Police officers are seldom the bearers of good news. But Mark Rowley of the Metropolitan Police is often burdened with the grim duty of dispensing the worst. With Britain hit by three terror attacks in three months, Scotland Yard’s bespectacled counterterrorism chief has become an unwelcome fixture on British screens.
As news broke of the van and knife attack on London Bridge and Borough Market on 3 June, it was Rowley who – calmly and unshowily – delivered the official version of events to the world’s media. Having warned the public of a likelihood of a marauding terrorist attack on London’s streets as early as 2015, he had been prepared to do so for some time.
Viewers might have felt a sense of déjà vu. In the aftermath of the attacks on Westminster and Manchester, Rowley fulfilled the same role: overseeing the immediate police response and delivering sober updates to the public.
As the Met’s assistant commissioner for specialist operations, Mark Rowley is responsible for leading counterterror efforts not only in the capital but across the United Kingdom. By duty and by choice, he has become one of the country’s most visible police officers after three decades in the force.
A Cambridge graduate, this grammar-school boy from Birmingham began his police career at his home force in 1987. He then took up a detective post at the National Criminal Intelligence Service – a forerunner to the National Crime Agency, which he unsuccessfully applied to lead in 2011 – before pursuing the route widely understood as a fast track to Met leadership: a succession of senior roles on a Home Counties force.
In Rowley’s case, it was Surrey Police (Cressida Dick, who beat him to the Met commissioner’s job, was chief at Thames Valley). Having joined the force as a detective in 2000, his “common-sense” policing was admired by his superiors. He was promoted to chief constable in 2009.
He is now both the public face of the police’s struggle against terrorism and the de facto officer in charge of delivering the Met line on the crimes that capture public attention.
In recent months he has had to justify the continuing probe into the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, missing since 2007. But his unofficial role as uniformed spokesman-in-chief also exposes him to public anger. On the steps of the Royal Courts of Justice in 2014, he was subjected to something close to ritual humiliation. Attempting to deliver a statement on the lawful killing verdict of the inquest into the death of Mark Duggan – the Tottenham man whose fatal shooting by police sparked the August riots of 2011 – he was barracked with cries of “scum” and “murderer” by a furious crowd. Though his West Midlands tones could hardly be heard, he persevered and delivered the statement in full.
Rowley’s habitual calm under pressure has won him powerful admirers. Except for when he snapped and criticised the “nonsense” of “armchair critics” when delivering a press conference after the Westminster Bridge attack, he is seldom intemperate.
The admiration is not universal, however. Many rank-and-file officers perceive him as a “yesman” at the Yard’s top table: a dependable servant for the top brass but not an inspiring leader or a copper’s cop. His praise for the public in the fight against terrorism – he has described them as the police’s “eyes and ears”– is a source of irritation to some officers. They see such rhetoric as little more than a tacit endorsement of government cuts to the community policing budget.
Balancing his operational role and unofficial status as the force’s reassurer-in-chief is certainly a challenge, so perhaps the yesman gibe is not entirely fair. Yet Rowley is undeniably an ambitious career officer.
It was during his time with Surrey, where he served as the lead officer in the five-year investigation into the 2002 murder of the schoolgirl Milly Dowler, that he first became the public police face on a case that commanded national attention. As the phone-hacking scandal erupted nearly a decade later, he conceded that he knew that the News of the World had hacked Dowler’s mobile phone. He also said that officers hadn’t raised the alarm because “the focus and priority of the investigation was to find Milly”.
Mistakes were made in the Dowler case but Rowley is more often criticised (and mocked) by the rank and file for a lesser-known fiasco from his time at Surrey. In 2009, he commissioned a £14.9m crime recording system that was later scrapped by the county’s police and crime commissioner, who in effect called for the Met to sack Rowley. It was a rare misstep for a policeman who is often described as careful and judicious. It has been speculated that a lingering reputation for profligacy cost him the job of Met commissioner, for which he was shortlisted.
Few expect Mark Rowley to get another shot at the top job but he is likely, all the same, to remain a familiar figure in these times of national unease.
This article appears in the 07 Jun 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Election special