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 574.

    Shame Thomas the Tank Engine wasn't available, probably would have got a lot more sense.

  • rate this

    Comment number 573.

    The idea that any manager can manage anything is banal and short sighted and is used by those at the top seeking to force through changes. Why bring in US managers who are used to policing in a country controlled by the gun? UK policing is by consent of the public. Judging by comments on this blog, that consent may be quickly withdrawn. This Government is a fiasco. Alan Sugar for PM!

  • rate this

    Comment number 572.

    I''m in my 40s. I've been a special constable for over seven years, so I know what it's like on the streets. I have two degrees and am a qualified professional. I would not consider myself qualified to work as a senior officer even now with all my police, life and academic experience. Neither, frankly, would I want to. Any senior officer needs plenty of street experience before they get promoted.

  • rate this

    Comment number 571.

    I have looked at the comments and you all seem to be missing the real reason behind these changes? This has all come about because there are not enough minorities in Senior Positions within the Police Force, this new process is to be used as a way to fast track them into more Senior and higher paying positions without them having to follow the current process of becoming a Constable...Equality??

  • rate this

    Comment number 570.

    The fire service tried this about 8 years ago. Senior fire officers will publicly say it was a success, but not be able to explain why they have disappeared into oblivion. (They simply didn't know enough about the firefighting sector to be able to run the show. Surprise again! So why not forget all that and move on to try to ruin the police service in the same way? Well done Tom.

  • rate this

    Comment number 569.

    When will they realise that policing is not a business. Business gets to choose what they deal with and disregard the inefficient and unprofitable. We don't get a choice, we deal with whatever comes in on that phone. Last night I had to deploy 5 officers, a dog and a helicopter to look for an 94yr old missing from his home in woodland. That will never appear on crime stats but still has to be done

  • rate this

    Comment number 568.

    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. But quality and commonsense will ALWAYS come from experience. You cannot profess to know about any subject unless you have worked in that arena.

  • rate this

    Comment number 567.

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

    At times it is difficult for insiders to take tough decisions that are needed to achieve the goals of an organisation and outsiders often bring insights and questions that overcome these difficulties. The trick is getting the timing and balance right.

  • rate this

    Comment number 566.

    Police Federation vice-chairman Steve White, quote: "If we are not careful we are going to end up with the only time you will see the police is when they are arresting you or dealing with a riot."

    Ha! That's the situation we have right now! A good example of another 'brass hat' who is completely out-of-touch!

  • rate this

    Comment number 565.

    Policing is about knowing about your community and for that you have to be part of that community.I don't think people people in this country would take kindly to "bought in" expertise and for those that think military experience gives you an advantage there's a world of difierence between the Taliban and a some one out of his tree on drugs with a weapon.

  • rate this

    Comment number 564.

    Andy Street the MD of John Lewis the UK most successful High Street Business owned by it's workforce and which rewards on merit not old boy connections has worked for the business for 30+Years at all levels .

    However, apparently to be a successful Senior Police Officer according to the government 12 months classroom training and 0 Years experience are fine.

    I despair of them!

  • rate this

    Comment number 563.

    "Bobbies on the beat"

    What, are we back in the sixties?

  • rate this

    Comment number 562.

    The Conservative dominated government want 'yes' men who will implement their changes to society. The favoured few at the top will become rich - as those in place when every public service so far was privatised have found. Hard luck on the rest of us.

  • rate this

    Comment number 561.

    I feel another "Pleb-Gate" coming on.......

  • rate this

    Comment number 560.

    Too many loafers not enough gophers.

    We need more people further down the ladder actually doing things rather than the top talking about doing things.

  • rate this

    Comment number 559.

    We are talking about senior management roles here. Management is a skill in its own right. You don't need to be a pilot to run an airport or a doctor to manage a hospital or even, dare I say, a teacher to run a large comprehensive. Good policemen don't necessarily make good managers any more than good teachers, pilots or doctors.

  • rate this

    Comment number 558.

    You don't need to have walked the beat to be a good manager.
    I disagree, the best managers I have ever worked with have been there and done it. Management skills are a top up not a be all and end all. People with management skills and no others are generally a waste of space who hinder people doing their jobs because they don't understand what is to be achieved and why.

  • rate this

    Comment number 557.

    How long before you see Police officers with Nike or McDonald's logos adorned on their uniforms. If we allow Law and order to be outsourced we will end up seeing more corruption, poorer standards and rising crime. Cameron really has not learnt a thing from the Low turn outs in the Elect a commissionaire election.

  • rate this

    Comment number 556.


    Damn word limits ;)

  • rate this

    Comment number 555.

    @529. Peter Nunn.

    The reality is, most employers recognise the qualities demonstrated by gaining a good degree from a good uni (it's annoying that people here clearly think degrees are handed out to posh people), and then offer graduate schemes to attract these candidates with good potential. Most police forces don't do this, so miss out on excellent candidates, who understandably look elsewhere.


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