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 634.

    I see the government want to allow overseas officers to run the Police. In that case maybe we should get overseas MPs to run the government, because this and last lot have created a huge mess.

  • rate this

    Comment number 633.

    Just chatting with a retired senior cop & his take was; "As it's obviously the era of dumb ideas I'm expecting someone high up suggesting Bob Diamond for Prime Minister next because it's about as credible & sensible an idea as this one"...I'll smile all day now I think!....

  • rate this

    Comment number 632.

    @613 Policing is not unique. It is about relating to people and working within operational, legal and competency based frameworks - all aspects common to a multitude of occupations and professions. I don't challenge the value of operational experience which can be invaluable but I do challenge the thinking which says this is the only way when many other examples show that clearly it isn't

  • rate this

    Comment number 631.

    Oh please.

    In ANY security force, it is vital to know ground conditions & also changing ground conditions, if you receive information that is 2nd/3rd/4th or 10th hand then there is so much room for mistakes/discrepancys & others views/take on reality, so decisions made at top can be non qualified

    ANY decent management will seek experience where it is MOST vital. For police, its on the STREET

  • rate this

    Comment number 630.

    No problem understanding that you can get graduates to get into the higher ranks soon BUT you dont buy experience on a shelf at Tesco or... Maybe a shorter period spent on the beat, say 1 year, will help. In the end you are going to have people wanting to become the chief of Police and others who will do the leg work on the beat for life. Not everyone will get promoted fast some will take longer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 629.

    616 - sacking military officers is long overdue. We increased numbers of general and above by 35% in the early 1990's same for all services and senior civil servants at the same time. We have nearly 2 admirals per ship in the navy. The cull is LONG overdue

  • rate this

    Comment number 628.

    Furthermore could you see a seasoned sergeant in the police taking a blind bit of notice of an inspector who was still shaking out the creases from his graduation gown and had never chased down a criminal on foot or faced a handbag wielding drunk?
    I think not.

  • rate this

    Comment number 627.

    @433 - That one made me chuckle. Either you are a Sandhurst Graduate or have never been in the Armed forces. You do realise that 70% of what they are taught is etiquette? The Police will suffer the same as file and rank in the Army. No respect for the officers from Sandhurst. Lots of respect for an officer who has come through the ranks.

  • rate this

    Comment number 626.

    "But would you not prefer a Computer Science expert as head of the cyber crime unit?"
    No I wouldn't - I wouldn't want someone who knows how to build a computer, I'd want someone who knows, instinctively because of years of experience, how a criminal thinks, how the criminal prosecution systems work and how to get the best out of his or her staff.

  • rate this

    Comment number 625.

    How degrading for the current Police Officers, firstly to have the starting salary cut, now being told that they will never make it to the top as they will bring in someone who is currently not even an officer. Where will the respect for that person come from if this was to occur - as I can't imagine the long serving officers will be overflowing with it!

  • rate this

    Comment number 624.

    Just teaching them not to leave dogs in cars on hot days would be something, how academic do you need to be to see that?

  • rate this

    Comment number 623.

    Police/Military/Prison/Nhs are all specialist services,each requires a dedicated person with certain skills to do a good job.Experience counts as it enables you to base important decisions or actions on what you have already learned.
    I couldn't transfer my skills from Prisons/Military and automatically be a good copper, I would have to learn the ropes.
    let alone go straight to senior management!

  • rate this

    Comment number 622.

    "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."...Wait, so the police will be just like the politicians and civil servants of this country! God save us all!

  • rate this

    Comment number 621.

    After volunteering as a Special Constable for nearly 2 years, such proposals would definitely benefit people like me, but it is utter madness to propose doing away with probation and offering senior police officer positions to businessmen. - It is a unique profession and the preparation one receives on the street is an absolutely essential pre-requisite.

  • rate this

    Comment number 620.

    This is the ruinous "messiah" myth that permeates modern organisations:

    Someone in charge wants change, to show how in charge they are. They won'tt trust the advice of the people they want to change so they bring in an outsider to say what to do. The outsider comes in, makes noisy changes, gets a bonus and moves on leaving a worse situation than before.
    Long term strategies are ignored.

  • rate this

    Comment number 619.

    590 -"...I'm talking about giving better career prog opps for excellent candidates. ...the best (grad or not) should be spotted & put in fast track."

    This is a little contradictory. I agree the best candidate should get the job, always. If the 'best' is not a grad, how does this offer better ops? If a candidate is 'excellent' he/she should be confident that their progress would be faster.

  • rate this

    Comment number 618.

    After a civilian police job, I know that good beat officers don't make good senior managers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 617.

    This strikes me as yet another Tory idea for how to antagonise the unions. The policy of requiring "beat" experience is obviously in-place so that those at the bottom ranks feel they're being led by someone who understands their day-to-day issues. This isn't the sort of thing the current government value highly.

  • rate this

    Comment number 616.

    Hmm...Is it merely a coincidence that these changes are being proposed just a week after it was announced that up to 50 brigadiers and other senior officers are to be axed in the biggest round of army redundancies since the early 1990s ?!

  • rate this

    Comment number 615.

    Reading the comments it amazes me that people think policing can be compared to running a supermarket. The discussion hasn't mentioned that police services currently run an accelerated promotion scheme. A degree educated person can join as a constable and be fast tracked through the promotion system AS long as they show they are competent. It works, why change?


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