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?"

You can follow the Magazine on Twitter and on Facebook


More on This Story

In today's Magazine

Related Stories

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 614.

    Are they also planning to fast track warship captains, regimental COs, surgeons, senior civil servants etc?

  • rate this

    Comment number 613.

    The probationary period for a new police constable is two years for a reason. it takes at least that long to learn the very BASICS of the job.That is just the start of the learning. I am an inspector with 18 years service and every managerial or operational decision I make is informed by my first hand experience and knowledge of the demands placed on the colleagues I supervise. Policing is unique.

  • rate this

    Comment number 612.

    I agree with Johno - Specialist roles require specialist skills and yes, tactical response units and cyber crime units require specific experts
    but leaders of the police MUST have the grounding of facing the challenges their officers face every day. book learning is no substitute for experience. who would respect a leader who knows nothing about what it is to do the job of those they lead? not me

  • rate this

    Comment number 611.

    This isn't about policing. The police already have top quality civilian staff who are experts in their field - cyber crime, banking fraud, any field you care to name. Policing is a vocation not just an executive job opportunity.

    Tom Winsor also says much of Police ethos is in the past - presumably he means service, duty, honesty and integrity, something sadly lacking in todays goverment.

  • rate this

    Comment number 610.

    Policing, in its public facing role, requires the acquisition of experience. This is carried through into operational command situations. Non-operational roles don't need someone who holds the office of constable and, as already happens, are often carried out by non-officers. Being Duty Inspector on night duty when it all kicks off will be a lonely place for someone who has had 15 mths training!

  • rate this

    Comment number 609.

    Have Government still not learned the lesson that putting people in management roles who have no grass roots experience is *always* a recipe for disaster. It has ruined the NHS and it will ruin the Police Force.

  • rate this

    Comment number 608.

    We have fast track graduates at our place, there's nothing worse than some young know nothing upstart coming straight out of uni to a management position and thinking that because they have a degree from our substandard education system they can totally overhaul systems and their way is best.
    The only bit I enjoy is knocking them down a peg or two

  • rate this

    Comment number 607.

    As a retired Police Officer I view this latest proposal with utter dismay. We already have senior officers who cannot cope, why, because they were fast tracked through the system with accelerated promotion. Disaster looms for this country and, when it is realised what a huge mistake has been made, it will be too late to do anything about it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 606.

    As in ANY job, in any sector, you have to "earn your stripes" through experience. If, heaven forbid, I (or my nearest and dearest) was a victim to a serious crime, I'd want to know that the officer in charge had years of hard-earned experience policing experience behind them. Not just some business executive with little police experience. "People skills" will only get you so far...

  • rate this

    Comment number 605.

    How about the only people who can become senior police officers are members of the public who have been victims of crime when the police have then not even bothered to respond when the emergency services were called? And some time not even bothered to give a crime number to allow an insurance claim to be made for the criminal damage done.

  • rate this

    Comment number 604.

    Part of current problems with public sector organisations and NHS is bringing in management with no idea what happens on the sharp end.They move people and policies around to suit flavour of the day and award themselves massive salaries while surrounding themselves with yes men.Fast tracking from the ranks can still produce quality management who will actually understand what policing means.

  • rate this

    Comment number 603.

    'At interview, the best (grad or not) should be spotted and put in fast track. It's about attracting talent'

    What is all this 'fast track' about? The promise of climbing the ladder quickly shouldn't be the attraction of joining the police. Policing is a service to the public.

    If you want to fast track - become a politician as they have forgotten what it means to serve the public!

  • rate this

    Comment number 602.

    I don't like ad hominem arguments, however, Tom Winsor was the Rail Regulator and International Rail Regulator for Great Britain. Enough said! This man should not be allowed near anything,

  • rate this

    Comment number 601.

    Allowing the ‘management professionals” to take over , can expect the Police to follow everything else we were once proud of; Health Service, Banking and Finance, the Post office, Education, Manufacturing industry – need I say more?

  • rate this

    Comment number 600.

    Unfortunately, being good on the beat does NOT mean you will automatically be a good manager. BUT a manager who hasn't been on the front line will most likely not know what he is asking for.
    Think about politicians who have never had a proper job and what a hash they make.

  • rate this

    Comment number 599.

    I'm Prison Service and we have some of these external fast trackers in upper management, they are almost to a man dangerous to staff, as they have not worked at the coal-face.Our best senior managers have all started at the bottom,my own governor is superb both with staff and prisoners.
    This will lead to a police controlled by ex public school pupils who arn't willing to start at the bottom.

  • rate this

    Comment number 598.

    Surely the best way to get the best people in the higher ranks of the police is to promote those who prove to be outstanding officers from the lower ranks sooner rather than later.
    Brains and higher education do not make a good copper nor a good man manager.
    That takes personality and experience.

  • rate this

    Comment number 597.

    'Morning all'...judging by some of the scores achieved by those in favour of change, I would say that the Police Federation's members are active today (conspiracy of feather-bedders) on this article's ratings.

  • rate this

    Comment number 596.

    Despite it being the penultimate day of January rather than the first day of April, I clicked on the police stories hoping that they were a joke, or that I had the headlines did not represent the actuality of the story. Someone please tell me that this is the case....? No...?

    For pity's sake, is *NOTHING* sacred to this barely-elected government? Leave the police ALONE, woman!

  • rate this

    Comment number 595.

    The minister gave a pathetic defence of this on the Today programme this morning. Perhaps he's not a morning person. I feel it doesn't harm the police and does it a lot of good for every police officer to know that their bosses understand the problems of day to day community coppering at first hand. Many other businesses would be mightily improved if the executives had to work on the shop floor.


Page 19 of 49



BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.