What do bobbies learn on the beat?

Cut-out of a police officer outside a pound shop

Every police chief in Britain started out as a humble beat officer. Why are proposals to scrap that tradition in England and Wales causing such anger?

For those unfamiliar with the culture and traditions of British policing, and the almost mythic status of the "bobby on the beat," it sounds like a very modest reform.

Her Majesty's Inspector of Constabulary Tom Winsor believes the only way to make policing a more attractive career to students at top universities is to recruit about 80 "direct entry" graduates a year into the rank of inspector.

In the shorter term, he wants to poach "exceptional individuals" from "the military, the security services, industry, commerce and the professions" and train them to become superintendents, a higher rank than inspector, within 15 months. It typically takes a newly recruited constable up to 25 years to reach that level.

He also wants chief officers from overseas to be eligible for equivalent roles in England and Wales.

The move could see officers becoming chief constables in their 30s, instead of in their 40s. Police Minister Damian Green has launched a consultation on the proposals, which will run until March, with an announcement on possible legislation to follow in the summer.

But for police union leaders - already at war with the government over cuts to pay, pensions and staff and elected crime commissioners - this apparently innocuous plan, details of which were confirmed on Wednesday, strikes at the very core of what it means to be a police officer in England and Wales.

Previously in the Magazine

Sir Stuart Rose is big on life experience. The former Marks and Spencer chairman started out selling pyjamas at the retail giant.

"People today try and go down a conventional route. More importantly, and more erroneously, they try and plan their careers to the nth degree," he says.

He is also concerned about the apparent collapse in social mobility. Young people have a "greater sense of entitlement" now and are less willing to make sacrifices, or move around the country, to further their career.

"Do you have to have been a shelf-stacker to be the chairman of Marks and Spencer? Absolutely not," says Police Federation vice-chairman Steve White.

"But the police service is unique. It is a unique set of skills. We feel very strongly that you have to have that grounding."

Breaking up fights in city centres on a Saturday night, turning up alone to violent "domestics", delivering the bad news to relatives of murder victims - these kind of experiences shape a young officer's character and ability to lead, he argues.

"Sometimes you have got to be able to make decisions instantly. It is not like working in a bank, where you can sit and ponder stuff.

"Police officers have a sixth sense which is built up over time. It is like the X Factor."

Without that X Factor, you risk turning officers into out-of-touch, over-educated technocrats that no longer have anything in common with the people they are policing, he claims.

Police officer at football match

"If we are not careful we are going to end up with a paramilitary-style organisation - the only time you will see the police is when they are arresting you or dealing with a riot."

Several police forces, including Britain's largest, the Metropolitan Police, already have graduate recruitment schemes. They all insist that recruits spend time on the beat.

But Tom Winsor wants to dispense with that stage for graduates from top universities to make a police career a more attractive alternative to the City or the professions.

As Winsor himself points out, in a 1,000-page report published last year, this goes against one of the founding principles of policing in Britain.

PDF download Independent Review of Police Officer and Staff Remuneration and Conditions, March 2012[1.31MB]

When the Metropolitan Police was created in 1829, it had to reassure the public it was not a standing army - and so sought to recruit men from the labouring classes rather than the middle and upper tiers of society.

Early days of the beat patrol system

Officers patrolling Brick Lane, east London,  in 1978
  • Brainchild of Colonel (Sir) Charles Rowan, one of the Met Police's first commissioners
  • He had seen small patrols criss-crossing territory during the Peninsular War (1808-14)
  • Rowan's instruction book said a constable "should be able to see every part of his beat at least once in 10 minutes or a quarter of an hour; and this he will be expected to do"
  • Constables worked 12-hour shifts - half on their beat, half in the station
  • London's first beat patrol was on evening of Friday 25 September 1829
  • Practice then spread around the country

The Met's founders wanted to create a democratic body that was "in tune with the people" and so deliberately avoided the two-tier system of recruitment that existed in the army.

Instead, they recruited men who were literate but "who had not the rank, habits or station of gentlemen".

The spiritual heirs of these early recruits could be seen last year sporting "PC Pleb and proud" T-shirts as they protested against the alleged class-based slurs of government chief whip - and former army officer - Andrew Mitchell. Mitchell strenuously denies using the word "pleb".

Winsor, a former rail regulator, argues that far from keeping the police in touch with the public they serve, this deeply ingrained "blue collar" attitude is out-of-step with the modern world and is holding police officers back.

In an era of cybercrime and complex fraud, a higher calibre of recruit is needed, he argues in his report.

"Policing today is entirely different, and yet so much of its ethos is of the past. The attitudes of some police officers today remain fastened in that mindset."

He wants to raise the pass mark on the police entrance exam, introduce annual testing and a requirement that all new recruits have three A-levels.

"For too long, the police service has recruited the great majority of its officers from too narrow a stratum of society, and formal intellectual attainment has played too little a part in recruitment," he says.

Winsor, who declined to be interviewed for this piece, has faced a fierce backlash from the Police Federation over the fact that he is the first HM Inspector of Constabulary not to have been a serving police officer.

"He hasn't spent a single day in uniform anywhere. We think from a respect perspective that puts him at a major disadvantage," says Steve White.

Two beat officers rest in deckchairs, 1976 Taking a load off while on beat patrol in the heatwave of 1976

Any officer brought in at the rank of inspector, without serving their time as a bobby, would face similar hostility from some officers, according to a 53-year-old former constable from Merseyside, who did not want to be named.

"There would be some resentment," he says, adding that he has seen many "buffoons" promoted just because they are "good at exams". He suggests that officers with academic qualifications can sometimes "rub members of the public up the wrong way".

Other rank-and-file officers say they would have no problem working for business executives with no policing experience, as there is a need for better quality management.

"Somebody who works for Asda or Tesco has probably got about three or four thousand people working under them, which is about the same as a chief superintendent. I don't see the difference," says a 39-year-old constable, who works in a large city on the south coast of England.

He admits he would not have got into the police today, as he does not have A-Levels, and says his graduate colleagues find the multiple choice sergeant's exam "laughably easy".

Police Minister Damian Green will unveil plans to "open up the police to a wider pool of talent" at the same time as nurturing internal talent through the College of Policing.

Police officer on night patrol

If Winsor's proposals are accepted in full, it will no doubt spark a furious backlash from the Police Federation, already fuming about the decision to cut the starting salary for officers in England and Wales, who have come straight from school.

There is a suspicion among some rank-and-file officers that Winsor wants to use these reforms to make it easier push through other, even more controversial, changes.

"Breaking down resistance to change in an organisation with a strong internal culture often requires an injection of influence from outsiders. Looking at our current senior police leadership, I sympathise hugely with Winsor's desire to replace them as soon as possible," says Inspector Gadget, a serving police officer who writes an anonymous blog.

"The only thing which worries me is would senior people from elsewhere be any better?"

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  • rate this

    Comment number 554.

    'Basically a country entirely run by slimey used car salemen....'

    ..and estate agents ;-)

    ..and Goldman Sachs..

  • rate this

    Comment number 553.

    Agree with #34.

    Not all senior Army colonels and generals come from the infantry - not all of them have served 'on the front line', some come from Engineers, Signals or Intelligence backgrounds.

    The modern police service contains many branches not directly connected to 'walking the beat'. Like Forensics or Intelligence, or Specialist and Economic crime. Why shouldn't they recruit externally?

  • rate this

    Comment number 552.

    Green and Winson have limited time in their roles so feel the need to make changes for changes sake they both come from back grounds which have no knowledge of how Policing works but to make a name for themselves they have come up with these crack pot ideas. Higher qualifications does not mean better police officers. Better police training not the cost saving Fda in police studies would be a start

  • rate this

    Comment number 551.

    Pay and conditions attacked. Pensions attacked. All by a tory puppet professing to be independent. The man is a fool and should stick to the destruction of private organisations. Within 2 years he has destroyed the office of constable and made it so only desperate people will want to join. Ridiculous. It'll take generations to repair. Good luck to the public. They'll need it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 550.

