How a 1970s policeman changed his mind

John Grieve in the 1970s
Image caption John Grieve in the 1970s

Policing in the UK has changed dramatically in the past 40 years. The shift in attitude of one senior officer paints a vivid picture of the process.

Ten years ago, the TV series Life on Mars was a hit. It told the story of a modern Manchester detective who has a car accident and wakes up in 1973. As an officer schooled in modern methods, he finds the approach of his 70s colleagues appalling.

But here is a real-life version. Commander John Grieve is one of the most distinguished officers of his generation. An outstanding detective, who after the Macpherson inquiry led the investigation into the murder of Stephen Lawrence, he tackled racism in the Metropolitan Police.

But a file I've uncovered at the National Archives shows how in 1973 he took part in a typical police action of the time - against an innocent elderly black couple - which looks "appalling" to his eyes now.

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Image caption The TV series Life On Mars attempted to show how much attitudes have changed

He agreed to speak about it because he believes every police officer should be accountable for all his "jobs" - not just the ones that went well.

On 24 September 1973, Grieve was one of a group of five plain-clothes detectives who raided a house in Nigel Road, Peckham. They were looking for drugs - and found a cannabis plant in the back garden - which the ground floor tenant admitted was his. They then stormed upstairs, where Michael Thomas, and Jessie Antoine had packed away their possessions - they were about to move to Trinidad.

Antoine and Thomas were in their fifties, but frail and "elderly" according to the Metropolitan Police file. Both were in poor health. They protested strongly and according to the file:

"A violent struggle ensued during which - the prosecution alleged - Thomas dragged at least three healthy young officers the length of the landing whereupon he threw off their hold upon him, bit one on the hand, and stabbed another with some scissors."

Grieve was the officer who was bitten. It was a relatively minor injury, according to the doctor's report in the file.

No drugs were found. Uniformed officers had to be called to help - the couple were arrested and taken to the police station. Jessie Antoine had no coat or shoes, according to a report prepared by her barrister. The couple were held for 10 days and charged with assaulting the officers.

Image caption Grieve as a plain clothes flying squad officer in the 1970s

The case was heard at the Old Bailey in December 1973. The judge was concerned about the evidence, and indicated to the jury they should find the couple not guilty. According to the defence barrister's note:

"The jury could have been left in little doubt that the judge was deeply concerned about the evidence and indicated that not guilty verdicts should be returned. The reasons for this must have been basically - the patent honesty of the two defendants, the substantial discrepancies in the prosecution evidence, the unlikelihood of the allegations made, and the medical evidence."

The couple took action against the police, who settled out of court - paying them £4,000. It's not clear why the file on the case was kept - possibly because Grieve himself wrote to his superiors to complain he wasn't alerted to the settlement.

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Media captionJohn Grieve: "Some cases become chaotic very quickly..."

Today, John Grieve is "appalled" when showed the file. It was "horrible" to see it now, he says. But he painstakingly points out how the approach of the police has changed.

"We didn't even carry handcuffs in those days. As detectives we barely carried our truncheons. Nowadays you'd have handcuffs, shield, you take much more care - you'd try and calm the situation - and today you'd have a camera."

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Image caption Police relations with the black community remained strained for many years

The case was in some senses a "milestone" for him, and made him consider police relations with the black community.

This was a time when drugs officers routinely carried out such raids. Lord Ouseley, former head of the Commission for Racial Equality, was a community worker in the 1970s, and remembers being arrested and held in a police cell simply because he was wearing a sheepskin coat.

"They were arresting every black person with a sheepskin coat," he recalls, "and it didn't matter if they were fat or thin, young or old, light-skinned or dark-skinned. And that was the sort of nonsense that went on - and there was a build-up until the '81 disturbances."

Those disturbances in 1981 were the Brixton riots.

Image copyright Photoshot
Image caption 1981 clashes between police and rioters in Brixton, South London

Looking back at the Nigel Road raid, Grieve says this was "one of those jobs that went to chaos". He now finds it "incredible" that five officers could have raided a flat in this way - just for a cannabis bush that didn't even belong to the couple concerned.

For him there was an air of unreality about the episode, even at the time. Regarding the questions asked about the police evidence by the "deeply concerned" judge, Grieve says that in a chaotic situation, "you try to make sense of it - but sometimes you're not successful and it doesn't appear then consistent to other people".

Grieve thinks it is only right to deal with an awkward story from over 40 years ago. He believes anyone becoming a police officer should have "lifelong accountability" for every "job" they've been involved in, especially those in the public eye.

"You can't just talk about the good jobs you're in. I've had some fabulous jobs. This one became absolute chaos that afternoon in Peckham."

Police and race - some milestones

Image copyright Getty Images
  • 1967: Norwell Roberts becomes the first black police officer in modern Britain (pictured)
  • 1981: Lord Scarman's report - in the wake of riots in Brixton, Toxteth and Moss Side - finds evidence of heavy-handed use of stop-and-search laws against black people, and recommends greater police recruitment from ethnic minorities
  • 1999: Metropolitan Police are described as "institutionally racist" by Sir William Macpherson, after his public inquiry into the Stephen Lawrence murder case; an investigation into the black teenager's racially-motivated murder had failed to lead to a conviction

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