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 854.

    Furthermore, I do agree that outside talent is by no means a bad thing. But the inhouse promotion process is already a farce, this article fails to mention the number of people who are waiting or "acting" sgt's etc. i.e. work as a Sgt, not paid the salary & still not guranteed the position, meaning they can wait for years and still have to start the whole process again.

  • rate this

    Comment number 853.

    Under these proposals, you will have 'executives' from the likes of G4S, being recruited directly into the senior ranks of the Police. 10 years down the line this will become the norm rather than exception. The specialist police branches will be privatised and a business case will have to be made, for uniformed officers being deployed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 852.

    Britain does love its hierarchies, doesn't it. One of the major causes of resentment in all bodies of employees is the manager who floats to the top without knowledge or experience of the tasks he directs. Many of these unqualified people believe their position gives them authority to impose changes often detrimental to the efficient running of an organisation. What's next, generals

  • rate this

    Comment number 851.

    There are already a number of high-ranking officers in charge of the MET. The recent riots took hold probably because they were dithering, consulting their lecture notes and textbooks to find out what to do, rather than drawing on experience...

  • rate this

    Comment number 850.

    You don't need to have been on 'the beat' to be a senior officer any more than a surgeon needs to have been a nurse. They're entirely different roles which just happen to exist within the same organisation.

    The important thing is to make sure you have the right talents and skills in the right place at the right time. Results are all that matter.

  • rate this

    Comment number 849.

    The same government which has damaged the progress of scientific research in Britain by refusing to alow scientists for outside the EU to come and work here wants to appoint a Canadian to head the Bank of England and an American to head the Met!

  • rate this

    Comment number 848.

    I am a Special and before all the cuts were taking place, I was going to join as a rank and file PC. As a newbie you are given the harder more "griefy" jobs because that is the only way you learn, not just how to handle these difficult scenerios, but you also learn what kind of person you are. 15 months of experience in a drama work shop/or spending a week on response or SNT is not enough.

  • rate this

    Comment number 847.

    The 1st role of the police is the prevention or failing that the detection of crime not just recording it. I don’t know if you’ve looked lately but there’s no real police out there anymore. It won’t be long before you’ll have to report a crime at the checkout when buying your horse burgers. The police have been used and abused by politicians for far too long. Bring back the real Bobbies!

  • rate this

    Comment number 846.

    Would the NHS put a business manager in an operating theatre in charge of an operation.Chief Inspectors of which I was one are operational.I worked 12 hour shifts as a firearms commander,public order all other serious incidents hostage ,sucicide,murders,fatal road accidents.Bring on the 18 month trainee.

  • rate this

    Comment number 845.

    I seem to remember a number of years ago Banks recruiting Non-Bankers to run the Major Banks in this country. So called high flyers from business and commerce. Well just look at the mess they made of the Banks. Some Politicians never learn do they.

  • rate this

    Comment number 844.

    Absolute joke, whatever happened to working your way up the career ladder with hard work and graft...now days its how much money you have to blow on a top education which determines your future!

  • rate this

    Comment number 843.

    In my experience, people with Degrees have little or no common sense. This is more important to a Police Officer than qualifications.
    It is a disaster waiting to happen.

  • rate this

    Comment number 842.

    What a stupid proposal,some of the subjects that some modern students are reading for would not qualify them to run a vertical urinal in a alchohol manufacturing facility.

  • rate this

    Comment number 841.

    W£hats the differnece between a magicain's wand and a policeman's truncheon. One's used for cunning stunts, whlie the other is ...

  • rate this

    Comment number 840.

    Sounds like some politicians want to put a few of their private sector pals into the upper echelons of the police force. Can't imagine why...

  • rate this

    Comment number 839.

    Even the question 'on the beat' exposes the massive gulf in understanding of what being a Constable actually involves.The job goes along way beyond swinging on door handles and seeing Grannies across the road. It is no accident that there is a two year probationary period before a constable is confirmed. Only then can specialisation be considered.That is for Constable level.management comes later.

  • rate this

    Comment number 838.

    I'm a top rate pastry chef & I see no reason why I can't be fast tracked as a heart surgeon. The outdated tradition of working oneself up through the hospital for years-on-end dealing with those tiresome sick people is just a conspiracy to to keep people with genuine talent down. I've learned everything needed for the job from my degree in David Beckham Studies and watching 'Casualty'

  • rate this

    Comment number 837.

    Do you need to have walked the streets to be a senior officer?- Changes afoot in the oldest profession then?

  • rate this

    Comment number 836.

    I distinctly remember some of the same contributors here damning Andrew Mitchell over the false "pleb" comment and speaking about how the honest bobby is worth 10 of any Tory....when it transpired that the particular officers in question lied and distorted the truth...silence. Now, any govt idea is rubbished, because of the same bias. Evidence perhaps of a political rather than altruistic agenda?

  • rate this

    Comment number 835.

    If they want to attract people into the police service with these 'other skills' then they should start paying police officers the pay that they deserve.
    It's too tempting to take other jobs where the pay and promotion prospects are greater.
    Policing is a skilled job where experience matters. This is a ludicrous idea!


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