Ilustration: Tim McDonagh

Line of duty: What does Cressida Dick really want?

The first female and first openly gay Metropolitan Police commissioner is known to be cool-headed. But with challenges coming from all political sides, will that last?
May 2, 2021

In April 2018, Tanesha Melbourne-Blake was gunned down in a drive-by shooting in Tottenham. She was just 17 years old, and an hour before her death had been happily posting on Snapchat like any carefree teenager. Amid rising street violence in the capital, her murder was a traumatic moment for the community. David Lammy, the local Labour MP, invited Cressida Dick, the Metropolitan Police commissioner, and Sadiq Khan, the London mayor, to meet her family and friends. Lammy recalls it being a “very tough” meeting. “The feelings were really raw, the young people were very angry, they didn’t feel safe.”

As one person after another expressed their anguish, Lammy watched the reactions of the two people responsible for preventing such crimes. “I remember looking across to Sadiq and there were tears rolling down his face, he was very moved and very upset by the meeting,” he tells me. “Cressida was getting a lot of flak. She remained consummately professional. There were no tears, and I remember thinking that this is a woman, the first female Met commissioner. I’m sure she feels what the children are saying but she seemed to resist appearing emotional. I felt she had been trained and spent all of her career having to be tough. She was dispassionate in a very passionate context. Her professionalism is a virtue but sometimes it can be an Achilles’ heel.”

Three years on, and the first female and first openly gay commissioner in the Met’s 192-year history is in the political firing line as never before. From the right, Dick is criticised for failing to bring down knife crime in London, and accused of being too soft on the lockdown-defying Black Lives Matter protesters last summer, amid moral panic about statues and “rewriting history.” There has been speculation that Priti Patel, the zealous home secretary, might want to replace her with a hardliner when her five-year contract comes to an end next April.

From the left, Dick is charged with mishandling the issue of race, and failing to understand the public mood following the death of Sarah Everard. She is blamed for the heavy-handed policing at the Clapham Common vigil. The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, criticised the police actions as “deeply disturbing,” while Khan described the scenes as “completely unacceptable” and summoned the commissioner to City Hall for a dressing down. Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey actually called for her to resign.

But Dick, who is 60, has always been seen as a safe pair of hands, unflappable in a crisis—of which there are many in a job that covers nationwide counter-terrorism and royal security as well as the policing of London. She is popular with colleagues and even macho members of the Police Federation will sometimes refer to her, affectionately, as “our commissioner,” while senior officers call her “Cress.”

At Westminster, by contrast, underlying the questions over her future are doubts about what lies beneath the calm, controlled exterior. In the view of Ian Blair, who was himself Met commissioner between 2005 and 2008, such noises are now part and parcel of the job. “It’s become an incredibly political position,” he says. “You are answering to three bosses: the prime minister, the home secretary and the mayor of London. That’s particularly difficult, as I found, when you get a mayor and a home secretary from different parties”—the predicament Dick faces with Khan and Patel. The Met commissioner’s job is “shot through with politics,” another senior policing figure says. “You have to be both sensitive and savvy, and she is.” For my own part, when I interviewed Dick for the Times back in 2018, I found her not only smart and engaged, but also warm and funny. Still, as enemies circle, it’s worth scouring her backstory for signs of the qualities she will need to survive.

Dick does not come from a typical policing background. She was born in 1960 in Oxford to parents who were academics, her father a philosophy professor and her mother a historian. They divorced when she was six and her father died when she was 11. The youngest of three children, with two older brothers, she went to the private Dragon School in the city. She was one of only a handful of girls who were allowed in because they had male siblings there. She then joined the first intake of female students at Oxford’s Balliol College, studying agriculture and forest sciences, while captaining the women’s rowing team. Nicola Horlick, the investment fund manager and City “superwoman,” was in the same pioneering year. “There were 550 men and 23 women so it was quite scary, and there was some hostility,” she says. “My overriding memory of Cressida when we were 18 was that she always had a smile. She’s a very kind-hearted person. She looks much more serious now. When you are in a position of authority you have to appear authoritative, because if you are nice some people mistake that for weakness and take advantage.”

Determined to be equal in every way to the men, they set up a women’s cricket team, borrowing from the boys bats and pads which were slightly too big. Dick was the wicket-keeper. “I have noticed that successful women quite often have been one of a small number of girls at a boys’ school,” says Horlick (whose own primary education was at the private Kingsmead School on the Wirral, where she was also one of a tiny smattering of girls). “It gave us confidence. You’re not intimidated by being in a male-dominated environment. Cressida was a natural leader. She wasn’t one of those getting-drunk-every-night hedonists, she was very much an organiser.”

On graduating, Dick briefly worked in a fish and chip shop, where the owner kept a baseball bat behind the counter for when things got lively at night. She then took a job with one of the large accountancy firms before deciding she wanted to do something more “meaningful”—and joined the police. At barely five foot four, she stands at the exact threshold for women in the historic height test for the Met, which was abolished in 1990. She almost failed, and only got in because the measuring “nurse helped me.”

