In the Media

John Alderson obituary

PUBLISHED October 11, 2011

Chief constable behind the introduction of community policing in the 1970s and 80s John Alderson, who has died at the age of 89, was the father of community policing in Britain in the 1970s and 80s. If James Anderton, the tough and religiose former chief constable of Manchester, was the force's idea of a copper's cop, Alderson was the liberal reverse of that stereotype. His main command came in 1973, as chief constable of Devon and Cornwall. In 1978, after his force had received numerous calls from mothers on the Pinhoe estate in Exeter saying they were worried about their children, he tried out a community policing experiment. With police guidance, mothers on the estate ran a play scheme for 100 young people aged between five and 15 in the summer holidays. Vandalism and petty crime on the estate had been common the previous summer holiday; in 1978, no such crimes were reported. The following year the club was being run by the local constable, PC Barry Gough, who was at first taken aback when asked to put on a tracksuit and join some young people in a game of football, but got to enjoy the new approach to policing. At the time, even Alderson's ardent local supporters had to agree that his radicalism was disliked by some. "In those days he was a kind of messiah in a hurry," said a former colleague. "He had an idea of precisely what he wanted, but his impatience for action got between him and police traditionalism." By the end of his tenure, there were 100 community officers in the Devon and Cornwall force. Other schemes were based on the Exeter model, though with variations: in Surrey, for example, a community policing team worked over a larger area. The key point was that such schemes were pro-active rather than reactive policing ? and it is on this principle that Alderson's reputation rested: he was the pioneer. Events elsewhere heightened the discussion of how policing could best be carried out in a democratic society. The London, Manchester and Liverpool inner-city riots of spring and summer 1981 left some police chiefs looking to Northern Ireland, where CS riot gas and plastic bullets were in use, for ways of maintaining order, but Alderson refused to have his force trained in such techniques. A witness who insisted on giving his own evidence to the ensuing inquiry by Lord Scarman into the riots in Brixton, south London, Alderson placed himself at odds with the heads of other forces and Margaret Thatcher's government in maintaining that: "If we are to save ourselves from incessant conflict, we must start talking hearts and minds." His support for the involvement of communities in the political control of the police proved particularly unpalatable, and in 1982 he retired. Most top police officers usually tend to fade from view when they leave office, but Alderson soldiered on, writing and broadcasting. He had contributed to the Encyclopedia of Crime and Criminals (1960), co-edited The Police We Deserve (1973) and wrote Policing Freedom (1979). After retiring, he produced Law and Disorder, and Human Rights and the Police (both 1984) and Principled Policing (1998). He consistently opposed giving greater powers to the police, arguing that techniques to defeat crime need not necessarily mean intrusions on human liberty. In his view, the guidelines defining subversive activity given to the Special Branch in 1985 were too imprecise. He argued that subversion should be something criminal defined in an act passed by parliament: "If something is not tinged with criminality then, to me, it is not subversive and I don't think the civil police should be involved," he said. At Devon and Cornwall he had curbed Special Branch monitoring of anyone other than potential spies and terrorists. Born and brought up in Barnsley, South Yorkshire, Alderson went from technical college to the Highland Light Infantry in 1938, before the start of the second world war. In 1941, he became a warrant officer in the Army Physical Training Corps in North Africa and Italy. After demobilisation with the rank of sergeant major, in 1946 he joined the West Riding Constabulary in Yorkshire, on the beat. In 1954 he went to the Police Training College, Bramshill, Hampshire, for a high-fliers course. After his promotion to inspector, in 1956 he spent a year as a British Memorial Foundation fellow in Australia, where he learned that "sometimes the most loyal people are those prepared to speak out". He qualified as a Middle Temple barrister, gained a certificate in criminology at Leeds University, and in 1960 a sub-divisional command followed. From being deputy chief constable of Dorset (1964-66), he went to the Met, first as deputy commander in charge of administration and operations, then deputy assistant commissioner for personnel and training, under Sir Robert Mark. From 1970 he was commandant at Bramshill, and after a brief return to the Met as assistant commissioner was appointed to Devon and Cornwall. From 1981, he was a consultant on human rights to the Council of Europe. He was a visiting professor at Strathclyde University (1983-89), helped set up a centre for criminal justice studies at Exeter University and worked extensively for Amnesty International, visiting prisoners in the death rows of jails in the southern states of America. His attempt to win the Teignbridge seat for the Liberal and Alliance party in 1983 was not successful. While he was regarded as more of a visionary than a politician, he could mount his own campaigns with some PR skill: with the law-and-order sect running amok in the 1980s, the Commons could have used his civic sense. In 1981 he was appointed CBE. His wife, Iren?, died in 2008, and he is survived by their son. ? John Cottingham Alderson, police officer, born 28 May 1922; died 7 October 2011 Police Crime UK criminal justice Liberal Democrats Human rights Amnesty International Dennis Barker © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds