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 974.

    This has got nothing to do with progress & police reform, this is Tom Windsor (posh boys puppet) exerting his authority & destroying the best police force in the world. Torries hate the police & are punishing us every way they can. How can a direct entrant have empathy with those below him/her if they have never worked the streets, nights, christmas, missing family events. Utterly riddiculous

  • rate this

    Comment number 973.

    There's no substitute for experience! To get to the top and provide leadership, direction and guidance experience is essential - I can't imagine an Inspector with only 3 years service, as a public order commander, being a first response to the London riots 2 years ago making the right decisions with little or no experience - doesn't bear thinking about. I retired 2 yrs ago as an Inspector.

  • rate this

    Comment number 972.

    Senior officers are so out of touch with the realities of everyday life as experienced by "Joe Public" that the present policy doesn't appear to have any benefits. So why not change it?

  • rate this

    Comment number 971.

    Yes experience is important, but more important is experience in particular roles. By the time officers reaches a high rank they have too little time to become experienced at carrying out their new roles.

    Emphasis must now be put on allowing young people to enter at the rank of inspector, allowing for specialist training and a greater accumulation of experience. It works. Look at the army.

  • rate this

    Comment number 970.

    As is so often the case on these forum, I see comments from those with either no knowledge of policing & those of an anti establishment persuasion welcome any reforms regardless of their value. The UK Police Service is the most publically accountable, open & fair one in the world. To those who question that, try a bit of international travel to see what you may be missing out on!

  • rate this

    Comment number 969.

    Appointments from industry into the Civil Service have resulted in Departments' focus changing from customer service to psuedo "for profit" organisations. Upshot - weaker, costlier, service provided to the public, with access to Departments being greatly reduced.

    Plus, the wage bill becomes stratospheric

    Do NOT let this happen to the Police. Promotion from within is the only way forward

  • rate this

    Comment number 968.

    Suspect the honest answer will be very similar as to what Politicians learn when they are in office..
    Not. a lot..
    Everyone would like a fair and just Taxation System.And a fair and just Legal System.
    But we cannot have that without good Policemen and good Politicians.
    And,perhaps,much more important,good Journalists,working for good Newspapers.


  • rate this

    Comment number 967.

    This is a bad idea if it means anyone can manage the police - experience trumps qualifications, however, there must be some people who could enter at senior level. For example a person who has served for years in the armed forces as part of the Military Police would have many of the skills needed - or am I missing something? Currently they are excluded from directly entering at higher level right?

  • Comment number 966.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 965.

    From my experience over 50 years of dealings with the police, on the right side {if there is one], and on the receiving end. For every genuine PC there are 100 undesirables. Most these days are bully boys!

  • rate this

    Comment number 964.

    It's a jolly good idea. When young Jeremy comes out of the Guards, he can go straight into the police at top level.

    That's a great relief - he's too thick to go into the family banking business.

    Jobs for the toffs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 963.

    Winsor quote ''For too long, the police service has recruited the great majority of its officers from too narrow a stratum of society''
    At the moment anyone who passes the Police entrance exam can join. He intends to change that to recruits requiring three A levels. How is that going to widen the social background of recruits? Its just about keeping the working classes in their place.

  • rate this

    Comment number 962.

    Here's an idea for Police Minister Damian Green, why not hand over all the difficult to solve cases to amateur sleuths. There must be plenty of Miss Marples out there and I'm sure the police would welcome the help!
    This would save a lot of money.

  • Comment number 961.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 960.

    I'm an Inspector coming near the end of my service.

    Although I can see big flaws in this idea I do have to ask myself whether we will really notice the difference when it comes in.

    I know of many examples where frankly underwhelming people have risen to relatively high rank by avoiding controversy (ie Police work) , flitting from job to job and sucking up to the right people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 959.


    You know what I'm scared of? the gov interfering in policing to the point where the police are shackled by even more 'tick these boxes', 'fill out these forms in triplicate' 'do more Health and safety checks before proceeding' to the point where they are useless.

    Managers without experience of what they do are worse than useless. How can they know what is right for the job?

  • rate this

    Comment number 958.

    You cannot run the Police Force like its an industry. Experience of what the Police officer deals with every day is essential. The government seem determined to destroy a service that was the envy of many other countries. The reason for time served on the beat prior to promotion is to increase the basic knowledge of policing taught at training school. This recommendation is so WRONG

  • rate this

    Comment number 957.

    942. Handsomeone

    Police fan boys; WHAT ARE YOU SO SCARED OF?

    I assume from your comment you haven't read or understood any of the arguments put forward by the previous posters.

    I suppose that should qualify you for a parachuted in senior police post then.

  • rate this

    Comment number 956.

    I think before saying that this idea won't work, people should think about what the aim is.
    If it's to improve policing it's a palpably idiotic idea & doomed to disaster.
    If it's designed to undermine policing & create problems which destroy the concept of policing by consent, it could just work,
    I'm rather fancying it's more about option 2.

  • rate this

    Comment number 955.

    To all members of the public. Who do you want overseeing murders, terrorism offences, and riots?
    An experienced senior officer with 25 years dealing with progressively more serious cases whilst they learnt?
    Or maybe the ex manager of a department store, A Failed NHS Executive, Or your recent election failure' would be' MP?
    Oh Sorry, they'll have 15 months experience to back them up won't they?


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