What's it like policing London through a pandemic? In a rare interview, the Met police chief walks Christina Lamb along the thin blue line.
It's the grimmest of days in Gravesend and petrol bombs are bursting into orange flame on the rain-soaked streets as protesters surge back and forth, snarling at riot police. Not far away armed officers are taking cover from gunfire around a red car, while in a house under siege police are treating a man bitten by one of their dogs.
"Hi, I'm Cress," smiles a woman with short greying hair wearing black trousers and a windcheater, who is looking on and occasionally dodging projectiles. This is not some hellish vision of 2020s Britain but police training in public order. And "Cress" is Dame Cressida Dick, one of the most powerful women in the land, responsible for keeping the capital safe. She is the first female commissioner of the Metropolitan Police and also its first openly gay commissioner — though she insists "that's the least interesting thing about me".
It has to be said that Dick is not an obvious police officer. Standing at just 5ft 4in she has a slightly hesitant voice and — to the amusement of her colleagues — has never been able to smell cannabis, which she has joked makes her "hopeless" on drugs raids. Then there's the surname, which must have provoked some schoolyard teasing over the years.
As she puts on her police hat to address the riot squad and fake hell-raisers, I can't help thinking of her Desert Island Discs last year where she talked of twirling around to music from Swan Lake on a pink sitting-room carpet as a girl growing up in Oxford. But there is clear respect for "Ma'am", as they call her, as she declares them "the finest bunch of public order officers in the world".
We escape the rain and sit in a classroom to talk over cheese and onion sandwiches (she's a vegetarian). What's it like, policing London during one of the strangest times in history, enforcing the toughest restrictions on people's lives since the Second World War?
"If you cast your mind back to March, nobody knew how people would respond. People thought there might be rioting," she says. She decided a light-touch approach was best. Keeping up with all the changes in the rules has been "challenging", she admits. "But what's been great is the vast majority of the public have complied, and those who haven't generally will after a quiet word from a police officer. We talk first wherever we can and issue a ticket or arrest only if we have to, because I could see if it were done clumsily people would feel aggrieved."
Since March the Met has issued 1,131 fines for people gathering illegally — 14 of them for the top whack of £10,000 ($19,000). "Most people want to do the right thing," she says. "But if they see others flagrantly breach the rules and nothing happens they won't want to buy into it." Could she be referring to Dominic Cummings and his infamous trip to Barnard Castle? "I think I've said quite enough on that," she laughs.
How did the first lockdown, when everyone was ordered to stay at home, affect crime? "In the first few weeks it changed very dramatically," she says. "Because most people were inside, the availability of victims on the street — if a street robbery — or places to shoplift were reduced and we saw very big drops in some crime types. Theft was down 56 per cent."
Lockdown also presented an opportunity. Certain criminals, she says, "couldn't help themselves. Some of the drug dealers were still out and much more obvious on the quiet streets, and our officers could get around much faster. We had a record number of arrests of drug dealers, and these are still continuing."
As soon as lockdown eased, she says, crime figures returned to normal.
This has also been a time of social unrest. Britain feels an angry, divided nation, with tensions fuelled by Brexit, climate change, social inequality and culture wars imported from the US. There have been demonstrations by Extinction Rebellion (XR), Black Lives Matter and, recently, anti-vaxxers out on London's streets chanting "we don't need no vaccinations" to the tune of Pink Floyd's Another Brick in the Wall. Given the riot training I have just witnessed, is the Met chief expecting violent clashes between police and protesters like those that have exploded in towns and cities across America?
"No," she replies, "there's such a huge difference here from my colleagues across the Pond. The history is different. The culture of carrying guns is different … In the last year my police fired just two shots," she says, referring to the killing of a man wearing a fake suicide vest who had started stabbing shoppers in Streatham in February, and another who was tasered then shot dead while wielding two blades near Trafalgar Square in March.
"When I became commissioner in 2017 we didn't have a lot of protests, but I said that in any commission-hood there is always a time when public order becomes the issue of the day. What I didn't predict was XR, which we had for two weeks, twice, in London last year and took a lot of our resources. And then of course this summer was difficult."
Black Lives Matter protests erupted across the UK following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May after a US policeman knelt on his neck, choking him for almost eight minutes. Dick says the response to his death has inflamed resentment towards her own officers. "Just last week I got a letter from a lady asking me not to use chokeholds, even though we have never used them," Dick says. "Sadly some of the material young people may have seen on social media this summer, where what happens in America is confused and made to look like police here [are involved], may have alienated them. They misunderstand that what's happened in another country is what happens here."
Is she saying it would not be possible for a death like Floyd's to happen in London?
