise, particularly in view of the casualties that the rioters inflicted on the police.

Oxford resisted every step of the way what he saw as political interference in operational policing, and in the respite provided by the Scarman Report repeated his long-held belief that Liverpool's violent and multi-racial culture required a very particular policing style. Public demonstrations against Oxford followed.

During this period a peculiar deal was struck between Margaret Simey and the Home Secretary, William Whitelaw, which involved a toning-down of criticisms of Oxford's riot tactics in exchange for his removal as Chief Constable. ACPO and the Police Federation made sure that Whitelaw did not acquiesce to the desires of Simey and the Police Committee. After this incident Simey's influence upon Merseyside politics was significantly reduced.

Oxford became the focal point for a debate over police accountability that raged through the 1980s and remains unresolved to this day. As Chairman of ACPO 1982/83, he retained both the national spotlight and the antipathy of the Police Committee. Critics of the police and in particular opponents of his version of democratic accountability were branded as extremists.

The Miners strike of 1984/85 saw the Merseyside Police Committee unsuccessfully attempt to impose an injunction upon their Chief Constable to prevent Merseyside officers providing mutual aid to other forces as the tripartite system of controlling constabularies was all but demolished.

Kenneth Oxford had won. He opposed the Police and Criminal Evidence Act of 1984, and was named by Alison Halford as practising "tactics of exclusion" during her fight to gain promotion within the Merseyside Police.

He was a believer in traditional roles and traditional disciplines, an anathema to many contemporary management cops, but in some cases somewhat easier to comprehend. As he said of himself in 1981: "If I am arrogant then the spice of arrogance is a necessary constituent of command".

Oxford was appointed CBE in 1981, and knighted in 1988. He retired the following year, and devoted the remainder of his life to his charity work and to his family. His managerial style was feudal. He was an old style Chief Constable from a humble background, tough and shrewd, the most passionate advocate of the Chief Officers operational independence.

Kenneth Gordon Oxford, police officer: born London 25 June 1924; officer, Metropolitan Police 1947-69; Assistant Chief Constable (Crime), Northumberland Constabulary 1969-74; Deputy Chief Constable, Merseyside Police 1974-75, Chief Constable, 1976-89; CBE 1981; Kt 1988; married 1954 Muriel Panton; died Liverpool 23 November 1998.

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