Closeup

McNee of the Yard

A policeman’s lot is still not a happy one

Arturo F. Gonzalez October 17 1977
Closeup

McNee of the Yard

A policeman’s lot is still not a happy one

Arturo F. Gonzalez October 17 1977

McNee of the Yard

Closeup

Law Enforcement

A policeman’s lot is still not a happy one

Arturo F. Gonzalez

“Look at it this way,” says a seamy-faced detective, his ham fist wrapped around a pint in The Tank, the coppers-only pub hidden deep in the bowels of the New Scotland Yard skyscraper, just a five-minute walk from Britain’s Houses of Parliament, “this new guv’nor of ours used to be the top cop in Glasgow. There are areas in that God-forsaken city where any adult male who hasn’t had one or both ears razored off in a brawl is considered a queer. If McNee can sort out that tough lot, my thinking is he’ll do okay here at the Yard. After a rough breaking-in period, of course.”

Like every other British bobby, the detective is trying to figure out 52-year-old David McNee, the chunky, no-nonsense, old-fashioned Scot who has recently taken over as the top cop at the Yard. A back alley policeman, tough, uncompromising, McNee is a rank outsider from the top police post in distant Strathclyde, not a London insider who has worked his way, year by patient year, up Scotland Yard’s internal promotion ladder. “McWho?” was the Yard’s almost unanimous reaction when Sir Robert Mark's surprise successor took over a few months ago.

Technically, McNee is only another British city police chief, responsible for

public order over London’s 610-square miles of shops, farms, offices, ghettos, vice dens, seat of government, royal residences and 54-miles of rivers, docks and canals. But in a country that has no national law enforcement organization akin to the RCMPor the FBI, McNee becomes, defacto, the country’s top cop. And the inheritor of a past, proud, but now somewhat stained, tradition. McNee has arrived at the Yard in troubled times. Thirteen of his top detectives recently were frog-marched into court for accepting bribes. He was forced to issue riot shields to his bobbies for the first time in London’s history, when 270 of them were injured in an ugly Lewisham race riot. His ranks are 4,000 men under strength and the recruits just aren’t coming in the way they used to. There are even rumors of a police strike in the offing, over inadequate pay.

Crime in this essentially genial and nonviolent country is suddenly on the upswing. In recession-beset Britain, with 1.6 million unemployed, the bovver boys and the rent-a-mobs have been out in force in recent months. Says McNee stubbornly to their ringleaders; “I have no intention of abdicating my responsibility in the face of groups who threaten to achieve their ends by violent means, come what may.”

McNee’s 21,000 overstretched men and women in blue are trying to keep the villains at bay over an area roughly 30 miles in diameter, which contains a fifth of England’s population, a third of its assets and a fifth of the country’s total police. Currently, the traditional police blue lights shine over 198 station houses. One of McNee’s most painful early duties may be to preside over the closing of two thirds of these as an economy measure.

The command post for McNee’s crime fighting is his corner office on the eighth floor of the anonymous, twin-towered office block which has been “New” Scotland Yard for 10 years now. Its 500,000 square feet of offices are home for about 2,000 headquarters staff. An electronics-cluttered Information Room hums with the murmur of duty officer voices answering panicky 999 emergency telephone calls, sending patrol cars and bobbies on foot out after trouble. Computers purr, sorting out the traffic snarls of London’s three million cars honking their way over 8,600 miles of overcrowded roads. Another floor has been specially strengthened to take the weight of 4.5 million files on criminal suspects detailing everything from their nicknames and their tattoos to their fondness

The Yard’s atmosphere is half James Bond—all clean, cool, calm and clinical— and half regimental mess. There’s an eternal flame burning in the lobby for the coppers who have fallen, and the walls are cluttered with trophies of past battles won. McNee’s office displays a table full of these trophies, ceremonial swords, flags and banners, civic awards. When he sits behind his plain wooden desk, he faces a life-size portrait of the original “Bobby”—Sir Robert Peel.

Unlike his immediate predecessor, the intellectual, Mozart-loving Sir Robert Mark who retired upon reaching age 60, McNee has shown little inclination so far to use the changing rooms adjoining his comer office. Mark went into medal-bedecked uniform or tuxedo several nights a week on a marathon of public-speaking appearances, advancing the police view of today’s social problems to opinion leaders around the country. “McNee’s showing all the signs, instead, of being a copper’s copper so far,” says a lieutenant. “Making the rounds of the station houses first. Lunching in the mess and listening, not talking.”

“I’m still a new boy here,” McNee says.

He’s usually at his desk by nine-fifteen in the morning, ploughing through paperwork. But if there’s trouble out on the street, he’s often early on the scene. When strikers and the bobbies were staging an almost daily riot at the Grunwick photofinishing plant a few weeks ago, he was on hand to try to defuse the confrontation. He was out walking the tension-filled streets during a threatened race riot at Notting Hill. Recalls one of his former coppers in Scotland: “You never knew when he was going to appear. You’d be sitting there at your tea at three in the morning and suddenly he’d walk in.” Once when he spotted a bunch of rowdy drunks across the street from his Strathclyde police headquarters, he didn’t tell his constables to break up the group. He just marched across the street himself and moved them on.

A cop for 31 years, McNee walked the beat himself for five years after coming out of five years in the Royal Navy as a wireless operator with the Normandy invasion behind him. “I guess I had developed a taste for life in uniform,” the Glasgow-born son of a train engineer recalls. “The work I had done prewar was bank clerking and I didn’t fancy going back to that.”

His rise through Scottish police ranks was fast and full of incident. He personally took on Glasgow’s thriving shylocking racket—they’re called “tallymen” in the Gorbals—and one of his deputies recalls, “David became so involved in that case that he’d go around the pubs in Glasgow and actually jump up on a table to tell the customers the dangers of borrowing money from the tallymen.”

On his uniform breast are several medals for gallantry, one for capturing John Duddy, a cop murderer who had killed three bobbies. “He scares the hell out of the biggest villains around,” recalls one

Glasgow police superintendent. “Not by violence or shouting—in fact he’s a very quiet-spoken man. It’s more the way he looks at them with those blue eyes of his. He’s got a laser-beam gaze. Totally unblinking. That look is worth three officers using old-fashioned shout-and-badger methods. Hard to believe, but I’ve seen really vicious characters wither away under that gaze and end up not only by cooperating but by calling him ‘Sir.’ ”

What dismayed some of London’s more senior and sophisticated cops at the news

of McNee’s appointment was his reputation for being a bit of a religious fanatic. A devout Presbyterian, he’s an elder at St. George’s Tron Church, Glasgow. He also corresponds regularly with Billy Graham. But the fears about his faith seem to have been unfounded. McNee swears when he’s mad. And he likes an occasional gin when off duty. “After the working day,” he em-

phasizes. “Officers who drink on duty will have to watch their step. I do not think it is right for officers to smell of drink when on duty.”

Some of the Yard’s fear that its new boss was a teetotaler stemmed from an incident when McNee bossed the Glasgow police force. He instructed his men not to have bottle parties in station houses—a tradition which had sprung up each time a man was promoted. “It wasn’t that he was opposed to having the odd drink around the station house,” a former aide explains. “McNee just didn’t like the idea of neighbors seeing their policemen having lots of noisy, knees-ups under a police roof.” “We are police officers,” McNee told his men. “Our probity must be 100%. This isn’tjust a job—it’s a cause.”

McNee laughs at his reputation of being a bit of a bluenose. “I’ve been called the ‘Hammer.’ I didn’t know I had this name until Fleet Street resurrected it. But as long as it’s kept in the context of being The Hammer of the underworld I’m quite happy. It’s been suggested that I’m a stern disciplinarian. I prefer to think of myself as a person who’s always trying to improve standards. My aim is to achieve the highest possible standard for the force. I believe this is what the public wants of me, and I don’t intend to disappoint them.”

The stern Scot hasn’t arrived in London with any new secret weapons in the fight against the growing British crime rate— only a resolve to put more police out on the

beat where they can be seen. “Frankly, there’s no more important man in the police service than the beat constable, whether he be on foot or in a car—and I prefer him to be on foot wherever possible. He’s the first person to meet the public, usually in a moment of crisis, and on his quick action rests that member of the public’s impression of the whole force.”

Each beat in central London is approximately 400 yards by 200 yards, with 4,000 citizens under the constable’s watchful eye. The tradition of sending him out on a prescribed beat dates back decades ago, before the advent of radio, so the sergeant

in the station house could always know approximately where each constable was supposed to be at each moment of the day or night.

The alternative to men pounding the beat, which McNee fears, is “fire brigade” policing. Cops in the station house with fast cars waiting to speed out when crime details are phoned in. If this comes, it will be because McNee has failed to solve the Yard’s biggest current problem: loss of manpower.

“We’re about 4,000 men under our authorized strength,” he sighs. Recruiting drives haven’t had the hoped-for success. Young policemen are quitting after five or six years and going into private security firms, or emigrating to countries where the pay levels and working conditions are better. Says one officer, “Our present policy is to heat the knife and spread the butter more thinly. But that only works for so long. Some police stations that used to house several dozen officers are now down to three or four. Recently a store in Kensington caught two shoplifters. But we couldn’t spare an officer to go down and take them in. Since the shop was closing for the night, the manager had to settle for getting his goods back and turning the thieves loose.”

When Sir Robert Mark retired, he turned over the keys to his office to McNee with words of warning. “You’re inheriting 400 fewer men than Scotland Yard had in

1921, when the metropolitan area was smaller, the police working-week longer and the crime rate one-twentieth of its current level.”