She started on the beat in late-night Soho in 1983 at the age of 23. “There’s something about putting a uniform on and thinking, ‘people are looking to me to make decisions and to look after them,’ that makes you feel capable,” she told Desert Island Discs in 2019.

She is determined not to be defined by her gender or sexuality and only came out publicly in 2017, after becoming Met commissioner. She has said that being gay is the “least interesting” thing about her, and claims that she has never experienced homophobia in the police. (Her partner, Helen, was a duty inspector before retiring in 2017.) Early in Dick’s career, though, there was no getting away from the special challenges confronting “WPCs,” as they were still called. When she joined the police, women had to wear skirts and were banned from doing certain jobs. It was “very sexist,” she recalled to me much later, and yet also insisted: “It’s been 25 years since I stopped thinking of myself as a woman coming into work. I’m a person coming in to do a job.”

That mindset soon propelled Dick through the ranks, and by 1995 she had become a high-ranking officer in the Thames Valley Police. She took a master’s in criminology, then returned to the Met, working in anti-gang and anti-gun operations as well as counter-terrorism. She was promoted to assistant commissioner, then served as deputy commissioner, overseeing the security preparations for the 2012 London Olympics. After transferring to the “Foreign Office” for two years (she reputedly worked for MI6) she returned to the Met as commissioner.

When she took over, Dick dropped Bernard Hogan-Howe’s Schwarzenegger-style motto “Total Policing,” preferring—in the old Tony Blair line—to be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime. She also turned down her predecessor’s £65,000 Range Rover in favour of a pool car and took a £40,000 salary cut because she didn’t “need the money.” A vegetarian, she is quiet and unflashy, gaining the respect of her colleagues through competence rather than bravura.

She may not be one to make a drama out of a crisis, but that hasn’t stopped a string of them defining her career. In 2005, she ran the panicked operation—in the summer of London’s 7/7 attacks—that led to the fatal shooting of an innocent Brazilian, Jean Charles de Menezes, at Stockwell tube station. Although she was cleared of personal blame, the incident still haunts her. “I wish it hadn’t happened,” she once said, “but if anything, it’s made me a better leader, a better police officer, more resilient.” That is certainly a quality in demand in the top job, and in her first year alone she dealt with four terrorist atrocities, the Salisbury nerve agent attack and the Grenfell Tower tragedy. At the end of this turbulent 12 months, however, the coolest of commissioners maintained: “I don’t lie awake. I’m not a worrier.”

With her neatly cropped hair, Dick comes across as serious and sensible, but there is also a dry sense of humour. When I met her, I asked whether the regulation police boots were Doc Martens. “Well, they’re not Jimmy Choos,” she replied with a wry smile. In the reliably revealing quick-fire trivia quiz that I like to do at the end of interviews, she chose Miss Marple over Jane Tennison (the detective played by Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect), Line of Duty over Life on Mars and Dixon of Dock Green over Dirty Harry. Her colleagues find it hilarious that she cannot ever, however hard she tries, detect the smell of cannabis.

Having spent time with the gangs unit in Hackney as a reporter, and seen the social drivers of street violence, I was impressed by the way in which Dick acknowledged that tackling knife crime is as much about parenting as policing. She conveyed a compassion for the young perpetrators, who are often also victims. “Many of them have had a pretty difficult upbringing,” she reflected. “We’ve got to do our enforcement… but we can’t solve it by ourselves.” She saw the root problems as social, even psychological: “If you look at these young people, a lot of them have been excluded from school, often it’s just one parent. They are looking to be loved.”

Those who have worked with her are extraordinarily loyal. Her predecessor but two, Ian Blair, now a crossbench peer, says that Dick is “the most able officer of her generation,” probably “one of the most able police officers who has ever served.” And Blair rejects the suggestion that Dick lacks empathy. “She’s a supreme professional and there are limits to the amount of emotion that you can show,” he explains. “Every police officer has to sometimes deal with really very difficult emotional situations and you just have to put some kind of shield between you and what’s happening. She’s got a very gentle style with subordinates, but she can also be steely. She is a very warm, very intelligent, very competent person. I think she’s very comfortable in her skin.”

Another policing leader says: “Cress would have succeeded in anything she turned her hand to. She is very bright but she’s not arrogant, she doesn’t swallow her own smoke. She is very thoughtful, utterly professional and she understands people. You can’t get on in the police if you don’t understand people, because you’re dealing with people who are at the lowest depths in their life. She is intellectually empathetic—she feels it but she thinks ‘right, what can I do about this?’ rather than just emoting. That’s what people want in a copper.”

