Outspoken Blair

Print edition : February 12, 2010

Sir Ian Blair (right) and Mayor of London Boris Johnson in north London, in a 2008 photograph. When the Mayor indicated his preference for a change in Met leadership during a routine meeting at the City Hall, Blair took the hint and announced his resignation months before his term was to end.-STEFAN ROUSSEAU/AP Sir Ian Blair (right) and Mayor of London Boris Johnson in north London, in a 2008 photograph. When the Mayor indicated his preference for a change in Met leadership during a routine meeting at the City Hall, Blair took the hint and announced his resignation months before his term was to end.

I fully accept that I am a controversial figure. I certainly made mistakes .[But] I am very proud to have been a police officer. I am very proud to have been the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police.

- Sir Ian Blair Policing Controversy

BY its very nature, policing is contentious the world over. It evokes strong emotions, mostly negative, among a wide spectrum of players in the field of criminal justice who include victims, offenders, judges and politicians. This is so even under normal circumstances. When confronted with the task of unravelling greatly baffling mysteries or softening huge public controversies, the polices role is all the more the subject of debate and acrimony.

There have been any number of cases in India that have generated considerable heat. The Sohrabuddin Sheikh fake encounter case and the Shopian incident are two that are still fresh in memory. Perceptions vary on whether this is a healthy phenomenon or not, but in positive terms, the greater the public scrutiny of police investigations the less the scope for extraneous sources to influence their outcome. This situation, of course, leads to some defensive and conventional criminal investigation by the average policeman, who is nervous that even a slight deviation from the law will put him in the dock.

Transparency and integrity do not necessarily lead to aggressive combat against the underworld and lawbreakers, which the public demand whenever a horrific crime takes place. Terrorism of the 9/11 and 26/11 varieties add a new dimension to the set of factors that a policeman has to contend with. It is this fundamental analysis of policing in modern times that comes to mind in the context of commending an outstanding book by a controversial London Metropolitan Commissioner. The book (Policing Controversy; Profile Books, London, 2009; pages 318), which hit the stands a few months ago, covers a wide range of subjects: terrorism, police corruption and racism, and the wisdom of permitting political oversight of police forces. With each such factor, the author, Sir Ian Blair, had had a brush.

Controversies seemed to chase Blair, and his memoirs bear an appropriate title. He had a penchant for getting in and out of trouble, and that is why what he writes is interesting. Incidentally, there are many lessons in it for his Indian counterpart.

Apart from coming under fire for what he does or he does not do something Blairs detractors rather unfairly allege against him the Indian policeman is under the thumb of the street-level politician. As the last days of Blair at the Metropolitan Police Service, or the Met, showed, the British cop is himself fast hurtling towards this highly disagreeable state of policing. An institution that used to be a model for objective and clinical policing all over the world is under serious assault by misguided elements, to whom non-partisan policing contradicts well-established canons of democracy.

Blair refers to his childhood as very lonely. His parents were pretty advanced in age when he was born. His only brother was away from home most of the time. This sense of desolation possibly explains his serious demeanour. It is possible to generalise here that the home setting of a policeman in his early years is crucial to the quality of his responses to the demands of an exacting office.

Armed with a degree from Oxford, Blair made a conscious decision to join the police. He was amused, and possibly annoyed, in his early days in the force when confronted with the question why on earth he did so. It was as if policing required only brawn and not brain.

Mind you, the United Kingdom police force does not have an elitist class, unlike in India, which has the Indian Police Service. Whatever his or her academic achievement, every police recruit in the U.K. starts at the very bottom of the hierarchy, as a constable, and works his or her way up. When he reported at the Hendon training centre near London in 1974, Blair had for his classmates a postman, a bricklayer, a bus conductor and a number of ex-soldiers. Hardly the company an Oxonian would want to keep.

Blair started life in the Metropolitan Police at the West End Central Police Station, which covered most of the fashionable Mayfair and the seedy Soho. In Blairs words: It was probably a more interesting end to a liberal education than most people have. Inspecting houses of ill repute and gambling dens and intervening in pub fights were an experience that would be the dream of any rookie. Blair had a full measure of the excitement and says he enjoyed this phase. The flip side was the encounters with police deviance.

Only a few years earlier, the Home Office had set up an inquiry under an eminent barrister into police corruption that was uncovered by a Times report. The report alleged bribe-taking and evidence-planting by detectives. An external inquiry followed some time later, and its findings, embarrassing as they were, led to the appointment of the legendary Sir Robert Mark in Blairs estimate the best Commissioner the force ever had as the head of the Met to clean up the mess. This did not, however, put an end to corruption in the force, as Blair would find to his discomfort years later, when he went on to head the internal investigation group for the Met.

