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The world in one city

Tavistock Square july 7, 2005
Tavistock Square on July 7 2005 after a bus was blown up

Guy Smith
By Guy Smith
BBC London Home Affairs Correspondent

The decade started with Scotland Yard's reputation in tatters.

It had just been accused of "institutional racism". And the then new commissioner John Stevens had the task of restoring both morale amongst his officers and public confidence in the Met.

Ten years on we've seen another two commissioners attempting to navigate the treacherous political waters of what insiders describe as the toughest job in the public sector.

But let's begin with the date April 23, 1993. An 18-year-old black man, Stephen Lawrence, was fatally stabbed at a bus stop in Eltham by white youths. His murder, the subsequent failed police investigation, and the fact none of his killers have ever been convicted led to one of the most painful periods in the Met's history.

The findings of the Macpherson inquiry were published in 1999 with a damning charge: the Met was "institutionally racist".

Birth of the MPA

John Stevens, now Lord Stevens of Kirkwhelpington, became commissioner in February 2000 - a jovial persona on the outside but widely known in "the Job" as a no-nonsense "coppers' copper".

It took him most of his five years in office to rebuild the image of London's police, as well as its numbers.

It was the first time the Met had used the tactic known as Operation Kratos, which was a "shoot to kill" policy designed to prevent a suicide bomber detonating a device. It was a lethal and fateful error.
Guy Smith

He started with 26,000. By the end of his tenure, there were more than 31,000. And now as the decade closes, the Met stands 33,000-strong with a further 4,500 Police Community Support Officers.

Yet it was not enough just to attract anyone into the service. The Met, as a former BBC Director-General described public sector broadcasting a few years later, was "hideously white". London's force had to look like the people it served.

The Home Office issued a target: 25 per cent Black Minority Ethnic (BME) officers by 2009. It proved overly ambitious and today it stands at around 9 per cent.

This is an improvement but there are still complaints from the high-profile Black Police Association about concerns with promotion and retention of BME officers.

Meanwhile, in July 2000, a new "critical friend" was born. The Metropolitan Police Authority was created with 23 members whose mission was to scrutinise and hold the Met to account.

They were made up of Greater London Authority politicians, some independents, magistrates and one appointed by the Home Secretary.

Terror on our streets

It was an important change. Rob Reiner, a respected criminologist at the London School of Economics, says the new MPA "ended the democratic deficit" that had existed since the establishment of the Met by Sir Robert Peel in 1829.

He explains: "Unlike all provincial forces which were accountable to local police authorities as well as the Home secretary, the Met was solely accountable to the latter.

Former Met Commissioner John Stevens
Former Met Commissioner John Stevens

"In the light of the vigour with which Mayor Boris Johnson has asserted his power as chair of the MPA over the Met it is arguable, however, that this over tips the balance towards local control."

More of that later.

In 2001, a single event in America not only changed the Met's thinking but the world's. 9/11 horrified and then informed those responsible for Londoners safety.

Stevens's deputy and future Commissioner Sir Ian Blair has written in his recent book on policing: "We all knew that this was war, in our time, on our watch."

Stevens himself would often later be quoted as saying that it was "not if, but when" for the capital.

At that time, murders and shootings were increasing in London. And the number of street robberies were on the rise too.

Endless scrutiny

By the end of 2001, muggings in London were 53% higher than the previous year. It was also a national issue and the Prime Minister Tony Blair promised it would be brought under control within six months. The pressure was on.

The main problem was teenagers stealing mobile phones. The police had to work alongside schools, telephone manufacturers, and even urge the judiciary to take street crime seriously. Over time, Stevens with his team succeeded and street robbery has been falling ever since.

Yet his prediction about terrorism was accurate although no one saw it coming. Shortly before July 7, 2005, the national threat level was actually lowered.

7/7 was the worst terrorist atrocity in English history and the first suicide attack in Europe. Fifty-two innocent people were killed in four separate bomb explosions on London's transport system.

