Nick Alston, my Conservative colleague in Essex, is wrong to dismiss ‘bobbies on the beat’. He describes the language as antiquated and calls for more specialists in detective roles.
He is wrong because he misunderstands the phrase as much as he accuses the public of misunderstanding policing. And he is wrong because he misses the point about crime.
Crime happens to people, in places. People, when fearful, want to talk to people they trust. And trust depends on familiarity, some kind of pre-existing relationship and human interaction.
As a former Naval officer, I’m sure Nick will understand the importance of winning over a population in order to beat insurgents. As with terrorists, so with criminals. You have to win public support to gain information, whether about shoplifting or domestic violence. That information is what catches your criminals.
You have to maintain the trust of the public that justice will be done. That has been the basis of law and order and the fundamental challenge of government since time began. You have to give the public ownership of the institutions which serve them. That means listening and talking in their language.
Nick reflects an expert’s obsession with specialisms – the sexy stuff of investigation, pursuit and intelligence – over the practical wisdom of the crowd – the mundane stuff of knowing your public, listening and watching.
Expert obsessions swamp not just policing but whole swathes of the public sector, too often at the expense of what is blindingly obvious. At least with elected PCCs the professional obsession meets its challenge in public debate. We can have these disagreements in public. That can only be healthy.
All of which brings me back to my first criticism. Nick misunderstands the phrase: ‘bobbies on the beat’ is shorthand. It sticks because people get it. The public are not idiots. No one wants to see officers hanging around needlessly on street corners.
A ‘beat’ could be digital. ‘Bobbies on the beat’ could mean officers who know their local streets but also local activity on Twitter and Facebook. It could mean bobbies on bicycles. What is doesn’t mean is bobbies screaming past in pursuit cars.
For all the modernity of technology, we still live our lives in relatively small corners of the world. Indeed, one of the great surprises of the global internet is how it has fostered the proliferation of hyperlocal communities, news sources and activities. The phrase may be old but the work is modern.
More than that, ‘bobbies on the beat’ is the opposite of ‘chiefs in offices’. It means officers on the front line, protecting us.
Public affection for ‘bobbies on the beat’ is a reminder about where our priorities should lie. If we want savings, they lie not in the bobbies but in the chiefs.
Our priority must be to tackle the towering, managerial hierarchies that stop professional… wait for it… bobbies protecting us on their… beat.