Opinion: Whatever happened to the ‘bobby on the beat’?

Alex Green - Regular Columnist

An officer on the beat in 1978. No stab-proof vest or Tazer. Just a friendly neighbourhood bobby on the beat. Where have they gone? | Image: Robin Hutton
They brought law and order to the gin soaked guts of Victorian society and for nearly one hundred years they wore out their boots treading the same pavements every day using the tried and tested beat system. So what happened? And why?

I got an early impression of what sort of person a police officer is from a member of my family who was in the police for around 30 years. He started out as police Constable in the 70s, patrolling on a beat. At one point, he was drafted in to assist with the miners riots that Thatcher’s government spawned, and finally ended up in a higher rank doing important things that people don’t talk about.

I remember visiting his house when I was very young. It had a ‘Privet Drive’ sort of lower middle class properness to it. The drive accommodated two new(ish) cars and its mane was always kept at bay with weed killer and secateurs. The inside of the house was mostly pungent air freshener, (his wife’s choice) and meticulously vacuumed carpets.

He was a very imposing man. He was the sort of guy who I can’t imagine ever having to use a truncheon at work; asking politely would have been enough for anyone with sense. My Thomas the Tank Engine watching, mud eating six year old self thought he had a face like King Henry VIII. He had a strange sort of bacon sandwich eating majesty about him; he was well over six feet tall and by no means was he underfed. He was always very quiet, and he would choose his words carefully.

Image: Leonard Bentley
Image: Leonard Bentley

Sometimes, I’d be allowed into his study. That room was off limits to the air freshener. It smelt of old books and wooden furniture. On top of a desk which concealed the paper shredder, (which must have been one of the few domestic paper shredders in existence in the mid nineties that actually shredded anything worth shredding), were rows and rows of photographs of him and his colleagues in uniform. You could see the various stages of his career. Through all the photos, one thing stayed the same- the smart black trousers and tunic that could as easily be the work wear of a bus conductor were it not for the black helmet always perched on his head.

In those photos was the ‘bobby’ from the cartoons and the sitcoms. The tall, broad, ruddy cheeked PC who would just as easily help children cross the road than he would tackle a fleeing suspect to the floor. He had no more power than you or me and was considered a public servant.

These sort of police officers didn’t come from a vacuum. They were the result of a compromise between the quintessentially British want for the state to bog off and mind its own business when possible and the need to uphold peace and order in the gin soaked guts of Victorian society.

The policeman in this clip is now alien to a lot of us. At least to my generation, who have only seen the armoured storm troopers in military style belt kit. Why the drastic change in uniform? Is it purely utilitarian? I’m not qualified to say, and guesswork wouldn’t answer this question, but I got something close to a definitive answer a few years ago when friend of mine was looking to join the police. He had a Superintendent in the family. He spent a lot of time talking to her about life in the police. He would repeat many of these conversations in the word for word detail in that way that people who are frantically interested in something can. In one of these conversations, he asked her why modern police officers are dressed the way they are. The answer given was simple, and it adds weight to what a lot of people probably think. It was for aesthetic reasons, to look more imposing. This Superintendent told my friend that some members of the police had felt that they were no longer being taken seriously because of their uniforms. They reasoned that the deliberate blandness in the design was based on outdated ideas of what the police should be. It’s a fair point. Anyone who has ever spoken to a serving or ex serving police officer will know that they have plenty of ‘clients’ who don’t think much of them, and are more than happy to express that view. But realistically, hasn’t that always happened? And isn’t it bound to happen in the future as well? Some people will always dislike the police. The question is, when you move from a civilian uniform to a paramilitary one, does it do more harm than good? Does it make police officers less approachable? Does it negatively impact the way the public view them?

There’s another big change worth talking about too. A lot of police work now involves zapping about in cars and responding to crimes after they have happened. In his book, ‘The Abolition Of Liberty’, Peter Hitchens calls this ‘Fire Brigade policing’. Treating crime like fire, and not putting enough emphasis on preventing it.

Image: Leonard Bentley
Image: Leonard Bentley

The traditional method of policing was to have individual Officers patrolling set areas, (beats) on foot. In doing so, they would establish a presence in the community they served – making friends, enemies, and everything in between. In the above book, Hitchens lays down a robust argument for a return to traditional beat policing. The book describes the steep rise in recorded crime that has occurred since the end of the second world war despite ever increasing standards of living and argues that the abandonment of traditional policing was a significant cause. He reminds the reader that beat policing worked for nigh on 100 years, from the early days of the ‘Peelers’ to the 1960s- during which there was a deliberate policy to abandon the beat system in favour of motorised patrols. Obviously motorised patrols are important in a post Dr Beeching country that prefers road over rail. But did motorised patrols really need to replace the beat system to the extent that they did?

One argument now used against the return to the beat system is that there just aren’t the numbers to make it happen anymore. Is that a valid point? Possibly not; in many areas, the ratio of Police officers to members of the public hasn’t changed much since the height of the beat policing era. Writing in ‘The English and their history’, Robert Tombs gives us the example of London: “By 1891, there was in London one policeman for 421 inhabitants- comparable with the national average today of one for 410.” Of course things are different, of course there’s now a bigger need for administrative roles than there was in 1891. Some police officers I’ve known can rant endlessly about the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) of 1984, which some say has drowned policing in overzealous restrictions and administrative tasks. If the abandonment of the beat system is, and was, just a matter of numbers and funding rather than a deliberate ideological policy, is it a reasonable thing to do? Is it ok for successive governments to sacrifice the effectiveness of the police to save money?

To use the example of the second largest police force in the UK, West Midlands Police, apparently it is. An anonymous source inside the West Midlands Police has spoken about just how severely the spending cuts are affecting their ability to do their job. Community policing is now more and more difficult as increasingly overworked police officers are having to make extremely difficult decisions on what crime they will respond to with their limited resources. I was also told that morale is now so bad that some are choosing to leave the police force altogether. To the credit of West Midlands Police, crime in the area hasn’t risen significantly. But my source made it clear that there are widespread concerns in the organisation that this will soon change.

What’s the future looking like for the beat officers left? Possibly not great. On the bright side, at least they won’t wear their boots out as fast.

Image: Paul Townsend
Image: Paul Townsend