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 894.

    I am a harsh critic of the modern police service for the simple reason I knew some very good coppers in the past who knew how to deal with the wrong sort.

    The management culture across the board in the UK today is poor. This is merely a reflection of that poverty. At least with people who have come up from the ranks they know they are there for a reason rather than a polished career.

  • rate this

    Comment number 893.

    Politicians think this will work because it is commonplace in politics.....people being being given responsibility for things they haven't a clue about...but hey....they all went to Oxbridge!

    Doesn't the system work well...what's to argue about??

  • rate this

    Comment number 892.

    Senior police officers are not managers .They do manage but they take responsibility for incidents that the private sector could not equate on the payscale
    As a female officer I was was not part of any old boy club,if they exist.The service just a vocation to serve,
    What price or salary to deal with an armed robbery or a husband holding his wife and child hostage.,

  • rate this

    Comment number 891.

    @878, Lyn, I am aware of business managers already in the Police. The point I was trying to make is that do we need to bring business managers into the force, give them a rank, and potentially have them as a gold / silver commander in public order situations? I don't think that we do.

  • rate this

    Comment number 890.

    I notice most reports have opted not to mention the HPDS scheme the police run where those with academic or high potential can join and be fast tracked to Chief Inspector within 5 years (+1 year after selection). The new proposal does seem a nice way for academics to be a highly paid decision maker without getting their hands dirty and should demotivate those hoping to be promoted in the future

  • rate this

    Comment number 889.

    This is nonsense!

    I have a both undergraduate masters degrees from 'top 3' UK universities and I got accepted into the service. Many of my learned colleagues have done similarly or expressed an interest to.

    To find the educated and 'high calibre' candidate that they seek - they merely need to look among their ranks of current officers

    I also doubt any of whom agree with this proposal!

  • rate this

    Comment number 888.

    Re posting 858 (lyn) Your career consisted of 10 years as a PC, 5 years as a sergeant,10 years as an Inspector and 5 years as a chief Inspector. At which point after 30 years you would have retired yet you only got half way up the promotion ladder.
    I rest my case

  • rate this

    Comment number 887.

    The police only do as they are told, by politicians. Politicians create the laws and policies that govern the police. Puppets ‘running’ the police will not hide the cack-handed, miss-managerial control imposed on them over the past 30 years. The NHS, Armed Forces, Emergency Services are all in a shambles because of poor management. They all have the same manager. No. 10…

  • rate this

    Comment number 886.

    I thought this idea of direct entry to the police higher ranks had already been tried and found unsatisfactory, it was for that entry Hendon Police college was originally built

  • rate this

    Comment number 885.

    Trenchard tried this idea (ex Army officers) in the 1930's and it did not work then - why should it now (and I'm not knocking army officers skills and abilities).
    For the possible 'private sector' involvement and management in policing just watch Robocop - and be very afraid!

  • rate this

    Comment number 884.

    A chief Constable at 40 - then what - Sainsbury's or RBS?! Many leaders in industry started on the shop floor not just to obtain knowledge but also wisdom. At least with the current system if you have a poor or mediocre chief - there's not that long to wait before they retire. Winsor has engineered this proposal by securing a reduction in pay for police constable recruits to support his argument.

  • rate this

    Comment number 883.

    Does this mean a doctor has to be a nurse before he can qualify, or a university professor teach infants? Totally ludicrous arguments to support the old boys club called the police. Doing a job does not make a good manager and I've seen 100's of people fail when they have moved from doing to managing. Conversely good managers do not necessarily make good doers. Fantastic proposal. Get to it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 882.

    I joined the police after graduating wanting to commit to a job which contributed something tangible/positive to society. I knew I'd never be rich as an officer but, despite what Winsor might think, not all are motivated by money. Direct entry will induce people who do not care about policing. Here's an idea...make pay/conditions better and it might be an attractive job for Winsor's 'elite'!

  • rate this

    Comment number 881.

    They say that Beria used the old trick of having a cosh in his desk. Everyone who came into the inner circle had to take part in beating up a victim. That way you could no longer later hold the moral high ground. You were one of the gang and never questioned what you saw again.

  • rate this

    Comment number 880.

    It has already been decided to enable recruitment from abroad.


    Whats the SCAM

  • rate this

    Comment number 879.

    Hardly surprising that police officers who have worked for years to climb the ladder of their profession will reject moves to remove some rungs between them and the top. Able people who could have been good man managers, but perhaps lack the will to remain subordinate for decades, are never recruited. The general public never see how effective they might have been. Many excel in other careers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 878.

    With respect to "yodas child" business managers have been a part of policing for many years forming the "command team "of all police areas taking managerial issues away from operational policing,I did have an argument one day with the office when an officer was not allowed a new pen to fill in a Sudden Death form.It appalled me that he had dealt with a death and had to argue to get a new pen.

  • rate this

    Comment number 877.

    Many CEO's started at the bottom and worked their way up. In my personal opinion it teaches them a lot about the business or service they are in but especially about people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 876.

    How about requiring politicians who want to interfere with time-honoured traditions that have served us well, first to have 2 years work experience in the relevant area before they can put forward silly ideas?

  • rate this

    Comment number 875.

    The 'second tier entry' arguement has been going on for years. There may be some merit about senior management needing shop floor experience but the reality is it's not essential. What is essential is an effective organisation with an accountable chain of command with the right skills at each level.
    We seem to be pretty good history of fighting wars with generals who entered as officer cadets.


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