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 534.

    In the 1930's Lord Trenchard then Commissioner of the Met proposed Introducing a fast tack entry scheme for Graduates parachuting them in at Inspector or above rank.

    In 1935 the Scheme was abandoned as unworkable ,divisive and ill conceived as it would result in senior officers with no operational experience.

    This government has learned nothing from history.
    Bunch of incompetent posh boys

  • rate this

    Comment number 533.

    I had the same experience in the 90s, 2 graduates ended up the costing the (german) bank a 6 figure sum due to a lack of common sense and knowledge of the department. There grad programme changed massively after that and fast tracking was reduced to slightly quicker than average tracking!

  • rate this

    Comment number 532.

    @528 "UK Society has been infiltrated with the most important jobs by unqualified, inexperienced people"

    The problem is western culture, where loud extroverted people, those full of talk and no brains, are considered to be better and more capable than everyone else. Basically a country entirely run by slimey used car salemen....

  • rate this

    Comment number 531.

    Mr McDonald as your cookery teacher, Mr Barclays as your economics lecturer. Mr Simon Cowell in charge of the arts and music dept.

    Janet Street Porter in charge of sex education.

    What a shower.

  • rate this

    Comment number 530.

    In the 1970s, the bank for which I worked tried much the same experiment, putting university graduates with no practical grounding on a fast-track to promotion. It didn't work. It was a disaster, as the bank rapidly found that they had no synergy with anyone practiced in the profession. Thankfully, the vast majority of them went elsewhere, but banks never learned from the mistake.

  • rate this

    Comment number 529.

    @505. Matt - hey, you sounded a little arrogant & like you thought your degree entitled you to 'higher levels of management' – that’s not my fault.

    I think your original post was an indication of the type of 'detachment' this policy could cause between rank & file officers (& the public) & 'fast tracked' senior management. Before you answer ask yourself 'more talented' than who?

  • rate this

    Comment number 528.

    UK Society has been infiltrated with the most important jobs by unqualified, inexperienced people calling themselves "Politicians" and Business Leaders.


    The UK was a dreadful place under the Anti-British Labour Party but that trend continues under Tory/Lib Dem.

  • rate this

    Comment number 527.

    The two years on the beat is probably the only time when an officer can prove that she or he has the "bottle" to become a senior commander. Without that street cred they are doomed to a future where they will be viewed with suspicion and mistrust by those who have been at the sharp end.

  • rate this

    Comment number 526.

    For the REAL news on the privatisations on a massive scale including the Police reforms etc and A4e go to Twitter!

  • rate this

    Comment number 525.

    There are comments here about gaining uni degrees and fast tracking, but what I have seen of many uni. students wouldnt give me any confidence in their ability to deal with public requirements from the police, and as for fast tracking, it doesnt go down well with officers with 20yrs service whos been there ,done it and got the T shirt then pushed aside so that a youngster with a degree can get on.

  • rate this

    Comment number 524.

    Police numbers in England & Wales

    Inspectors 6,590
    Sergeants 21,371
    Constables 10,2934

    Maybe BBC graduate management could get its info right, 102, 934 constables.

    Is this the same standards we can expect, just a little slip up on figures, oops, human error, still whats 90,000 discrepancy among friends & politicians

  • rate this

    Comment number 523.

    Any large organisation requires a wide range of different skills. The overall head should not be restricted to one branch only. The protest, essentially from a trade union, at a very reasonable suggestion is entirely about protecting the hugely generous pay and conditions in the police service. (They will be complaining about being unable to retire with a full pension before they are 50 next!!)

  • rate this

    Comment number 522.

    Absolutely no problem with Graduates joining the Police Service I joined as one , 30 Years Ago.

    My motivation for joining wasn't that I would have a cushy fast track root to the top, or that I would earn loads of money , I could have been a barrister, it was because I wanted to be an operational police officer because I thought it worthwhile.

    This must remain the reason for joining.

  • rate this

    Comment number 521.

    Let us make no mistake, this is NOT about improving policing this is simply about saving money regardless of the risk to society or the individual!

  • rate this

    Comment number 520.

    @500 "having a degree does not automatically make anyone a good manager"

    8 in 10 are trendy socialites talking their way to the top, then seeing all below them as lesser citizens for working their entire life rather than spending 6 years in the pub, doing a degree in their spare (non-drinking) time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 519.

    Here's a crazy idea - why not promote officers who are ALREADY in the force and have the relevant experience?!
    I agree with the principle but being good at nicking villains doesn't make you good at resource planning or budgeting. However, they should have had the experience of nicking villains before they start their desk job.

  • rate this

    Comment number 518.

    So long as the route from the beat is still open then this is a good move. Wouldn't it be helpful for the senior police officer in charge of armed response teams to have a military background for example. Or the computer fraud team to have come from industry. There are lots of specialist senior police who dont need to have come from the beat.

  • rate this

    Comment number 517.

    Nationalise them, do away with the county forces, do away with the militant Police Federation, streamline the management, training, procurement and logistics. You don't need to have walked the beat to be a good manager, in fact it seems that these days a pre-requisite for you to do well in the police is that you should be corrupt.

  • rate this

    Comment number 516.

    This creates a two tier police service which is strategically flawed. We need better selection for senior command, this is not it. Police need the cooperation of the public to achieve their objectives. I would refer the government to Sir Robert Peel and Sir Richard Mayne 9 principles of policing when the Police are the Public and the public the police. Or was that just for public consumption.

  • rate this

    Comment number 515.

    Gov Employee: We have a problem.

    Senior police officer: Don't worry, that particular MP has been released without charge, the arrest record expunged and the complainant threatened.

    GE: Thank you for saving us the embarrassment.

    SPO: No problem, that's what you installed me for after all. See you at the club on Wednesday?

    GE: Will do old chap! Thanks again!


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