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Friday, 10 November, 2000, 18:41 GMT
Flying Squad: The Sweeney's changing face
The changing face of The Sweeney
By Andrew Walker of the BBC's News Profiles Unit

The Metropolitan Police Flying Squad's latest coup, foiling the world's largest-ever attempted diamond robbery at London's Millennium Dome, is only the most recent in a long line of high-profile successes for the rapid-response mobile unit.

From the Kray twins to Kenneth Noye, the Sweeney, whose nickname comes from Cockney rhyming slang (Sweeney Todd - flying squad), has been at the centre of British criminal investigations for 80 years.

The squad was formed in 1919, as the Mobile Patrol Experiment, in response to growing concern about an influx of organised crime from overseas into the capital.

Armed Flying squad officers foil a bank raid
Armed and dangerous: The Sweeney foils another bank job
Officers conducted surveillance operations from the back of two horse-drawn, canvas-covered, Great Western Railway vans, a far cry from the high-powered saloons which, to most people, epitomise the force today.

The first police force to use cars, the group's original 12 detectives were allowed to pursue criminals into any police division area, thus becoming known as the "flying squad".


Over the years, the unit became involved mainly in preventing armed robbery and combating organised crime. Its own armed officers, or "thief-takers" as they proudly classed themselves, became legendary.

There was Leonard "Nipper" Read, who ended the Kray twins' reign of terror over London's East End and Jack Slipper, nemesis of the 1963 Great Train Robbers and a constant thorn in the side of the fugitive Ronnie Biggs.

In popular mythology, the Flying Squad was immortalised by the television series, The Sweeney.

The Sweeney's Jack Regan catches another villain
"Shut it!"
The show's rough-edged, fast-paced style won millions of fans, enthralled by car chases with Ford Granadas and Mark II Jags, seedy criminals' wives, and John Thaw's world-weary Detective Inspector Jack Regan with his trademark admonition, "Shut it!".

The unit's officers have always been noted for their knowledge of the underworld. Extensive contacts with paid informants have been the jewel in the crown of the squad's intelligence operations for years.

Sometimes, however, this close relationship with the criminal fraternity has backfired, with truly disastrous consequences.


The 1970s was a dark period for the Flying Squad. An internal police investigation, Operation Countryman, revealed an extensive and tangled web of corruption. Bribery was endemic, especially between officers and Soho pornographers.

In a scandal which still resonates today, the head of the Flying Squad, Chief Superintendent Ken Drury, was jailed along with 12 other Scotland Yard detectives, for accepting bribes.

The shadow of corruption still remains. Investigations continue into allegations that Flying Squad officers have brokered financial deals with criminals or tipped them off about investigations.

An armed robber pinned down by Flying Squad officers
An armed robber is pinned down by The Sweeney
But there have been great successes, too. Most recently when the squad's officers arrested David Copeland, the Brixton nail bomber who killed three people and injured 70 when he blew up the Admiral Duncan pub in Soho in April 1999.

Even though the unit's work has become as high-tech as the rest of society, with computers rapidly transforming the policeman's lot, Flying Squad officers still face considerable dangers.


They are specialists in the "pavement ambush", swooping on armed robbers while they are committing a crime. Though their sheer speed usually wins the day, it is a high-risk form of policing, not for the faint-hearted.

The TV image has never been updated

Det Supt John Shatford
But the Squad, now integrated into the Organised Crime Group, an Úlite unit which tackles major criminals, is trying hard to shake off the tough-guy image and is hoping to recruit more women, especially those with families.

Detective Superintendent John Shatford, operational head of the Flying Squad, and the man who masterminded the arrests at the Millennium Dome, is adamant that this change occurs.

"The TV image has never been updated. They were always male chauvinists and the women were treated as less than equal", he says.

A Flying Squad car chases another crook
The Squad is now recruiting female drivers
Indeed, the force recently took on its first female specialist driver.

"They drive covert vehicles at very high speeds. Driving in any sphere of life is perceived to be a male domain and we want to break that down", adds Det Supt Shatford.

So the image of the Sweeney as the haven of the rugby playing, beer-swilling bruiser may go forever, to be replaced with a more family-friendly, feminine, post-Modernist Flying Squad.

What would Jack Regan make of that?

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