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 594.

    "What do bobbies learn on the beat ?"

    1) How to give directions
    2) How to stand around looking self important
    3) Which underwear is warmest in the winter
    4) How to harrass ethnic minorities
    5) How to talk down to people

    I think that's about it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 593.

    The commant I hear from my police friends and from reading blogs etc is that the senior officers are already too remote from the front line officers & that they make dubious decisions because of this. I can't see how bringing in outsiders with no police experience will help this. Lose the statistical targets and let the police police - that would make the biggest difference.

  • rate this

    Comment number 592.

    Since privatisation, many of our old public utilities have been taken over by foreign firms that show little social responsibility towards people in the UK because they have no tangible connection with the UK. It's a form of outsourcing. The govt. is also concerned at the extent to which serious decisions have been taken out of the UK's hands. Foreign top policemen accelerates this outsourcing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 591.

    I can see careers for academics leading the Police Forces. An upper second in one of the recently advertised degrees on Extreme Right Wing Movements, should fit the bill.

  • rate this

    Comment number 590.


    I never said anything about not being interviewed, or parachuting (if you read my 1st post). I'm talking about giving better career progression opportunities for excellent candidates. At interview, the best (grad or not) should be spotted and put in fast track. It's about attracting talent.

    and lol, sorry, that's the chip I have on my shoulder from being a state-schooled Cambridge student.

  • rate this

    Comment number 589.

    Another wonderfully thought out policy from the people that brought you 'no top down reorganization of the NHS', 'Read my lips, no rise in university tuition fees', 'the greenest government ever', 'no regulation for the print media', and your favorite 'another 10 years of austerity'.

    Had enough yet?

  • rate this

    Comment number 588.

    Whatever the arguments for or against these proposals, given the multitude of other more pressing issues facing the Government, why is this being proposed now?
    Has there been any great public clamour to change police recruitment?

    I can't help thinking that there is some other agenda at work here. A Government that is pathologically anti-public sector?

  • rate this

    Comment number 587.

    Isn't this already current policy? I'm pretty certain one of the our graduate recruits changed careers and joined the police force at a high-ish rank. (A good degree and no common sense!)

    I woukd have though recruiting people with proven man-management skills wouild be a better option.

  • rate this

    Comment number 586.

    "Most of the police officers I've come across really aren't that bright ... .. More needs to be done to attract high-calibre people to a career in the police."

    I think the cleverer, high calilbre types are happy enough plotting their own wealth in the spheres of crime and borderline crime (banking etc)

  • rate this

    Comment number 585.

    I notice the academics and wannabe Politicians marking my last comment down.

    They are of the arrogant and mis-guided beleif that because they read texts books, they know how the world works and are better qualified to run it over those who actually have years of experience living and breathing it - They don't and foul-up each and everytime.

  • rate this

    Comment number 584.

    The Police Fed vice-chairman Steve White says you dont need to stack shelves to be the chairman of Marks and Spencer?"

    If you, Steve White, are an unqualified Politician who has never worked from the grass-roots upwards, you would say that.

    -Inspector Steve White has been a Police Officer since 1988!

    All Police Federation representatives are serving or retired Police officers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 583.

    Theresa May seeks revenge. She and her government want to destroy the cameraderie that "going through the ranks" has achieved. I support any action that the Police service takes in order to stop this deliberately divisive strategy. Stop messing with the country, tories!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 582.

    I know of at least 3 senior officers of broadly the same rank as Colonel in the UK Army, who retired to become London taxi drivers. Others went on to achieve high academic status, or in one case, joined the House of Lords. A crude barometer of Police talent perhaps, but few of these 2nd career appointments suggest true leadership was a high expectation in any former career. Time for change?

  • rate this

    Comment number 581.

    It is patently obvious that this plan is aimed to solve an expected result of the reduction in Police starting pay:-

    Our politicians now assume that fewer people of "talent" will want to join up and "serve their time" on the reduced starting pay, so they are seeking to create a way of bypassing that stage of a Police career.

  • rate this

    Comment number 580.

    If every Senior Police Officer has pounded the beat, eaten in the canteen and shared the night in the van ...
    No wonder we have at best Group Think at worst Institutional Behaviours.

    Bring in outsiders with external knowledge and experience at approriate levels. Break the people like us perpetuation and reinforcement of "The WAy We Do Things"

  • rate this

    Comment number 579.

    Matt, you've mentioned 'posh' twice now, do you have some kind of complex? I don't disagree with you bec you are posh (or not), nor do I dispute that you worked hard for your degree. I disagreed bec parachuting senioir officers in will weaken the Police. Diversity, specialist knowledge & experience are all needed. 'Excellent candidates' should be prepared to prove their worth in fair interviews.

  • rate this

    Comment number 578.

    The decisions needed to change the police/civil service/nhs for the better cannot be made by outsiders.I have a lot of experience of dealing with central government and the overwhelming evidence points to a culture that doesn't want to embrace change from the very top down.What truly needs changing is the amount of paperwork, however outsiders will not have the power to do so.

  • Comment number 577.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 576.

    Fast tracking existed since 80,s.and graduate entry. I retired an acting Superintendent.Had I been promoted I would have stayed .Competition was fierce ,no shortage of able talented indivduals in service for promotion due to steady cuts in senior ranks over the years.This is a format for the Private Sector to take over.The police continue to be impartial what chance with private contracters .

  • rate this

    Comment number 575.

    A newly introduced starting salary of a measly 19k and now the prospect of being given orders in a riot situation by some wet behind the ears graduate with no first hand experience of Policing? This is some sort of sick joke, the Government are a shambles.


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