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Tuesday, May 25, 1999 Published at 10:33 GMT 11:33 UK


From miner to czar: Keith Hellawell

An understanding of the darker side of life: Keith Hellawell

It seems the most unlikely of preparations for being the nation's chief drugs fighter. Who ever would have thought a Yorkshire coal miner would become the government's choice for the £106,057-a-year job?

But Keith Hellawell gained an understanding of the links between social deprivation and the causes of crime from his tough childhood and working class background.

Mr Hellawell's appointment last year as drugs "czar" was controversial, since as chief constable of West Yorkshire he had operated a policy of widespread cautioning of cannabis-takers instead of automatically prosecuting them.

In this job he has continued to attract outraged headlines. "Drugs czar outlines soft-glove strategy" ran one headline. But proponents of the legalisation of cannabis won no sympathy from him. He has even been condemned for his pay and perks, which include private health insurance.

[ image:  ]
His supporters say he represents a fresh approach to tackling the drugs menace and displays greater foresight than officers from the lock-them-all-up brigade. No-one denies he is both charismatic and caring.

Keith Hellawell left school at the age of 15 with a report stating he was good at sport, but little else. He went down the pit as the family breadwinner but now does not talk publicly about his childhood, acknowledging only that it was difficult. Some reports have suggested he suffered violence.

He married his childhood sweetheart, Brenda Hey. Having always wanted to be a police officer, he applied to join the force, and was successful only on a second try. Proving his natural affinity for the job, he became Britain's youngest sergeant aged 23. He progressed to assistant chief constable, serving in most departments and was awarded the Queen's Police Medal for Distinguished Service in 1990.

Degrees of success

Tall and broad-shouldered, Hellawell once admitted he used his prescence to intimidate suspects. But as he matured, his tactic changed to developing an understanding of prisoners.

In the 1960s, he launched one of the first dedicated drugs squads, before winning a place on a fast track to promotion, passing the exams with flying colours. Along the way, he studied for a degree in social policy and took a degree in law in his spare time, as if to illustrate his energy and determination.

As chief constable of Cleveland, he won wide praise as a voice of sense and reason while dealing with allegations of sexual abuse as families were separated after controversial tests.

[ image: As a chief constable, Keith Hellawell made some unpopular decisions]
As a chief constable, Keith Hellawell made some unpopular decisions
He became assistant chief constable of West Yorkshire in 1983. If he was considered soft on drug-takers, he was also seen as tough on fellow officers - a combination which earned him critics, even enemies.

Once dubbed the Black Night for dressing entirely in black and driving a black Porsche, Hellawell sent shockwaves through the force as he set about reforming "outdated" attitudes. He shut police station bars and sacked several desk-bound senior officers to hire more beat officers. He also spoke out against assaults on prisoners.

At the same time, he advocated special drugs courts, which sentenced offenders to addiction treatment, not jail. Those who resented his methods branded him "shockingly soft" and "all mouth and no trousers".

Comments controversy

His belief in tackling social problems rather than punishment was unwavering.

"I always thought if the root cause of criminal activity was in social deprivation_ I wanted to spend money on tackling that, rather than dealing with the consequences. Ten or 15 years ago I was criticised because it was unfashionable, I was set in the role of a radical, having strange ideas. Now it's the way things are going to be done," he said.

Controversy has followed him everywhere. He advocated reform of the law on prostitution and legalisation of brothels. He told BBC One's Panorama he foresaw the day when cannabis would be legal - and was forced to backtrack when it caused a furore.

After the Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe, was arrested, Hellawell was brought in on the case - and succeeded in gaining more confessions.

"It used to be the case that people thought you made progress by shouting at the suspect until he gave way. It's not like that at all...Mostly you make progress by developing a rapport with them," he said.

There was more outrage after he spontaneously wrote a Christmas card for Sutcliffe. "It was just part of the rapport thing, that was all" he said.

TV drama model

But as drugs "czar" - a term he is said to dislike - he appears to have tried to play down the "soft" label, launching a series of tough initiatives.

After Chris Evans claimed that half BBC staff were on drugs, he even called for Britain's workers to be randomly tested.

There were also shocks when he suggested children as young as four should be taught the dangers of drugs. He speaks with compassion about girls forced to become prostitutes to feed their cocaine habits.

Yet, in time, his policing achievements and his vision eventually earned him huge respect. Now 57, he was widely thought to be the model for television drama The Chief.

The basis for his grand plan in tackling drugs is to make schools, social service departments, police forces, customs officers, magistrates, doctors and rehabilitators work together.

Today, Mr Hellawell's life reads like a rags-to-riches story. He and his wife live in a converted farmhouse with a swimming pool.

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