"The George Floyd killing was absolutely awful to watch and has sparked this extraordinary global movement that has given some exciting opportunities, but also given people an impression of policing that is not the way things are here," she says. "We arrest 500-odd people a day in London. A huge proportion will have drug, alcohol or mental health issues and some are extremely violent and very dangerous. I'm proud of the restraint of my people and how professional they are, but sadly sometimes people do die after police contact or even during an arrest. It's a rare event and every single time it is thoroughly investigated independently and we try to learn every lesson. Last year I can think of three people who died in our custody and on two of the occasions it was natural causes and the police were commended for trying to save lives, while the third swallowed drugs no one knew about. We do everything we can to make sure we take care of people in custody. "
She knows what it is like for the death of an innocent to happen on her watch: on July 22, 2005, she was in charge of the operation that resulted in the fatal shooting at Stockwell Tube station of Jean Charles de Menezes, a 27-year-old Brazilian who had been wrongly identified as one of the fugitives of a failed bombing the previous day, two weeks after the bombings of July 7 that killed 52 people. At a criminal trial in 2007 a jury found the Met guilty of failings, but exonerated Dick from any personal blame.
"That was just an awful thing that happened, but so much worse for the poor man's family and people on the train," she says when I ask her about it.
Has she met his family? "No, never met them." Has she tried to? "It was suggested it might happen and I would of course have done, but it hasn't."
Dick, who has just turned 60, is halfway through her term as commissioner. In 2017 she was in at the deep end. Her first six months in the role brought the Grenfell Tower fire and three terrorist attacks, including one at London Bridge during which three men in a van mowed people down and then stabbed others in bars and restaurants. She had inherited a demoralised force with police numbers at their lowest in decades thanks to austerity cuts, while knife crime had grown so rampant among young men that one person was stabbed to death in the capital every four days.
London has the worst knife-crime rate in England and Wales, with close to 16,000 offences in the year to March 2020. So far this year, at the time of going to press, 63 people in the capital have been stabbed to death — 27 of them aged under 25 and 13 teenagers.
"When I set out my priorities my number one was reducing violent crime, particularly the epidemic of gun and knife crime," she says. She has had some success: moped-enabled crime has reduced by half; the number of under-25s who have been stabbed is down by a quarter since 2017. How is she tackling it? "We've had more resources, we've grown — having more police on the streets matters. In particular going after drugs and drug dealers, as so much is associated with that — so-called county lines [where dealers are sent by gangs in the capital to sell drugs in towns and villages]. We've had fantastic results over the last year, we've closed down 230 lines and arrested 432 people."
This year the biggest national operation yet against organised crime was launched targeting crime bosses. "It was a unique operation," she says. "We [in the Met] arrested 267 really serious organised criminals who usually sit above the scourge of drug-dealing networks."
At street level a campaign against the carrying of knives is also making an impact. "Boys — and it is almost all boys — think it has kudos, but carrying a knife is a really dangerous thing to do." Hundreds of officers have been stationed at schools in vulnerable areas and specialist speakers brought in. "They won't listen to someone like me, but when they hear from a doctor or an ex-gang member what actually happens when you are stabbed it makes a difference. In the last couple of years we've considerably reduced the number of stabbings of young — I'm afraid I have to say black — boys in London. But the figures are still shocking: a young black lad is nine times more likely to be killed than a young white lad. I hate that."
She has presided over a huge increase in stop and searches, which are disproportionately carried out on the black community. Consequently her force is mired in accusations of racism.
Among the cases criticised by the police watchdog was that of Dijon and Liam Joseph, brothers stopped outside a Caribbean restaurant in south London in 2018 for fist bumping and handcuffed. Both are devout Christians who have never been involved in crime. Dijon, 30, had been stopped 20 times since he was 12, while for Liam, 29, it was his sixth time.
Dick was called upon to resign by the black Labour MP Dawn Butler after she was stopped in August. And the Met chief had to apologise to the black Team GB athlete Bianca Williams after she and her partner were stopped in their car in July and handcuffed in front of their three-month-old baby. Williams's treatment attracted 1.2 million views on Twitter after footage was posted by her coach, the former Olympic champion Linford Christie, under the words "Racist police aren't just in America".
Dick will not comment on that case. "We've had a number of things this summer with these viral videos," she sighs. "My frontline people are the most scrutinised professionals in the world — all have body-worn video on, and a lot of the time they are on CCTV or someone is holding a phone up to them. When you see a video on the internet, it won't be ours as we don't put them up. It will be someone else's, it might be partial and often doesn't tell the whole story. If a video has gone viral and is unfair, it's very frustrating for my people as they can't give a public explanation until an incident has been thoroughly investigated. Others are free to post what they like."
She insists no one is being stopped because of the colour of their skin — "it wouldn't be right or lawful". "We are targeting young people who are likely to be carrying knives and guns and drugs, we're in among the drug markets and what it means is, overall, a higher proportion of young black lads being stopped than white lads," she says. "The way we look at it is to look at positive outcome rates: the proportion of the total where we find something you shouldn't be carrying. Somewhere between 23 and 25 per cent of those we stop have something on them they shouldn't have and that's the same whether they're black, white or Asian."
Indeed she is unapologetic about stepping it up. "Last week 12 guns were taken off the street by stop and search, and every month hundreds and hundreds of knives — and these are not little penknives but big Rambo knives and hunting knives, truly horrible, lethal things that there is only one reason to have."
