Telegraph : Sir Paul Stephenson: police are failing the public on organised crime

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Sir Paul Stephenson: police are failing the public on organised crime

Sir Paul Stephenson, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, believes Britain’s police forces are failing the public in their attempts to tackle organised crime.

By Andrew Alderson, Chief Reporter | May 9, 2009

The new Commissioner said the issue had to return to the political agenda because not enough progress had been made against crime gangs that cost the nation an estimated £40 billion a year.

“I am disappointed with the progress – or lack of progress – made since 2003 to impact significantly organised crime in the United Kingdom,” he said.

His research suggests that only six per cent of organised crime gangs have been disrupted by the “Police Service Plc” – all forces.

“We have to increase the national police capability to deal with serious organised crime. I don’t think we have made the progress that we should have done,” he added.

Violent organised crime gangs are involved in drugs’ rings, people smuggling, gun-running, fraud operations, prostitution and other offences. There are believed to be some 2,800 organised crime gangs in the UK.

Sir Paul accepts, however, that his suggestion in 2003, on behalf of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), that some of the 43 forces in England and Wales should be merged, has been debated and rejected.

Individual forces, supported by the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca), which is intelligence-led, currently tackle organised crime in the UK.

Some senior officers and politicians believe investigations need to be conducted by larger, more centralised crime-fighting units.

Sir Paul made his comments in a wide-ranging interview with The Sunday Telegraph to mark his first 100 days as Commissioner.

At his eighth floor office at New Scotland Yard, he shrugged off suggestions that he had taken on the most difficult – and politically sensitive – job in the country.

He was appointed by a Labour Home Secretary (Jacqui Smith) but is answerable to a Tory Mayor (Boris Johnson). Furthermore, in recent years, the largest police force in the country has been plagued by in-fighting, allegations of racism and low morale.

Sir Paul, 55, who took over as Commissioner from the embattled Sir Ian Blair, said of his £254,000-a-year post: "It's challenging, it's difficult, but I didn't expect anything else."

Those difficult and challenging moments have included the heavy-handed arrest of Damian Green, the shadow immigration spokesman; the death of a man at the G20 protests who appeared to have been manhandled by a police officer; and the careless – if accidental – leaking of a major investigation by Bob Quick, then the head of the Met's anti-terrorism unit.

Yet Sir Paul, 55, a straight-talking Lancastrian and undoubtedly more of a "coppers' copper" than his predecessor, is in no doubt that his greatest challenges lie ahead.

In three years' time, London will host the 2012 Olympics in the knowledge that al-Qaeda terrorists are almost certainly planning a "spectacular" strike when the eyes of the world will be on the capital for two months.

"We will be mounting the biggest security operation ever against what is uniquely the greatest terrorist threat. That is a very significant challenge," he said. "The chances of an attempt to commit further terrorist atrocities are high."

Sir Paul is adamant, however, that the Met can thwart any major terrorist strike, although he admits that some areas of policing may suffer as a result.

"I am confident that we will deliver a safe and secure Olympics. The issue for me will be how much of our 'business as usual' will be interfered with to do that. Undoubtedly, there will be significant interference."

Last month the Crown Prosecution Service ruled that Damian Green, the senior Conservative MP who was arrested over a series of Whitehall leaks, would not face charges.

Yet senior Tories remain incensed by the a manner in which Mr Green was detained by Scotland Yard. He was questioned for nine hours and had his homes and Commons office searched after being arrested.

Colleagues of Sir Paul have indicated privately that he was angered by the operation, once again headed by Assistant Commissioner Bob Quick, especially as it happened while he was Acting Commissioner and still under consideration for the top job.

A report into the investigation by Ian Johnston, the head of the British Transport Police, is to be published soon in redacted form: he is believed to have concluded the arrest was legal but questioned whether it was a proportionate response.

"There will be lessons learnt from this. I think Ian's advice [conclusion] on this is wise," Sir Paul said.

Mr Quick was at the centre of controversy again last month when he was photographed entering Downing Street carrying a secret briefing note on which details of an undercover terrorist operation – code-named Pathway – could be seen.

As a result, the operation had to be brought forward – and Mr Quick resigned.

Sir Paul said that Mr Quick had been guilty of "a serious mistake" but added his departure was "a sad loss to policing".

"I have no information that would indicate that the decision to go in early undermined that operation," Sir Paul stressed.

In the end, all 12 suspects were released without charge.

Yet Sir Paul has faced his biggest criticism over the police handling of the G20 protest, which led to the death of Ian Tomlinson, 47.

Video footage appears to show the newspaper seller being assaulted from behind by a baton-wielding officer. Sir Paul said: "It is sad that someone died.

The family want answers and it is right that they should get those answers and that there should be an independent investigation [by the Independent Police Complaints Commission]."

He said the video images were "concerning" and that police tactics are being reviewed.

However, Sir Paul said the Met had followed the right investigative procedures, and had been open and honest about events.

"This was the most large-scale and complex security operation we have ever done.

"Some of our international colleagues – particularly in Australia – found it incredible that we had managed to pull this operation off in such a short period of time. Thousands of people in the Met did a fantastic job."

Sir Paul's interview with The Sunday Telegraph came the day after it was announced that the DNA profiles of some 850,000 innocent Briton would – over the next 12 years – be wiped off the national database.

Acknowledging that a balance was needed between civil liberty and crime detection, he indicated, however, that he was reluctant to lose the useful "tool" as a result of the European Court ruling.

"My raison d'ĂȘtre as the most senior cop in the country is to save life and to prevent and detect crime. I do know that the DNA database in its current form has saved life and been instrumental in detecting crime."

Unsurprisingly, Sir Paul does not like the label of "institutionally racist" that the Met was given by the Macpherson report after the murder of 18-year-old Stephen Lawrence in 1993.

"I do not think it is a useful definition to drive change," he said, adding that significant progress has been made in this area in the past 16 years.

Of internal infighting and claims of racism from the National Black Police Federation, he said: "My job is to work with everyone who wants to make the Met a better organisation. And that includes working with people who do not always agree with me.

"But I reserve the right – and indeed I have the responsibility and duty as Commissioner – to say things as I see them."

Sir Paul has only just started his tenure, but what does he hope, many years from now, will be his legacy when he steps down as Commissioner?

"I would want to have made an impact on the perception and reality of violence. I would want us to have communities that are confident that we are on their side and doing their bidding.

"And I want us to display the highest levels of professionalism and pride, so that people have the right to feel that working for the Met is something quite special."