Government names new top police officer

LONDON (Reuters) - The government on Wednesday named Paul Stephenson as London’s new police commissioner, the country’s most senior officer and a role that has become increasingly mired by political in-fighting.

London Mayor Boris Johnson (L) and the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson face the media following the announcement of Stephenson's appointment outside New Scotland Yard, in London January 28, 2009. REUTERS/Stephen Hird

Stephenson had been acting head of the 31,000-strong Metropolitan Police force, Britain’s biggest and the lead agency for counter-terrorism, after his predecessor Ian Blair was ousted in controversial circumstances last year.

“I am just such a hugely proud policeman today, to be asked to lead the Met in bringing safety to millions of Londoners, millions of visitors and lead the Met’s national efforts” he told reporters outside the force’s Scotland Yard headquarters.

The plain-speaking northerner takes over a force seeking to rebuild its damaged status after allegations of racism by senior ethnic officers and ongoing fallout from the killing by armed officers of an innocent man mistaken for a suicide bomber.

He also must deal with concerns over knife crime, particularly fears about a rising number of teenage murders, and the ongoing threat from Islamist extremists exemplified by the deadly London bombings in July, 2005.

“I think my job in the coming years is clear. I think what we’ve got to do is continue to cut crime and deal with crime. We’ve just simply got to make sure we are delivering,” he said.

Stephenson began his career in 1975 in Lancashire, northern England rising to the rank of superintendent before he was appointed Assistant Chief Constable of Merseyside Police.

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He returned to Lancashire in 1999 and became the force’s chief constable in 2002. In 2005 he was appointed the Met’s Deputy Commissioner and took over charge of the London force in December after Blair quit.

The role of commissioner, as Britain’s most senior officer, has always been high profile but came in for greater scrutiny after Blair took over the job in 2005.

He was forced to resign last November, some 16 months before his contract was due to expire, after new Conservative London mayor Boris Johnson made it clear he wanted to see a change following criticism of Blair’s leadership.

Many of his own rank and file never warmed to the Oxford University graduate because they felt he was too politically correct, while opposition Conservatives accused him of actively supporting controversial policies of the Labour government on ID cards and the detention of terrorism suspects.

But the greatest criticism came after police shot dead Brazilian Jean Charles de Menezes on the London Underground in July 2005 after he was mistaken for a suicide bomber.

Stephenson, himself, has already faced criticism over the arrest of lawmaker Damian Green, the Conservative Party’s immigration spokesman, as part of an inquiry into leaks of government information.

“Part of my ambition should be to make sure you see less of me and hear more of what the Met does well and what we need to do more of,” Stephenson, who beat Sir Hugh Orde, the current Northern Ireland police chief to the job, told the BBC.

“I’m not naive about the scale of this challenge and I know the nature of the role is of huge importance to policing across the country.”

Home Secretary (interior minister) Jacqui Smith and Johnson, who found themselves at loggerheads over Blair, gave Stephenson their full backing.

“I know that he has won the confidence and support of everybody during this interview process and I wish him all the best in his new job,” Smith said.

Editing by Luke Baker