The New Statesman Profile - The British bobby

Authoritative and avuncular, he was a symbol of a society at ease with itself - and the public can't

It is over 40 years since PC George Dixon ambled out of Dock Green police station, stood beneath the blue light and deferentially touched his helmet to the great British public glued to their television sets. A large, middle-aged man, with a row of campaign medals on his chest, he embodied the cosy, middle-class perception of the British bobby: avuncular, reassuring, authoritative, incorruptible - a symbol not just of benign and even-handed policing, but also of a society at peace with itself.

A great deal has changed since then. Automatic respect for authority has gone; television presents cops in a different guise to Dixon; real police have shown themselves over and again to be unworthy of blind trust; social class is less obvious - at least on the street; and we've become a multicultural, multiracial society.

Yet, despite headline-grabbing vigilantes proclaiming their "disappointment" with the police, despite flirtations with "zero tolerance" (the blessed Ann Widdecombe was in New York earlier this year studying how NYPD officers, who have recently shot dead several unarmed black men, shepherd their flock), despite statistics that show that a cop can pound a beat for his full 30 years of service without stumbling upon a single villain committing a crime, and despite millions spent on high-tech wizardry, Dixon remains a revered icon.

This is especially true in rural areas, whose inhabitants the government is seeking to appease with its promise of tens of millions of pounds to fund extra policing.

The British public want officers on foot (preferably mature men) patrolling their streets and, when appropriate, administering the modern equivalent of clipping a child round the ear for scrumping apples. What we have is young men in fast cars - or even on Rollerblades - dashing about, putting our lives in jeopardy; and a force that, because it seldom admits its mistakes, seldom learns from them. Legs have been replaced by wheels; community cops by intelligence officers crunching numbers; and reform and criticism - in particular, last year's Macpherson report on the death of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence - are resisted for "tying police hands" in their war against crime.

So was there a golden age of the British bobby? Prewar fictional representations of PC Plod had him standing guard outside the country house front door, socially on a par with the servants, while inside an upper-middle-class sleuth ran rings round dim-witted police inspectors. Dixon was also, to a large extent, a cardboard cut-out.

For those who lived in the inner city, 1950s policing was rough and ready. Dixon's contemporaries were despots, and their word was law. There were no complaints procedures and no police- community consultative groups. The middle classes rarely encountered the police in confrontational situations - motoring was free and easy, and students didn't indulge in pot. Accent and dress warned the dimmest bobby when it was appropriate to throw in a few "sirs" and "madams".

But there were virtues in old-style coppering, and Dixon was not all myth. Most cops were on foot. They did know their communities. When a crime was committed, they could tell the CID who had been seen drinking with whom and who was suddenly in the money. Though now a rare and endangered species, such officers still exist. I knew one well, an urbane and civilised man with more knowledge of the world than the rest of his station put together.

He has never, as far as I know, arrested anyone; and, when the heavy brigade acted on his information, he was never on his patch. If he had taken part in the arrests, everyone with whom he regularly spoke would have come under suspicion of being an informant. Once his wise presence and local knowledge were removed, the flashing blue light boys invariably cocked up the subsequent operation, failed to collar the crooks and alienated everyone on the estate, thereby setting my friend's task back by several months.

To my surprise, I came across a similar man the other day. He knows everyone; addresses teenagers by name; has tamed streets where previously the police only went mob-handed (sending in the "cavalry"); he works in the local school; and he seldom arrests anyone. "The last thing these kids need is a criminal record." For his pains, he is dubbed "the social worker" at the local nick.

In Dixon's day, many bobbies were older men who had served in the forces. They had had their adrenaline rush in the Second World War or in Cyprus or Kenya. They may have been autocratic, but they were less likely to be hot-blooded than today's recruits. Now many young officers have had no other job, while others quit humdrum office life for what - brought up on television drama - they believe will be a never-ending high-speed chase.