Is she saying there is no racism in her force? For the first time her easy charm slips and I get a sense of the steel within. "I haven't said that. I have consistently said the Met is not free of racism, discrimination or bias. We have zero tolerance of people who display racist behaviour, we sack people who do, they are not welcome and the vast majority are reported by colleagues. But we're not free of these things — I am not naive. Nor are other London institutions, or British or London society generally."
Few institutions are so distrusted by young black men, however. One key issue is that the composition of the force does not reflect the community it is policing. The Met, she points out, has the most black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) officers of any force: 5,008 out of 32,619 — and half the total in the country. "We've come a hugely long way in the last few years," she says. "We now have BAME in every role and rank." The numbers have increased from 12 per cent in 2015 to 15 per cent today, but the Met still has the biggest race gap because London's population is at least 40 per cent BAME. Earlier this month an action plan was announced with the mayor's office so that by 2022 40 per cent of recruits must come from an ethnic minority. Is that an impossible target? "It's huge," she says. "But we're going to strain every sinew to get there."
Dick has also made it a mission to have more women in her ranks. Two of her four assistant commissioners are women, as are 9,000 — 28 per cent — of her officers. She would like it to be 50-50. Does she think women do the job differently?
She pauses. "I believe in balance in our teams. I have believed all my life policing would be stronger and better if more women were around, and we know that it is true now from the research." She talks about "having my first barriers thrown at me" during the miners' marches soon after she joined the force in 1983. "Though I'm fit, I've never been the strongest person in the world, so there are things a colleague can do that I can't. I was a hostage negotiator for years — I sometimes think people who have been in a lot of physically demanding situations but can't use physical force have to learn to speak to people differently."
I wonder what attracted her to join the police. Her parents were academics, her father a philosophy professor and mother a historian. She was their third and youngest child. They divorced when she was six and her father died when she was 11. She was one of a handful of girls at the private Dragon School in Oxford and one of the first female students at Balliol College, where she studied agriculture and forest sciences and became the women's rowing captain. On graduating she did brief stints at a fish and chip shop and a large accountancy firm before joining the Met on the beat in late-night Soho at the age of 23.
"It sounds a bit cheesy, but I thought it looked like a job where you could make a difference and do something that would help people," she says. "I'd had quite a sheltered background and wanted to be out dealing with anyone and everyone as a street officer."
It was through work that she met her partner, Helen, who was a duty inspector in the police until retiring in 2017. They have been together for nine years, though Dick says "we met years and years ago".
Being gay and female, did she face discrimination? "I found more sexism in the fish and chip shop and the accountancy firm than in the police," she says. "I've never felt actively discriminated against or abused because of who I am and how I live my life, but I'm not naive. I know full well …"
When she became the new Met chief, she came out publicly in a newspaper interview. Was it hard? "No, not really, I never made a very big deal of it."
A few days after the riot training she attends the funeral of Sergeant Matt Ratana, who was shot dead in September at the custody centre in Croydon by a handcuffed suspect he was about to search.
"I did not know him very well, but so many in the Met did," she says. "He was an extraordinary man, highly involved in trying to divert young people from criminality. It's very rare to have one of our officers killed and for it to happen in a custody environment like that is shocking."
Like many people I was baffled how the suspect had managed to secrete a gun when he was arrested.
"I really can't comment on what happened," she replies. "It's being thoroughly investigated. My job is to make sure we can get the job done, run our operations, but also keep our public, officers and detainees as safe as we reasonably can, and at the same time comply with the law in upholding the dignity of people we detain. We're not going to start strip-searching people on the street because we have to balance these three, but I do have a review going on."
What about the risk presented to her officers by Covid-19? "We were told to plan for high levels of sickness and people not being available, so we asked for volunteers to come and lend a hand and for those with police skills to come back. But in fact we have been very resilient and had very few absences."
Among those who volunteered to return was Helen. "Nothing to do with me — slightly to my surprise she decided to come back and be a special constable, and now does a couple of nights a week out on streets."
She tries hard to keep a healthy work/life balance. "I adore my job, but I work quite odd hours because my frontline teams do, so I might be out with neighbourhood team at 7am or on a raid at 3am."
Do she and Helen talk shop at home? She bursts out laughing. "Yes, sometimes. But we have a lot of other interests. We really enjoy London, looking at the architecture. I love fresh air and nature, we do a lot of walking and outdoor swimming. She's the more creative, cultured one and we go to galleries a lot together, though of course not now, sadly. We're both quite interested in current affairs."
And there are always police TV dramas. Does she watch them? "We tend not to." Given that she is on call 24/7, there is little time for television. But she does admit to a fondness for Vera, the long-running detective series starring Brenda Blethyn. "Not for the policing," she quickly adds, "but for the beautiful landscapes of the northeast, an area I love." It strikes me that her own life would make a terrific drama. Who would play her. "I'd hate that!" she replies.
• 25 per cent: The number of people under 25 who have been stabbed in London is down by a quarter since 2017.
• 15 per cent of Met police officers are from BAME backgrounds. According to the most recent census at least 40 per cent of Londoners are BAME.
• 1,131 fines issued in London since March for breaking lockdown rules — 14 people have been hit with the maximum penalty of £10,000.
Written by: Christina Lamb
© The Times of London