It was just five months into Sir Ian Blair's tenure. And the following weeks and years were tumultuous.

London Mayor Boris Johnson and Sir Ian Blair
Mayor Johnson ousted Sir Ian Blair in 2008

Next came 21/7 - the failed bombings and subsequent massive manhunt for the terrorists. Yet the following day, 22 July, proved to be a defining moment for the relatively new commissioner and something he never really recovered from.

A 27-year-old Brazilian electrician called Jean Charles de Menezes was mistakenly shot dead by armed police at Stockwell Tube station.

It was the first time the Met had used the tactic known as Operation Kratos, which was a "shoot to kill" policy designed to prevent a suicide bomber detonating a device.

It was a lethal and fateful error. The Met was firstly accused of failing to correct false information in the media about Mr de Menezes and the shooting. And secondly what the commissioner knew and when became the subject of endless scrutiny.

Two investigations were carried out by the watchdog, the Independent Police Complaints Commission. One into the death of Mr de Menezes and another into complaints by his family.

The Met was also successfully prosecuted under Health and Safety laws. And then a three month inquest in 2008, more than three years after the shooting, put the Met and Blair under intense examination.

Safer neighbourhoods?

There was also criticism that Blair was gaffe-prone including in January 2006, a comment about the murder of two little girls in Soham. He said that few people could understand why these murders became the biggest news story in Britain.

He also accused the media itself of "institutional racism" for choosing stories about white people above minorities. He had made an enemy and some of the newspapers were unforgiving.

But there were also many successes. The subsequent trials of terrorists linked to 7/7, the increased recruitment of women and ethnic minorities amongst the ranks.

Sir Paul Stephenson
Current Met Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson

Total crime was and continues to fall, although teenage murders and gang violence have been a constant challenge.

What defined Blair's time though at the top of Scotland Yard was the reintroduction of community policing. He pushed this experiment of so-called "Safer Neighbourhoods" into a full-blown reality.

It was the idea of getting uniformed officers out of their cars and back walking the beat. The public wanted it. And he gave it to them, with funding from the Home Office.

Every ward in all 32 London boroughs are now supposed to have a team of dedicated officers. They consist of three PCSOs, two PCs and a Sergeant.

But what finished Blair off was politics. He was viewed as the "PC PC", an Oxford-educated liberal who was too closely aligned to New Labour. His plea for 90 days detention without charge irritated the Conservatives and was his final undoing.

Who is the law?

I remember at the time one MPA member took me to one side and whispered: "You only get one chance of toppling the King. And you've got to get it right."

So the fall of Britain's most senior officer was predictable. Blair was forced from office after three years and ten months.

A change of mayor in 2008 and change in powers, meant Boris Johnson could become Chair of the MPA.

And with that came influence on the commissioner's future. It led to a political power play between a Labour Home Secretary and a Conservative Mayor. And the latter won.

But as Blair argues it also meant the politicization of the commissionership and a threat to the police's operational independence. He warns there is now a potential danger of an "Americanisation" of the office of Commissioner.

At the beginning of 2009, Sir Paul Stephenson officially took over. And already we've seen signs of that.

The Mayor's police adviser Kit Malthouse is reported to have recently said they "have their hands on the tiller of the Met".

By removing a commissioner, the risk according to Blair, is that the police become answerable to elected politicians rather than the law.

It's something that will continue to be hotly debated in the future.

Timeline 2000 - 2009

2000 Sir Paul Condon retires and is replaced as Commissioner by Sir John Stevens

2005 Sir Ian Blair becomes Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police

2008 Sir Ian Blair resigns from the post of Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police

2009 Sir Paul Stephenson becomes Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police

London: The world in one city
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A Decade in the Arts
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In Pictures: London's Decade
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In Pictures: A changing landscape
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Profile: Sir Paul Stephenson
28 Jan 09 |  London
Emotional farewell for Met chief
28 Jan 05 |  London



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