In a career spanning over 30 years, Lord Blair – the former Metropolitan Police Commissioner - saw changes in the types of crimes that now confront police officers, with the emergence of suicide bombers in the name of Islam and cyber-crime among recent additions. During his first year as Metropolitan Commissioner, he led the response to the terrorist bombings in London in July 2005 when 52 were killed and over 700 injured, with many losing limbs. But despite the murderous and pernicious nature of killers and criminals, he told a packed hall that he remains a powerful advocate of not arming police officers as a matter of course (only the UK, New Zealand and Finland follow the same practice) because he believes it would not decrease violent crime – and once issuing more arms is pursued, there would be no going back.
At the start of his compelling talk on October 4th (our fifth birthday), he tantalised us with the promise to give us the true identity of Jack the Ripper at the end of the evening, as recorded in the Scotland Yard files.....and in the intervening 50 minutes, he covered a wide range of issues with a mix of insight and humour. Whilst understandably promoting the police perspective, he was not averse to highlighting areas where attitudes and behaviour among the police needed to be improved.
Lord Blair pointed out that, even though there are about a hundred murders a year in London (or about two a week), many victims know their killers - and there are very few deaths purely as a result of domestic violence. In addition, serial-killers are extremely rare and the idea that such sinister people are lurking at every street corner is simply not true.
And whilst the tragic and hideous deaths of children at the hands of adults made the headlines, the reality was that – mercifully – there are very few such cases, even though a single case is one too many. Commenting on social workers, he pointed out that most now require a masters degree, requiring two years training, and that he believed there was a place for people with a natural feel for the work – without necessarily having any formal qualifications. Similarly, he believed there is a strong place for recruiting “salt of the earth” people to the police and pointed out that one of the best constables he had met was a former publican who had spent 20 years dealing calmly with people from all backgrounds.
Now sitting as a cross-bench member of the House of Lords, Lord Blair is in a far better position to comment on political decisions and he is aghast at the cutting of police budgets. Wherever he went as a senior officer, the usual demand from the public was for more officers on the beat but reductions in financing made this impossible - if they were to be properly equipped. With stretched resources, the greatest concentration of officers had to be where most crime took place – in the cities – but people in rural areas had the same expectation of high-visibility policing. And, of course, not all police activity is involved with crime - earlier in his career, as a detective chief inspector with the Met, he had been involved with identifying the 31 victims of the King's Cross fire in November, 1987
Lord Blair, who served as deputy chief constable of Thames Valley Police, told us he is also an implacable opponent of the new post of police commissioner, where a chief constable could be dismissed in an instant. He criticised the move as a mere American import and pointed out that, in the United States, there are 17,000 police forces where a fired senior officer could find alternative employment. But in the UK, a chief constable dismissed by a police commissioner would find it impossible to be taken on elsewhere and it would a career-ending move.
He also believes that proposed legislation to allow far less access to mobile phone useage could hamper the police using location-data based on phone-masts to pinpoint the whereabouts of people at key moments in a criminal or missing-person investigation. Similarly, he questioned whether the release of tens of thousands of US classified documents was a blow for freedom of information – or merely playing into the hands of a terrorist enemy. He conceded that some police officers may have given information to journalists, as highlighted in recent cases – but, in the main, they were inexperienced officers from the junior ranks - although their behaviour was still unacceptable.
And that promise of revealing the Jack Ripper? Lord Blair told us that Scotland Yard files almost certainly confirmed the man implicated was Aaron Kosminski, who was Polish and Jewish and admitted to Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylsum in 1891. He was named as a suspect in 1894 but no prosecution was possible because the main witness was also Polish and Jewish and refused to testify. However, Lord Blair added that there was enough evidence in the vaults to prove that he was, indeed, the Ripper.
“Inevitably, Ian Blair’s public image, based largely on television appearances is a serious and direct one – but his talk in Wootton showed him as being very human, combining insight with a very engaging sense of humour and modest self-deprecation. He certainly put the police point of view but he wasn’t at all blinkered and it proved a fascinating evening……and now, at last, we also know the identity of Jack the Ripper! – David Key, Banbury