A woman PC once told me: "Late turn is deadly boring. You hear there's a pub fight, people getting hurt, glasses in faces, and you think 'Great!' The canteen will clear itself, people climbing all over each other to get to the punch-up." She contrasted that to the lack of enthusiasm for a call to help a little old lady locked out of her house.

I have spent days in fast-response cars, when there has been nothing to which to respond. The first sniff of a job and the blue light goes on and the car hares down the wrong side of the road. Often, the incident had been misreported or everyone had long since calmed down. We once tore to an address where a woman reported she was being beaten by her boyfriend, only to find the couple making love on the settee and far from chuffed by our intrusion.

When fast-response vehicles do arrive, their occupants are hyped up by the sudden burst of activity after hours of driving aimlessly round in circles. The result can be unnecessary punch-ups. What ought to be straightforward arrests end with police officers and suspects rolling on the ground in a maelstrom of flying limbs - mainly because out-of-sorts cops are spoiling for a fight.

The Audit Commission estimated that only 5 per cent of Britain's 125,000 officers are actually available for patrol. A civilian who had recently retired from the Met said that he would be surprised if there were 2,000 officers out and about on the streets of Greater London. On one recent Sunday, papers carried stories of shoplifters who had to be let go because there were no police to arrest them, of 999 calls that went unanswered, and of tiny numbers of officers on duty in our great cities.

Cops live in suburbia - preferably near golf courses. Only six officers out of 280 lived in the inner London division where I researched a book. Most arrived and departed by car and policed by car (faces fell when officers were asked to walk the high street). It was a shifting, multicultural community with whom few police had natural empathy. I've come across PCs who look like Dixon. They are often tucked away in the corner of the station where they can do least harm. Their views are habitually of the "flogging's too good for them" variety, and they count the days to their pensions when they can tend their geraniums full-time.

If professional police are too valuable to be wasted on walking around in blue serge to reassure the public, there is a strong argument for others to do it in their place. The wealthy employ security patrols, so why not have uniformed wardens keeping an eye on all neighbourhoods? The suggestion brings predictable fury from the Police Federation (the police "trade union"), which condemns the idea as "make-believe" policing. Better make-believe, one might feel, than no policing at all.

Dixon will haunt the rhetoric of police politics long after anyone who has any clear idea of who he was. In the meantime, I suggest we create a more credible stereotype to stand alongside dear old George, so that when we debate policing, we are discussing reality rather than myth.

He is likely to be younger, better educated (there are now 10,000 graduate cops), less deferential. His style is "in yer face" and he considers himself "professional", not in the sense a doctor is professional, but as a footballer is. He does what is expected of him with few frills. A member of a police think-tank told me: "Young coppers are now very brash, very sure that they are right. 'This is my job, and I'm doing it my way.'" He said that huge numbers of low-level complaints are now generated by such attitudes.

When cops screw up and are caught out, as over Stephen Lawrence, they retreat into their laagers (and, off duty, into their lagers). They grumble that their hands are tied; that villains are laughing behind their backs; that policing has never been less rewarding or more demanding. Bobbies should occasionally take a reality check. They still enjoy (certainly compared to politicians and journalists) public esteem and support.

A few years ago, the Met ran a recruiting ad that told would-be cops that they would face abuse, threats, provocation, even violence. "We need people who can cope . . . are tough, tender, sensitive, strong and disciplined, all at the same time." A tall order, but not utterly different from the aspirations of many young people who join the force. A senior officer told me that he had been inspired to join up by notions of "hunting down evil, Knights of the Round Table, hero stuff".

The sadness is that such bright-eyed zeal often hardly survives training. Bring back Dixon? No. But, let's have a force that is less self-regarding, moans less and, as a superintendent I knew advised recruits, actually smiles at the public. "You'll get a smile back. People want to feel security," he said. I wonder what model he had in mind.

Robert Chesshyre is the author of The Force published by Sidgwick and Jackson (hardback) and Pan (paperback)