John Stevens has telepathic powers, and so does his wife, Cynthia. Hers revealed themselves when, out shopping one afternoon, she received "a message" that her husband had been appointed assistant chief constable of Hampshire. "We were both astonished," he writes in his autobiography, "for she had never had a telepathic experience before - but a very clear one reached her that afternoon." His own powers proved particularly useful during his days as a young police constable in London. Nicknamed "Swifty" because of the number of arrests he made, he suspects that "some sort of telepathy" may have been behind his "unusual ability to detect criminals".
We all hold quirky and odd private beliefs which, under public gaze, would appear faintly ludicrous. It is mildly disconcerting, however, to read that one of the most respected and influential police officers of his generation believes psychic powers might have a role in determining guilt. But for a dodgy eye, Stevens would probably have pursued a career in the Royal Air Force. (He still flies, as a hobby.) As it was, he joined the police in October 1962 and rose quickly through the ranks, becoming a detective within 18 months, deputy chief constable of Cambridgeshire in 1989, and chief constable of Northumbria just two years after that. Following a stint at the Inspectorate of Constabulary, he became deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan Police in 1998. He succeeded Paul Condon as commissioner in 2000, a post he held for five years until his retirement in January.
Though not a complex man, Stevens can be difficult to pin down. His belief in supernatural powers contrasts with a lifetime's interest in the application of scientific and technological innovations to policing. He is on record as saying that homophobia has no place in the Metropolitan Police. Yet here he observes of a controversial Muslim figure that he was "rumoured to have associated with gay men and indulged in domestic violence" (as if the two activities were somehow comparable). He expresses pride in his "efforts to maintain good relations with the ethnic communities" in London, but he is at best lukewarm about the inquiry into the Met's handling of the Stephen Lawrence murder. The Lawrence report "sapped the force's morale" and "was incredibly traumatic for the whole of the Met". It "had no option" but to implement the recommendations, he writes.
It was the inquiries Stevens led into collusion between the British state and loyalist death squads in Northern Ireland that catapulted him to national prominence. And it is in the chapters on Northern Ireland that this generally turgid read comes to life. Stevens and his team of investi-gators, burned out of their offices on an RUC base by elements in the British army and threatened by loyalist paramilitaries, showed sheer tenacity and physical courage in coming through. His reaction on being confronted by members of the Ulster Defence Association - "Look, you're not going to frighten us. Bugger off" - is testament to a bloody-minded streak that must have aided Stevens at various points in his career.
Returning to full-time work in England in the early 1990s, Stevens was appointed chief constable of Northumbria, a post which gave him the scope to develop a policing style that has since become the norm in the UK. Staff were redeployed to the front line and a recruitment drive launched. Stab-proof and bulletproof vests became standard issue. CCTV was installed in the centre of Newcastle. So-called crime "hot spots" and persistent offenders were targeted. Crime reduction targets were set; as the force achieved them, this was used to lever more money out of local and central government.
Stevens took this more muscular and tooled-up style of policing with him when he moved back to London. And it came into its own as the Met became increasingly drawn into fighting Britain's latest, domestic "war on terror".
That most of these innovations now amount to mainstream government policy says much about the attraction that simple policing solutions to complex social and economic problems holds for new Labour. Stevens can hardly be blamed for this development, but the hold that he and other senior police officers have had over a government beset by seemingly intractable social problems is none the less a problem for democracy.
Indeed, one of the most telling moments in this book is Stevens's account of a Downing Street meeting on street crime where he challenged the Prime Minister to widen the focus to cover other types of criminal activity. He records the reaction: "Blair smiled and said, 'Oh - yes - well. OK, John.' When he glanced at the other cabinet ministers and asked, 'What do you think?' they all agreed and the policy was changed."
Richard Garside is director of the Crime and Society Foundation