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January 23, 2006

Not for the Faint-Hearted: My Life Fighting Crime - John Stevens

Posted by Harry Phibbs

Not for the Faint-Hearted: My Life Fighting Crime
by John Stevens
Pp. 352. London: Orion, 2005
Hardback, 18.99

I can't understand why the Government is doing this.
Margaret Thatcher was reported to exclaim this without any sense of irony even when she was still Prime Minister. I was reminded of this when reading John Stevens reminiscing about the great merit of the bobby on the beat. He writes:
I loved being on the beat.
Stevens' years as Metropolitan Police Commissioner were, however, hardly characterised by a commitment to putting more police back on the beat.

Yet Stevens goes on to eulogise his years on the beat:

We would set out from the station in pairs, but then we would separate, and each go on his own way. I shall never forget walking out on my own for the first time. There I was, with my whistle and truncheon, thinking Wow, if anything happens I'm going to have to deal with it. When people came up to me and asked for help, realised how much they were relying on my presence and support. I felt that simply by being there I was doing something for the community. Also, it seemed to be easy to make friends with people in shops, at the pubs, in the hospital casualty departments: they all had good relations with the local coppers and were glad to see me.
Stevens added that knowing the beat made stop and search far less controversial:
Especially at night you could walk up to anybody and say,

"Excuse me, what are you doing? where are you going?"

Even if he was on perfectly legitimate business he wouldn't take exception. Success came in part from having a thorough knowledge of the patch. A strange face in a strange place immediately aroused suspicion. If I saw someone walking abut at one o'clock in the morning I would want to know what he was doing, especially if he was carrying a bag: if it was someone I recognised - maybe a waiter gong home from one of the restaurants or a cab driver having a break - all well and good.

But this is the man who was Metropolitan Police Commissioner from 2000 until early in 2005. Yet with the force (Or "service" as it is now called) under his direction Londoners virtually never caught sight of a policeman. This book carries a photograph of a large number of police officers standing to form the number 30,000 and Stevens and Ken Livingstone standing in front. The caption explains it was to "celebrate" the number of police in London reaching 30,000. No doubt the statistic is accurate but where are they? The Tories promised "more police" at the last election but what is the point if you never see them around when you are being robbed or your home burgled?

The politicisation of the police is one of the more worrying aspects of the Blair Government. I suppose you can hardly expect a senior police officer to have nothing to do with politicians. But Stevens does seem to have got closer to them than necessary. Without wishing to be mean spirited I felt uneasy when he wrote about the wonderful retirement parties thrown for him by Ken Livingstone and Tony Blair. He deserved a retirement party but wouldn't it have been better for his fellow coppers to have hosted it and Livingstone and Blair to be the guests if they were invited along at all?

These sorts of details may seem trivial but they give a bit of a clue to the way the wind is blowing. It begins to explain how the police at the 2005 Labour Party Conference seemed to be taking orders from Labour Party officials rather than the other way around.

As has been widely reported things went less smoothly with David Blunkett whom Stevens did not trust due to the way private meetings between them would be reported to the media. While happy to talk about politicians when it comes to the political issues, Stevens is often muddled, contradictory or evasive.

Take the Macpherson report, published when Stevens was Deputy Commissioner. Stevens writes:

Every man and woman in the force felt that he or she had been personally accused of racism. As I went round talking to different groups, I felt contaminated by that phrase "institutional racism": they all sensed that they, rather than the force, had been accused individually.
But then on the next page Stevens adds:
Some people say the report created a Politically Correct world, others that it went over the top. I have no wish to get into that argument.
Why not?
For me it was enough that the Government had told me to press ahead with implementing its recommendations.
Lord Stevens, as he became last year, certainly includes some interesting material in this book. Whether or not he is entitled to feel as pleased with himself as he does over his record as Commissioner, he is a sincere and dedicated crime fighter. The book reminds us of the unpleasant and frightening work the police undertake that most of us would be unwilling to do. The stories from his time in Shepherd's Bush, Kentish Town, Marylebone, Northern Ireland and elsewhere give the reader a clear idea of what it was like.

Andrew Parker Bowles, first husband of Camilla, gets a better press in the book than Blunkett. Stevens recounts the scene of the IRA bomb near the Knightsbridge Barracks. Stevens writes:

We were given a rapid report by the commander of the regiment Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Parker Bowles, who had seen his detachment off from the barracks a few minutes earlier.

Hearing the explosion, he had raced to the scene on foot, and just as he arrived he had met a groom leading a severely wounded horse, which had blood gushing from a huge hole in its neck. Immediately he told the man to take off his shirt and stuff it into the wound - but that was impossible, for one of the groom's hands had been pierced by a four-inch nail, which was sticking out on both sides. Another man sacrificed his shirt and staunched the flow of blood. But for that prompt action, the horse would never have reached the stable. In fact, it survived and became a hero - Sefton - and lived to the age of 30.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist.

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