Amber Rudd, who as home secretary appointed Dick, says she was “the outstanding candidate,” and in her mind the obvious person for the job. “People bear authority in different ways; some people have their uniform, kit and stature, Cressida just has a quiet certainty about her that I found completely compelling,” she tells me. “She’s practical but she’s also intellectual… people trust her. It’s to do with her leadership style. She says difficult things in a way that’s not confrontational, but she is also firm. She is never going to compromise on her principles.” As home secretary, Rudd would sometimes have dinner at the Commons with Dick, Lynne Owens (the director general of the National Crime Agency) and Sara Thornton (then chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council). “There was a camaraderie about us all being women. It was totally non-party political,” she says.

Dick does, however, have her critics, and Patel is not the only threat. Kit Malthouse, the former deputy mayor for policing under Boris Johnson’s London administration, arrived with his boss at the Commons in 2015, and is now the minister for crime and policing in his government. As a backbench MP, I am told that Malthouse argued against her appointment as commissioner: “He felt she hadn’t addressed violent crime enough in London and she hadn’t supported them,” one senior Tory says. By contrast, they continue, “when Boris stood for the leadership, Bernard Hogan-Howe came out in support of him. There was a boys’ coterie and there’s no way Cressida would have been drawn into that. She’s not the clubbable type.” It will not have gone unnoticed in No 10 that Dick warned about the security implications of a no-deal Brexit.

Other detractors have very different issues with the current commissioner. Gracie Bradley, interim director of Liberty, the human rights charity, says there have been “serious concerns” about the Met’s approach to protests, including the Clapham memorial. “The police have a duty to facilitate protest and that’s not the approach that’s been taken,” she says. “It was the Met that unlawfully banned protest in response to Extinction Rebellion in 2019. It was an egregious overreaction. If you draw a thread with the Sarah Everard vigil and subsequent protests against the policing bill there’s a really worrying heavy-handedness. That’s happened on Cressida Dick’s watch.”

Dick has denied that “institutional racism” exists in the Met—dismissing the term used by the former judge William Macpherson in his landmark 1999 inquiry into the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence—by telling MPs it was “not a label I find helpful.” While she accepted there was a “systemic” dimension to prejudice, she preferred to stress the good news: “I think we have come such a very, very, very long way.”

But one reason these remarks jarred is that she has presided over a huge increase in the use of stop and search, which disproportionately affects the black community. The black Labour MP Dawn Butler called on Dick to resign last year after she was herself stopped by the police, and the Met chief had to apologise to the athlete Bianca Williams, who was stopped in a car and handcuffed along with her partner in front of their three-month-old baby. Footage of her mistreatment attracted 1.2m views on Twitter after being posted by her coach, the former Olympic champion Linford Christie, under the words: “Racist police aren’t just in America.”

Diane Abbott, the veteran MP and former shadow home secretary, believes that Dick has lost the trust of many black Londoners. “It was positive when we had our first female Met Police commissioner, but in recent times she has been quite alarming,” Abbott says. “I don’t like the way she refuses to accept what the statistics tell us about differential levels of stop and search and the fact that black people are more likely to be handcuffed. If you say ‘there’s no problem with institutional racism,’ you are not going to do anything about it. People don’t think she’s doing enough.”

At times, though, she has been at pains to stress the existence of racial disadvantage. In discussing gangs a few years ago, for example, she said that it was “really shocking” that at that time young black men were 10 times more likely to be killed than young white men, suggesting that was likely “as much about socioeconomic factors as anything else.” So why has she struggled to find the right notes in this area?

Brian Paddick, the former Met Police commander who is now the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman in the Lords, wonders whether Dick is worried about challenging prejudice because she herself does not fit the police stereotype. He spent six months with her in 2000 on the Met’s Strategic Command Course, a residential programme. He told her that he was gay and wanted to come out; she confided to him that she was in a relationship with a woman, but was more nervous about discussing her sexuality in public at that point. “When I was in the Met I felt it was OK to be gay or female or black, provided you behaved like a straight white man,” Paddick says. “Perhaps Cressida feels the same. She is the first female commissioner and the first openly gay commissioner, and maybe she felt that was enough for her subordinates without also being a ‘champion of diversity.’”

Dick may be unbothered by the briefings against her. A senior policing source says the expectation is that Dick will leave—by choice—next April. “The reality is that when you’re commissioner of the Met there’s never a day off. When the phone rings at three in the morning it’s a whole pile of trouble. Most people have had enough after five years,” the insider explains. “Her relationship with the home secretary is not superb, but it’s OK. With a year to go, she’s not going to get booted out. Cressida has got about 12 months left. Priti Patel could be home secretary in a year, or she could be on the backbenches, you just never know.”

How does she cope with such vicissitudes in SW1? In Ian Blair’s appraisal, she accepts “that she’s in the middle of Whitehall,” in an inescapably “hyper-charged situation.” For her, as for him before, he suggests there is only one attitude: “That’s just the job, you have to keep going and try to keep the interests of your service and the public you serve foremost.”