    Remind me - how many CCs, DCs and ACs of various forces are presently suspended for criminal and/or disciplinary offences ?

    -The answer is none if they had been convicted of any of these they would have been dismissed.

    There is currently 1 Chief Constable suspended over an allegation of Misconduct.

    Sorry didn't that fit in with your Tory Spin central line?

  • rate this

    Comment number 549.

    The difference between the proposed Police and the Army model is the rank structure. Between the lowest Army Officer (decision) and the Private (delivery) are 6 other ranks to 'filter' decisions. In the Police there would be 1. Front line posts such as Inspector are no place for novices learning the role with absolutely no Police experience.

  • rate this

    Comment number 548.

    As much as this sounds counter-intuitive to bring in graduates or managers as coppers, the police solely recruiting bobbies and expecting them to be able to manage staff and large departments is an outdated concept, much crime is now specialised (like cybercrime) and requires skills way beyond a bobbie

    That said, of course I should expect a large proportion to still learn traditional policing

  • rate this

    Comment number 547.

    Ultimately the role of Chief Officer of UK constabulary is involved in determing budgets, setting strategy and overseeing implementation, whilst accepting ultimate responsibility for all outcomes. This is the same as senior management and board level roles in any organisation amd certainly not unique

  • rate this

    Comment number 546.

    Fast tracking people into top jobs based entirely on academic qualifications is dangerous! Several formerly successful factories & other business did exactly that where I live then went bankrupt & closed, the cause was identified as 'bad management' by inexperienced staff who had qualifications coming out of their ears! Having a qualification does not always mean you can actually do the job!

  • rate this

    Comment number 545.

    Sack Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs)

  • rate this

    Comment number 544.

    Typical government wriggling:

    Senior Officers won't implement the cuts we want so we'll hire people (or threaten to hire people) who will!

  • rate this

    Comment number 543.

    Think how you'd get a better class of person running the police forces, who would understand MP's (at least of one party) better

  • rate this

    Comment number 542.

    I would be entirely happy for fast track graduates to do all the paperwork that is keeping beat officers/geriatric nurses/teachers from hands-on work with us, the public. The police service isn't a business. , I can foresee a time when officers who are sent to a domestic violence incident will say"I'm too highly trained to get my hands dirty". as graduate nurses who refuse to help with toileting.

  • rate this

    Comment number 541.

    Under the 'anyone can do anything' regime, these proposals are just plain stupid. This is just window dressing by the Tories to usurp the police service just as they are doing with education and the NHS. They just can't leave anything alone can they? But if you are prepared to be governed by Old Etonians, the electorate reap what they sow. Stupid idea, daft and completely out of touch.

  • rate this

    Comment number 540.

    A great idea. Get some people in who are not polluted with political correctness and institutionalised desire to hide behind bus shelters with a radar gun rather than arresting criminals. Maybe they could also do away with police speak and convince their sub plebs it does not make you sound authoritative it makes you sound thick.

    Police Federation furious, good!

  • rate this

    Comment number 539.

    This decision is a clear example of why our Politicians need to be licenced in the same way doctors.

    They are a clear and present danger to our society making bad judgements like this one with our Police Force but arm themselves with expensive PR training to become slimier than eels.

    The UK public is suffering horrendously under unqualified career Politicians.VOTE AWAY FROM THEM NOW!

  • rate this

    Comment number 538.

    Perhaps the recent riots are indicative of the current situation.
    The rank and file police would probably have been up for sorting the rioters out and restoring order.
    The higher echelons in the police and the politicians dithered over the book, rules and the cost, so our streets burned and people died.
    Proposed changes will increase the instances of this happening.

  • rate this

    Comment number 537.

    Do we know the truth behind the Police reforms when the media continue to present total lies to the public like this real WHOPPA

  • Comment number 536.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 535.

    Remind me - how many CCs, DCs and ACs of various forces are presently suspended for criminal and/or disciplinary offences ? How many beat PCs does the average citizen see on the streets these days ? It's high time we saw some root and branch revisions in our policing. The 'good old days' beloved by the Federation are long gone and will not return.


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