Secondment to the Criminal Investigation Department in Wembley, a recognition of merit by itself, early promotion to the rank of Sergeant in Chelsea on the basis of the Graduate Entry Scheme, deputation to a Special Course at the Police Staff College, Bramshill, and choice as staff officer to Her Majestys Chief Inspector of Constabulary in the Home Office followed. These events marked Blair out as an officer with a very bright future.

The opportunity, subsequently, to head the police in Surrey was a logical outcome. Even before he completed two years there, the vacancy of a Deputy Commissioner in the Metropolitan Police beckoned him, and Blair could hardly resist the offer to get back home. This was when Met Commissioner John Stevens was under fire for the rising crime on Londons streets, especially robbery. Stevens and Blair teamed up in a commendable effort to steady the situation.

Frequent summons by the Prime Minister to discuss street crime in the nations capital brought the Deputy Commissioner into the limelight, and it was no surprise that Blair stepped into Stevens shoes in February 2005. This honour came after 31 long years in a profession that was fast becoming a matter of public debate.

Before Blair could settle down and draw up his priorities as Commissioner, which some describe as the most difficult police job in the world, came the bombings (July 7, 2005) on the London underground railway and a bus, resulting in the death of 52 persons. The Mets response was swift and efficient. What followed, specifically a fortnight later, was not something that gave comfort to Blair and his men.

This photograph obtained by ITV News in August 2005 shows the body of Jean Charles de Menezes, a Brazilian, in a London underground train after he was shot dead by the police on July 22, 2005.-REUTERS

On July 21, there were unsuccessful attempts to repeat the July 7 sabotage of the public transport system in the city. Incendiary devices were planted in three underground railway stations and in a bus. Fortunately, some did not go off and the others ignited only partially. However, the panic it caused was immense.

The silver lining was the arrest of four persons within eight days, and the police came in for some handsome praise. This did not, however, take the sting out of a botched-up operation on July 22, a day after the aborted bombing, when armed surveillance officers, in a case of mistaken identity, shot dead, at the Stockwell station, Jean Charles de Menezes, a young workman from Brazil living in an apartment block close to Brixton.

Surveillance had been mounted on the block because one of the men suspected to be involved in the previous days unsuccessful sabotage in the city was living there. A miscommunication resulted in the surveillance team following Jean Charles and shooting him down just before he got onto a train. Confusion reigned for a day regarding his identity. It took some time for Blair to admit that his officers had, in fact, shot an innocent man.

The first information given to Blair was that the man was one of the terrorists involved in the previous days unsuccessful bombing. Blair had to take the flak for some incorrect briefing by his officers to start with.

Then accusations started flying round when Blair, in what was alleged to be a cover-up operation, turned down the request for access to the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) for an investigation of the incident, something mandatory under Section 17 of the Police Reform Act, 2002, whenever death results from police action. Eventually, he had to give in to the IPCC, whose 2007 report was most uncomplimentary to the Met and sought the prosecution of the Met under the Health and Safety Work Act, 1974.

From this moment onwards it was all downhill for the besieged Commissioner, who had many friends in government but few outside it, especially in the Conservative Party, which considered Blair essentially as a Labour acolyte. The situation became especially difficult after the arrival of a new Mayor, Boris Johnson, a Conservative, who from day one did not hide his reservations about Blairs leadership.

Although it is the Home Secretary who appoints the Commissioner, as Chairman of the Metropolitan Police Authority, the Mayor wields considerable authority over the Met. So, when he indicated his preference for a change in Met leadership during a routine meeting at the City Hall, Blair took the hint and announced his resignation months before his term was to end. It was possibly the correct decision, particularly against the backdrop of two other controversies the charge of racism levelled by some Muslim officers, especially Deputy Assistant Commissioner Tarique Ghaffur, and allegations of impropriety in the award of a contract to a long-time friend that were to bog down Blair.

This was a sad end to a brilliant career. Blairs memoirs portray vividly the mans hurt feelings, but without any visible display of rancour. This is what I like about the book, which is written in some charming prose that befits an Oxonian.

Indian police officers who are beginning their career will do well to read him attentively, if only to comprehend how serious the business of policing is and how necessary it is to carry everyone with them colleagues, the political executive, the media and a host of others so that at the end of the day there is satisfaction that one has done what one can in the increasingly complex and hostile environment that confronts the police all the time.

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