The bobby on the beat is an anachronism, argues Professor Tim Hope
The reaction to the impending prospect of ‘cuts’ in police numbers in the run-up to the recent Comprehensive Spending Review was as obfuscating as it was revealing, for one simple reason: while the ‘bobby on the beat’ has been at the unspoken heart of the issue, we have run out of justifications as to why he or she should remain there any longer.
The whole issue of officer numbers, on which the bulk of policing expenditure goes, presupposes a constabulary, a large force of constables commanded by an imposing chief. Even so, right from the very start, when Sir Robert Peel sent his ‘bobbies’ out into the stews of London, the primary concern has been to keep tabs on what they were actually doing (or not doing) out there.
From walking the fixed-point ‘beat’ to technological innovations including the whistle, the police box (an anachronism even before Dr Who’s Tardis), radio-controlled Z cars, and today’s body-worn cameras, a large part of police organisational resources has gone into supervising the constable.
Although their powers rest upon the exercise of lawful discretion, no one can actually trust them to do it, nor rely upon their testimony in court, without an elaborate organisation whose function is to command and control the constable’s discretion.
While making a good ‘collar’, or giving some likely lad a well-meaning ‘clip round the ear ’ole’ (not forgetting to look out for dear old mum) still persist somewhere in our folk memory, observational studies of routine police work have always pointed to much the same conclusion: the principal objective while on patrol is ‘easing’ – to find stratagems to alleviate the boredom of never having much to do.
Ironically, while Ministers purport to be doing a favour by cutting down red tape, the last thing police officers want is to spend more time on the ‘frontline’, either chronically bored or very occasionally over-excited, when they could be seeking peaceful solace in humdrum ‘paperwork’.
Still, in order to get back to the comfort and warmth of the Nick (preferably just before shift-break), they do have to make a good collar or two out of the few suitable cases they stumble across, hence the popularity of stop-and-search, which has the added frisson of face-to-face confrontation.
And, of course, you can do stopping and searching in your own time, rather than having to go out and grapple with vomiting binge drinkers on a Friday Night.
Unfortunately, zealous round-ups of the usual suspects can alienate the community and increase the crime rate, thereby threatening the performance of the chiefs. Still, you can always cuff away the excess when you tally-up the crime records, a kind of quantitative easing perhaps?
As HM Inspectorate of Constabulary has demonstrated yet again, domestic violence has never sat easily with the constabulary’s view of itself as crime-fighting cops. Over the past forty years we’ve gone through cycles of police dismissal and victim reluctance to call.
Now, following exposure of non-recording and neglect, victims are coming forward in unprecedented numbers, much to the consternation of the Constabulary, which apparently finds itself ‘overwhelmed’ (presumably because most constables would still rather drive around with blue lights flashing than provide support and succour for victims).
Yet abolishing the constabulary has been a step too far for our leaders: indeed police chiefs have been campaigning to restore its core values. Thus Sara Thornton, Chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, in a Speech to the Police Foundation in July 2015 praised ‘hotspot policing’ since ‘…the evidence does not show that “bobbies on the beat” is an outdated idea but that it can be effective as part of data-driven targeting of preventive patrol’.
Unfortunately, the evidence is not so impressive as to suggest that this is much more than a convenient fiction, especially in a British context.
Neighbourhood policing to reassure a worried public also reinforces the traditional constabulary view of the thin blue line between decent society and disorder. Yet the line has become so thin as to be hardly visible at all.
At best, a police presence reassures people whose risk of crime is minimal (but who may even start to get more worried by the sight of robocops cruising down Acacia Avenue). And in the worst neighbourhoods, no one will talk to them out of fear of being accused of grassing-up the gangsters who manage much of the ‘protection’ work themselves.
Some years ago, an effort was made to substitute expensive police constables with community support officers who would provide a more civil approach to upholding the public peace. Yet the constabulary reacted as if this was a threat to their constitution (which indeed it was).
The constables prevailed, incorporating the police community support officers into the ‘wider police family’, and turning them into unempowered auxiliaries who could be relied upon to do the dull work, and to summon the real police when things got interesting.
Now, when police manpower budgets are threatened, the chief constables are proposing to abolish the community support officers. Indeed, in order to change things, you have to keep everything the same!
I suspect it may not happen in my lifetime but there would be some fitting historic vindication if the police constable were to become as anachronistic as that other icon of our traditional way of life, the coal miner.
Tim Hope is Professor of Criminology at the University of Salford and a visiting fellow at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies