If you want to sort out the Met, Ken, talk to Mack

A few days ago, the London Evening Standard introduced us to Lord Harris of Haringey, named by Mayor Livingstone as chairman of the Police Committee. His article urged us to welcome democracy in the organisation of the Metropolitan Police. I can't say that I know much about Lord Harris. Our paths have never crossed, even in the halcyon days of the Greater London Council, or the dread moments of the New Cross fire, the Brixton riots or the Tottenham explosion.

He was not in the frame for the post even recently. Trevor Phillips was the man, almost self-appointed, then anointed by Frank Dobson. Ken's adviser on police and race, Lee Jasper, did not even make it on to the Police Committee.

Lord Harris's article read like a press release - all cliche-ridden general statements. If democracy means that the citizenry will be represented in the shaping of the Met, I would have preferred a specific programme, a sharply stated policy that would guide policing throughout the Livingstone regime.

I live in Brixton - on the front line, the interface between the police and the thief, and between the community and the police. We have emerged from dungeons dark and grim, the smell of cordite, the bark of the pump-action, to a fragile consensus between the police and the community. The community quietly fights crime with a ferocity that would make Simon Foy, the chief of police in Lambeth, blush. Yardies are given short shrift, bad boys are to be vamped upon, all without fuss and fanfare. Young women are urged to join the cadets precisely to undermine the machismo of their male counterparts. This process, it seems to me, is at the heart of the democratic movement. Lord Harris seems oblivious to the goings-on behind the curtains. Strangely enough, there are police officers who are able to intervene without the baton charge and the grandstanding about zero tolerance and the battle against crime much favoured by politicians who conceal their true purpose behind loose and woolly statements about better relations between blacks and the police.

I can identify police by name and number who have long transcended such ways. I name, for example, the former chief inspector Dalton ("Mack") McConnie, last seen in action with Mike Tyson, easing him through an excitable crowd in the heart of Brixton without baton, tear gas or water hoses. The crowd knew him and he knew most of them. He is retired and, summoned by Simon Foy, I will attend his leaving do.

Mack, of Barbadian stock, came through the ranks. In the Caribbean, Barbadian carries a special resonance in the art of policing. Barbadians are sometimes referred to as natural policemen; they are thought to have the ease of authority, without which a police officer borders on thuggery. I met Mack when I was in the course of committing a crime. I was a regular at a corner shop that sold alcohol after hours. In the still of the morning, I would trot off to Mr Johnson to purchase a flask of brandy or something similar. As I turned out of the shop one morning, I was confronted by Mack. I attempted to walk away without explanation. "Darcus Howe!" said the voice of absolute authority. I stopped in my tracks, returned to the scene and babbled some nonsense. I sounded the community for feedback. "He was firm but fair" was the response from criminals and law-abiding citizens alike.

He never carried a baton, never raised his voice; never around him the blaring sirens, nor the imposition of raw power. He was deeply cynical of the opportunist politician. With Mack, the issue was always a matter between the police and the people they policed. He had scant regard for the army of mediators and fusspots who sought to make careers out of tensions between blacks and the police.

Mack may have already organised his life after retirement, but I urge Livingstone to try to incorporate this skilful officer in his plans for a democratic order. I see little else of substance on the horizon.

Darcus Howe is an outspoken writer, broadcaster and social commentator. His TV work includes ‘White Tribe’ in which he put Anglo-Saxon Britain under the spotlight. He also fronted a series called Devil’s Advocate.

This article first appeared in the 03 July 2000 issue of the New Statesman, And is there honey by the Tees?