Paul Stephenson was Lancashire’s local lad made good, a career police officer who set out to be the coppers’ copper, who put more bobbies on the streets in Blackpool, and backed resort initiatives such as community beat managers, praising “high calibre” policing in the town.
The tried and tested deputy took over from the UK’s first woman Chief Constable, Pauline Clare, when she retired from the Lancashire force in 2002 to channel her 36 years experience into assisting executives and businesses.
He became a policeman of the people, too, no stranger to PACT (Police and Communities Together) events in Blackpool, here for the opening of the new public inquiry desk at Bonny Street police headquarters, meeting visiting bigwigs at conferences in the resort, glad handing PCSOs and other officers alike.
This week Sir Paul stepped down from his £270,000 a year job as Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Britain’s most senior police officer, amid fears his association with PR consultant Neil Wallis, former deputy editor of the now-defunct News of the World, arrested last week on suspicion of conspiring to access voicemails, would “eclipse” the work of the Met.
Former News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks was also arrested on suspicion of conspiracy this week.
If the pen is mightier than the sword, Sir Paul, 57, has effectively fallen upon his; the highest-profile victim of the phone-hacking scandal that has ripped the reputations of press barons apart, and exposed the sordid methods allegedly used to extract the most sensitive information from vulnerable and high-profile victims alike.
Yesterday, news broke that assistant commissioner John Yates had joined our man at the Met in resigning too, leaving others to count the coppers left.
An official statement has yet to be issued by Lancashire Constabulary’s upper echelons, in recognition of the role Stephenson played there for so much of his career, although tributes have come from the Home Secretary Theresa May and others.
Sir Paul’s resignation ends a career so meteoric it gave – as a retired senior police officer puts it – “the rest of us nose bleeds just looking at it”.
His ambition knew no bounds, held up as a role model for others, he inspired Lancashire’s rookies and senior officers alike.
The message from the Bacup butcher’s son was clear: this is how fast you can rise, this is how far you can go. Today, in an austere age of cutbacks to police stations and officer numbers alike, the blow to morale caused by his self-inflicted fall from grace is immense.
“Sir Paul was the man we all looked up to, the local lad made good,” says the retired Blackpool bobby, who wants to remain anonymous.
“I don’t think any of us would question his integrity. It’s his judgement that has been called into question. But he’s had the nous to realise that if he stays the speculation goes on. The buck stops at his desk.
“It must leave other senior officers very uncomfortable, those who should have passed information about hacking onto him sooner have been left exposed, which may go some way in explaining other resignations.
“He’s done the honourable thing. It should be a lesson to politicians and press alike.”
Sir Paul, known as “Rusty” to friends because of his perma-tanned appearance, was raised in Lancashire’s school of hard knocks, becoming a rookie cop in his native East Lancashire in 1975. He was fast tracked after being hand picked for a special command course at the Bramshill College in 1982.
Promotions came fast, sergeant in Bacup, inspector at Burnley, chief inspector in Colne. In 1987, he moved into the rarefied realms of research and development at Lancashire police headquarters, before bagging his own sub division, as commander, at Accrington.
Mr Stephenson stepped out of his Red Rose county comfort zone to serve briefly as a sub-divisional commander on exchange with the Royal Ulster Constabulary, before returning, in a similar role, in Preston.
His reputation for tough talking won him fans, when in 1999, at 45, he left one of the nation’s most demanding senior police jobs, as Merseyside Police assistant chief constable, to return to his home county, as number two to chief constable Clare, who had herself joined the Lancashire force as a cadet.
While Sir Paul settled straight in, Mrs Clare owned up to being considered such a “curiosity” by journalists that “the lady from The Times even asked what perfume I preferred”.
Sir Paul became her lieutenant through organisational and cultural reforms, ordered on the back of the public sector shake-up, and which also gave chief constables greater autonomy and budgetary powers – for which critics argue we are paying the price today.
Three years later, Mr Stephenson stepped into the chief’s shoes himself, courting the populist vote, vowing to target “burglars and drug pushers”, and draft in extra officers – paid for by the Crime Fighting Fund – to target street crime and disorder in Blackpool. He also backed Blackpool’s community beat manager programme.
At the time he declared: “Some of the policing being delivered in Blackpool is of the highest calibre.
“There are good initiatives and very sound leadership that have led to the Blackpool policing area receiving one of the best HM Inspection reports in the country. It is not just about bobbies on the beat. It is about local patch ownership and consistency of local officers.”
In 2005, he left for the Met as assistant to controversial commissioner Sir Ian Blair, received a knightood in 2008, and the top job in 2009.