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London's police chief quits in showdown with mayor

By Jennifer Quinn
The Associated Press

LONDON — London's police chief had weathered controversy over terrorist attacks and the shooting death of an innocent man, but he quit Thursday, done in by a showdown with the city's new mayor.

Sir Ian Blair's announcement came as a surprise. It is unusual for the force's top officer to resign early - his contract ran through 2010 - and even more rare to openly air political disagreements.

Blair made a point of telling reporters that he was being forced out by Mayor Boris Johnson rather than any criticism of his dramatic time at the Metropolitan Police.

"The new mayor made clear, in a very pleasant but determined way, that he wished there to be a change of leadership at the Met," Blair said. "Without the mayor's backing, I do not consider that I can continue in the job."

The mayor praised Blair but said he had "done the right thing" by stepping aside.

"There comes a time in any organization where it becomes clear that it would benefit from new leadership and a new sense of purpose," Johnson said in a statement. "I believe that time is now."

Since Johnson's election in May, there were suggestions that relations between the new mayor and the police chief were frosty. Johnson's Conservative Party considered Blair, who was appointed to the Met's top job in 2005, as too close to the governing Labour Party.

Conservatives on the city council and in Parliament backed Johnson, saying the controversies ensnaring Blair had hurt the ability of his officers to do their jobs.

"We're now relieved that with his going the Metropolitan Police can face the future free of the distractions that have surrounded Sir Ian," city council member Roger Evans said in a statement.

But Jenny Jones, a Green Party member of the city council and former deputy mayor, said Blair had been hounded out unfairly. She said his achievements, including a commitment to put constables on the beat in London's neighborhoods, were being ignored.

"I think that it's a big error to force out a senior police officer in this way, and that it will be a big source of regret," Jones said.

Dominic Grieve, the Conservative Party's spokesman on police issues, said Blair's leadership failed in the death of Jean Charles de Menezes, a Brazilian who was shot to death by anti-terrorism police when he was mistaken for a suicide bomber after the July 2005 bomb attack on London commuters.

Blair eventually apologized for the killing. He came under criticism for wrongly telling journalists on the day of the shooting that de Menezes failed to obey his officers' instructions. It turned out that officers rushed in and shot de Menezes as he sat in a subway car.

It was alleged Blair intentionally misled the public over the shooting, though an investigation absolved him of any blame. He has said the finding proved that "despite much speculation to the contrary, I did not lie to the public."

No officers were charged in the case, but the police force itself was convicted of breaching health and safety regulations in de Menezes' death and was fined. A coroner's inquest is examining the events that led to the shooting, but no ruling is expected before December.

More recently, Blair's handling of a dispute with an assistant police chief has been criticized. Assistant Commissioner Tarique Ghaffur, the most senior South Asian officer in the London police, is now suing the force charging he suffered religious and racial discrimination.

The tipping point may have come Thursday, when the Daily Mail newspaper said Blair used public money to pay a close friend to "sharpen his image," just before he took over as chief in 2005. Auditors are examining contracts given to a consulting firm run by Blair's friend.

The chief didn't comment on the report.

Blair, who joined the London police as a constable in 1974 and later worked as a detective before working for the national government and other forces, will remain in the job until Dec. 1 to allow a successor to be found.

Copyright Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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