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 654.

    What a clueless idea! I suppose that comes from having clueless MP's or a clueless PM !

  • rate this

    Comment number 653.

    Here I am a serving officer sat at home in a fair amount of pain following a fairly serious injury on duty last and..... Low and behold another week passes and the Police are getting yet another kicking.

    For what is supposedly the highest regarding service in the world, the Government and Mr Winsor seem to think it is broken beyond repair... And before the slating...I haven't had a day sick.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 652.

    With how politically correct this country is with taking people who are just not fit to be a police officer I do not think it is required at all. Today for example I saw two police officers, one short fat dumpy girl who I doubt could run and one lanky guy that a breeze would probably carrey away; not quite suitable for the job yet they are let in anyway so why would seniors need this experience?

  • rate this

    Comment number 651.

    The reason we have such high crime rates in the UK are simple, The Courts and legal system are a elitist joke.
    By the time a small time crook comes to us in HMP, he will have racked up lots of offences all dealt with by community orders etc.
    The Police resources wasted continually arresting and going to court is astounding.
    Fix what is broken Dave, not destroy what you don't like.

  • rate this

    Comment number 650.

    beat then seat. simples. :)

  • rate this

    Comment number 649.


    Skills way beyon a bobbie? I happen to know a number of bobbies who have previously worked in the IT or "cyber" arena, but do not succeed as cybercrime investigators as they dont have the intuitive investigative skills required.
    The role of the bobbie is to establish a skill set, develop it, and put it to best use. That may be traffic, investigation, and for the exceptional, promotion!

  • rate this

    Comment number 648.

    Could we not fast track Angela Merkel to PM.At least we would have someone with backbone.

  • rate this

    Comment number 647.

    This Country is going MAD. Every day brings more and more stupid ideas that seem to be mooted in order to create tension and disharmony throughout society.
    For God's sake even the idiot north of the border is becoming quite appealing .

  • rate this

    Comment number 646.

    Define "exceptional individuals".
    All too often WE have been prescribed "exceptional individuals" to important office, only to find them appointed by virtue of cronyism, nepotism or they have just been sacked from doing a "great job" somewhere else.
    and on another matter:-
    w.r.t. "terms and conditions" - No big payoffs for failure or quitting.

  • rate this

    Comment number 645.

    Bernard Hogan-Howe or Richard Branson ?

    - I know who I would rather have running the Met. How more civilized it would become.

    The Rottweilers have had their day. Time for Officer class Cops.

  • rate this

    Comment number 644.

    No police officer should be permitted to skip the task of actually policing. Period. It is vital to understanding the realities of the task they want to oversee.

  • rate this

    Comment number 643.

    I am stunned that the government wants to hand out top police jobs to foreigners; there are plenty of suitable candidates in the UK without having to look overseas. The government should be backing people from its own country.

    Perhaps we should replace our politicians and journalists with foreign counterparts as ours are clueless.

  • rate this

    Comment number 642.

    Leave Policing to the Police - they know what they're doing, it's taken generations to create a Service that's envied around the world. You wouldn't want a Copper running the Air Force or Tesco's would you??

    Before they're done this government will have created a Police Service that any third world country would be proud of........

  • rate this

    Comment number 641.

    High time to broaden the ranks, says Old Honest, but think it through: US policemen may speak English but do they talk our language? Zero tolerance, boys toys and overwhelming force are too often a cop-out from intelligent policing. So look to our continental cousins with societies much more like ours - and lower crime rates to boot.

  • rate this

    Comment number 640.

    OK, Tom Winser's proposals are a step in the right direction for sure, but I am sorry, I absolutely refuse to take any job until the appropriate bonus has been offered. I don't come cheap, you know!

  • rate this

    Comment number 639.

    It may surprise you that many Police Officers who are 'on the beat' are graduates already. Many have some incredible qualifications. One colleague even had a PHD. Good Policing is being side-lined for balance sheet management. Police Officers are being stereotyped by ministers as ignorant uniform characters.

  • rate this

    Comment number 638.

    Looking at these figures for existing members of the force it seems there are already far too many chiefs -approx' 3 officers to each constable- and too few Indians: no wonder we never see constables on the beat now a days.

  • rate this

    Comment number 637.

    We need police officers who know how normal people function, not just management clones.

  • rate this

    Comment number 636.

    So some nice Tory boys living in tax exile can be helicoptered in to take over our Gestapo?
    Sounds like a normal plan for this regime.

  • rate this

    Comment number 635.

    As with everything else this "Goverment" know better than dedicated people with decades of experience.

    What this is really all about is putting their place men into positions of authority who will do their will & have no loyalty to the traditional values of policing.

    Same as putting private healthcare companies in charge of the NHS, where profit will reign supreme over values of care.


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