Five years ago, the announcement that Cressida Dick would be the first ever female head of Britain’s biggest force seemed a landmark moment for policing and the nation.
The Metropolitan police, one of the most iconic, male-dominated and important institutions in the country, would be led by a woman.
Dick posed for photos with the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, who had championed her. “This is a historic day for London and a proud day for me as mayor,” he said.
But one senior government official with knowledge of policing expressed surprise: the search had been for a reforming Met commissioner, the official noted. Dick was probably the most conservative candidate available. Even in private she would brook little or no criticism about the most vexed issue of stop and search, when other police leaders would.
Dick was the Met insider’s choice and she wanted to boost the force’s sense of confidence and pride.
Veteran officers who were about to retire would hear a familiar voice on their police radio as their service ended, thanking them and wishing them well. It was from “Metro 1”, the radio call sign for the commissioner.
Thoughtful and warm gestures like that endeared her to the rank and file.
But warm words aside, her commissionership was starting to tank with the public, according to regular confidence surveys from the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime.
Controversies around race and concern about violence, especially knife crime, buffeted the Met leadership. To tackle violence, Dick ramped up stop and search, which damaged confidence in London’s black communities.
One former senior Met officer who knows Dick well said: “She is unimaginative, just do the old stuff and hard.”
Khan, a former human rights lawyer, continued to defend her, despite rising community concern.
One former senior former officer said: “I am one of her greatest fans, but she has become tin-eared on a few things … She looks utterly exhausted, and that leads to poor decisions and you dig in, and it becomes a siege mentality.”
September 2021 would be the beginning of the end. She was granted a contract extension by government, which Khan publicly endorsed.
In recent days, those close to the Home Office suggested No 10 was in the driving seat, fearing if Dick went, then the Met’s assistant commissioner, Neil Basu, would replace her.
No 10 felt Basu had insulted the prime minister, including in comments made in in a Guardian interview in which he said someone making similar comments to Boris Johnson on race would not be allowed to join the police.
But relations between Dick, City Hall and the home secretary were on the slide.
A turning point came when Wayne Couzens, the serving Met officer who had kidnapped and murdered Sarah Everard, was sentenced.
In City Hall and government, there was an understanding that this was a rare event, that it had never happened before. But the response from the Met leadership horrified them, just as details were finally made public of how Couzens used his police powers and equipment to commit the murder.
Instead of the commissioner announcing an inquiry and a multi-point plan of reforms, an assistant commissioner answered questions, suggesting – to widespread ridicule – that worried women could “wave down a bus” if they felt in danger.
“You do get overwhelmed, then you are not taking or seeking advice, or seeing danger signs,” said the former senior officer who is an admirer of Dick, adding: “I know, I have been there.”
Priti Patel was angered, senior sources confirm, when after several days Dick decided to launch her own inquiry. The home secretary implored her not to do so, arguing it would lack credibility, and government was planning its own. But the commissioner ignored her.
The official data published last September captured how confidence in the Met was plummeting. Asked if “police can be relied upon to be there when needed”, 79% of Londoners had said yes in 2017. Now it was just 61%.
Another key measure was at danger level. Asked if “police do a good job in my local area”, only 52% agreed – down from 68%. In 13 of London’s 32 boroughs, it was at 50% or lower.
A policing model that operates by consent appeared in trouble. “It is a hard swing to happen to an institution so quickly,” said a senior source.
For Khan, the final straw seemed to come on Tuesday last week, when he read the police watchdog report into the Charing Cross scandal. “It had been building up,” said one source.
In Khan’s statement responding to the shocking details, he talked about it reminding him of the 1970s and 80s and the police force of his childhood.
Dick was summoned last Wednesday to a meeting with Khan. According to a source, they spoke for 90 minutes but “she just did not get it”.
Dick felt Khan’s demands for radical and urgent change to the Met’s culture were unwarranted and changes were in hand. The mayor made clear Dick was “on notice” – and had to do more.
By Friday she had sent Khan a letter, but the mayor’s team felt there was little or nothing new in it.
Discussions between City Hall and Home Office officials were underway, with central government aware the mayor was thinking actively of declaring he had lost confidence in the commissioner.
On Wednesday, Khan took to the media. Speaking to the BBC’s Today programme, his tone had changed. In the interview Khan said the commissioner needed a convincing plan by their next meeting. He didn’t say the showdown would be the next day.
The following morning, Dick appeared on a phone-in on BBC Radio London, apparently determined to carry on.
She insisted she had transformed the Met, accepted there were problems but said she knew how to fix them, and insisted she had led the force “very well”.
For those in Khan’s team, the interview was hemlock. The end came within hours.
Khan was scheduled to meet Dick at his temporary offices in Southwark, south London at 4.30pm. Khan’s aides contacted the commissioner’s staff. They made clear that Dick’s revised plans for the Met were inadequate.
This was relayed to Dick, notorious in the past among colleagues for indecision. Not this time. She told City Hall she would not attend the meeting, and called the home secretary to say she felt she had no option but to quit.