Demoralised leaderless Met shown up by London riots
Robert Chesshyre: If it takes a foreign police chief or an army officer to lead the Met, bring him on
The last thing that the Met needed at what is possibly its lowest ever ebb was widespread rioting and looting. The force has been reduced in public esteem by its manifest failure to get to grips with the tabloid phone-hacking scandal and allegations that key cops were too close to the Murdoch empire to do their duty without fear or favour.
After the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes, the cash-for-honours inquiry and the recent resignation of Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson and his senior aide John Yates, it seemed that the Metropolitan Police had hit rock bottom.
As fires burn across London and shopkeepers count the cost of widespread looting - newspapers claim that looters worked at their leisure, forming orderly queues to ransack the stores - it appears there is yet further to go. London's cops have this time failed in their basic first duty: the protection of life, limb and property. Stuart Radose, forced to beat a hasty retreat from his Tottenham flat when the shop beneath was torched, said: "There didn't seem to be a police presence at all."
All the signs are of a thoroughly demoralised police force, virtually leaderless and with little clue as to how to handle a succession of crises. The present capital-wide disturbances were set off by the fatal shooting by police on Thursday of Mark Duggan, a resident of Broadwater Farm, an estate made notorious 25 years ago by riots again triggered by the death of a black resident and by the subsequent murder of PC Keith Blakelock.
As ever, there are two conflicting narratives. Duggan was either (police version) a founding member of a notorious gang and a thoroughly bad lot - "he was not a sideshow", said one senior police source - or he was a blameless father of four who "held the community together" (residents' version). What is certain is that the fatal shooting of a black man by police in the poverty-stricken and essentially hostile community of Tottenham would cause trouble.
So, what was the reaction of the local police chief, Chief Supt Sandra Looby? She promptly went on holiday. [When the penny dropped that this might not be the smartest thing to do in the circumstances, she just as promptly came back again.] Which raises the question of leadership of the force.
At the weekend it was leaked that the prime minister, David Cameron, liked the idea of the job of Met Commissioner going to Bill Bratton, credited with cleaning up New York when police chief in the Big Apple. This was slapped down by home secretary Theresa May who believes the job must go to a British citizen.
With the recent disasters of Ian (now, remarkably, Lord) Blair, who presided over the de Menezes shooting as if living on another planet, and now Paul Stephenson, it is little wonder that the PM's thoughts turned to a foreigner with a proven record.
I have spent considerable time in and around the Met, writing a book and many magazine pieces. It has always struck me that the tail (in the form of the dominant police culture) wags the dog (in the form of senior officers).
With 30,000 officers and 20,000 civilian staff, the Met is far too big. Few of its officers live in areas like Tottenham: they prefer the leafy edges of London with easy access to golf courses. They do their policing, largely, from inside police cars and have little rapport with residents in the poorer and ethnically diverse areas of London. "We are in danger," a senior officer told me, "of seeming like an army of occupation". As such, the Met has never won hearts and minds.
Even before last weekend's riots, the government had been turning its mind to reforms that might bring more discipline and better performance from this sprawling police giant.
One suggestion is the recruitment of battle-experienced army officers straight into senior ranks: another is to encourage brighter people to join by having a 'Sandhurst' style entry, so that high-flying graduates were not put off by two years on the beat and in the canteen. Certainly senior officers have got to be swifter on their feet and less beholden to the police 'tribe'.
Cops have been ringing their hands about how the rioters have mobilised social networks like Twitter to organise both the riots and the looting. Surely, the police also can tune in and so anticipate where they should be sending their riot teams. There is still a fair bit of the 'hot' summer to come; the economy is in slump - "who wouldn't want a free telly if he could get one?" asked one looter rhetorically; and the Met is looking like a busted flush.
Theresa May has now broken her holiday in Switzerland to take charge of the riot crisis, unlike David Cameron, who has declined to break his vacation in Tuscany to deal with the economy. Perhaps he should forgo his last days in Chiantishire to tackle social cohesion. Riots have roots, and the country needs to respond. A new start at the Met sounds a good place to begin - and, if it takes a foreign police chief or a retired warrior from Afghanistan to achieve it, then bring him on. ·
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