Keeping the young cops it does recruit is another major problem for the Yard. “The danger age is 22 to 26,” says Eric Wright, a police spokesman. “They get married and the wife feels there’s some social stigma in her husband being a copper. There’s shift work so the father never sees his kids, and the bloke next door is making more on the assembly line. Then there’s the anti-authoritarian trend today. Mum’s too busy playing bingo and Dad’s watching the telly, so no one teaches the kids about authority. When they grow up, who wants to be a policeman?”

There’s another reason why being a cop is no longer a British glamour job: growing evidence of entrenched police corruption inside the Yard. McNee insists he won’t tolerate it. He quotes his grandmother on her laundry: “If it’s dirty, it’s out.” Sir Robert got rid of some 400 policemen in a wholesale purge which is still going on. One convicted porn squad detective, Bill Moody, was earning $46,000 annually in bribes to let Soho dirty book stores operate without hindrance. He’s behind bars for 12 years but others equally as guilty may still be in uniform.

Ben Whitaker, a former MP and author of a book called The Police, says that one British copper in 10 has probably taken a

tip or bribe. People used to say, “You cannot buy the Yard,” but in recent years an awful lot of villains seem to have been able to rent it. Stamping out the old-boy network inside the Yard which protects bad coppers is going to be one of McNee’s most difficult tasks. He recently made an unusual start to it by appointing a woman, 49year-old Commander Daphne Skillern, to head up the Porn Squad, the first time a woman has held this sensitive—and in the past, corruptible—post.

The newspapers recently have been full of headlines about police brutality, too, and this has damaged recruiting efforts. Maurice Jones, a militant left-wing editor, showed up at the Grunwick dispute and was arrested. He says the police talked menacingly about injuring his wife and child. The police say he violently resisted being fingerprinted. Whatever the truth, he fled briefly to East Germany for asylum and only recently has returned to face trial. The policeman who is alleged to have threatened him has since left the force.

Says Benedict Birnberg, a defense lawyer, “We get more and more allegations now of phony evidence being planted by the police, police searches without warrants, entrapment of homosexuals. The real difficulty is that there’s no independent method of dealing with cases against the police. The police themselves do the investigating and very few people have faith in this.” The cops refute this somewhat lightheartedly, saying they have orders, as one constable explains it, “to call a villain ‘Sir’ even while we’re banging his head on the pavement.” When in Scotland McNee took complaints about police seriously, however, setting up a unit to look into them and he will undoubtedly continue Mark’s A.10 unit which handles public complaints.

Race has become another flashpoint, and a worry to McNee who didn’t have to face much of this type of problem in Scotland. Attempts to recruit sizable numbers of colored bobbies have failed. And the white bobbies are increasingly incensed at

orders to take a low profile in dealing with London’s growing and surly black population. In the station houses there are frequent grumbles about “falling over backward” not to alienate blacks, and being spat at and slapped.

When you add long hours and miserable pay—about $5,500 a year for a new bobby, ranging up to the modest $30,000 McNee pulls down—to all the other grievances, you end up with labor problems, and maybe even a walkout. Does McNee believe that police should hit the bricks? “It would sadden me greatly if police were given the right to strike,” he sighs, “but having said that, I think the bobby on the beat is finding great difficulty in making ends meet at the moment.”

The last time British police threatened to strike, 50 years ago, Lloyd-George quickly gave in to their cash demands. Today the signs of cop revolt are ominously clear. When McNee’s boss, the Home Secretary, recently addressed the Yard’s officers the word went out to give the Whitehall minister the “silent treatment.” He sat down after his speech, redfaced, to a deathly quiet hall.

The police union has pointed out it needs salary increases of up to 104% just to keep abreast of current British inflation. The federation’s chairman, Jim Jardine, says: “This is what we need in the long run. But we intend to go now for 30% to 40%.” This proposed claim flies hard in the face of the Labor government’s intention of keeping all salary increases at a maximum 10% level.

The Yard’s detectives are already taking on McNee over his plan to reduce the number of hours of paid overtime. Many have been putting in a 114-hour week. They’ve decided all CID men will work “by the book,” dropping casework promptly at 5 p.m., refusing to use their home phones to make investigatory calls after hours and insisting on a police car to bring them to the station house if called in on an emergency when off duty. “Within a couple of weeks working like this, the backlog will really pile up and the public will begin to suffer,” a detective comments. As it is now, the Yard solves only 23% of the crime committed in London, down from 30% three years ago.

In a phrase, the police and public jury are still very much out on David McNee. He’s not the intellectual that his predecessor was. Sir Robert knew how to make TV work for him, played the Fleet Street game like a maestro and was a fluent debater, obviously head and shoulders above the rest of his staff. McNee is shy about interviews, stumbling when he reads canned speeches and unsure of how to project a vigorous public image for himself and his men. “But you can’t put anything over on him,” says one staffer. “He’s been a cop in uniform too long to be fooled. He knows all the tricks. In short, he’s a bloody good cop, but a bloody tough guy to have as a boss.”;$>