Home   What's On   Article

Subscribe Now

Cambridge-based ex-policeman David Murray-Gilbertson’s new book explores the state of modern UK policing

From dancing the Macarena at public events to the noticeable lack of ‘bobbies on the beat’, and its handling of the Sarah Everard case, it’s fair to say the UK police have come in for criticism from various sides in recent years.

Retired Cambridge-based policeman David Murray-Gilbertson examines why in his new book, The Strange Death of Constable George Dixon: Why the Police have stopped policing and what we must do about it.

David Murray-Gilbertson. Picture: Keith Heppell
David Murray-Gilbertson. Picture: Keith Heppell

The ‘George Dixon’ in the title is a reference to PC George Dixon, a fictional, friendly copper famously played by actor Jack Warner, who diligently worked his lonely night beat around Paddington Green.

The much-loved character first appeared in the 1950 film The Blue Lamp, which was an instant box office hit, and then perhaps more famously in the popular television series Dixon of Dock Green, which ran for 21 years.

The character was held in such high regard that officers from Paddington Green police station even carried Jack Warner’s coffin at his funeral in 1981.

To some, George Dixon was – and is – the archetypal police officer who should be patrolling our streets. Today, the George Dixon style of policing is largely viewed by the police establishment as out-of-date and something of an embarrassment.

Modern policing might be seen as more targeted and strategic.

But David Murray-Gilbertson, who retired from the Metropolitan Police in the early 2000s where he was a deputy assistant commissioner at Scotland Yard, has plenty to say about this – and much more besides – in his new book, which was published by Troubador in January.

“I did 35 years in the police and most of that was at very senior rank,” he notes, “and for most of that time, I was quite proud to be a police officer – that is not the case now.

“I am appalled at the direction of policing in this country, and have been really quite distressed by what has happened in recent years – not least of which is the murder of Sarah Everard, but other things since that time.”

Sarah, 33, was kidnapped, raped and murdered by Met officer Wayne Couzens in 2021.

“For the last 10 years, I’ve been campaigning on police sexual misconduct and people have taken very little notice; it was only when the Sarah Everard case came to people’s attention that they started to pay notice,” says David. “I think there’s been an appalling scandal that was waiting to break for a long time.”

David, a recipient of the Queen’s Police Medal for Distinguished Service in 2001, says senior police officers agree with him on a number of his thoughts regarding the police force and that it’s “about time to have a debate about it”.

He continues: “The big issue is that the police in this country are extremely badly led and badly managed. They are in a position where they’re extremely well-provisioned from the public purse but never claim to be.

“The quality of recruiting in the police now has reached rock-bottom; I mean there was a Home Office inspectorate report last year which showed that something like about 10 per cent of recruits to the police now are functionally illiterate – they can’t read or write.

“You can’t have a situation like that. It’s not what the public need or deserve.”

David reveals that the book’s title is based on The Strange Death of Liberal England, a pre-First World War tome by George Dangerfield – “which pointed out just how badly things were going in social policy, and I sort of stole that title”.

Despite the tendency to look down on and sneer at the ‘old-fashioned’ style of Dixon of Dock Green, David says that lots of politicians have called for a return to “Dixon-esque-type policing”.

“Very few people really know or remember it [Dixon of Dock Green],” says David, “but until the late 1960s, The Blue Lamp used to be shown to every police recruit in the country – and George Dixon was the exemplar of what a good copper should be.

“It was about good coppers caring about their beat, patrolling a beat, knowing everyone on that beat, and offering a service – it doesn’t apply now.

“The constant refrain is ‘Let’s get bobbies back from behind their desks and back on their beats’ – there are no ‘beats’ anywhere in the country anymore. They were removed from divisional maps in 2004.

“There are no bobbies on beats anymore, so don’t believe anybody that uses that phrase.

“There are no officers on foot duty in any city, or any large town, in the county – not in Peterborough, not in Huntingdon, not in Cambridge city at night.

“And there are only four double-manned patrol cars for the entire county – what sort of service is that? And it’s even worse in London, let me tell you.”

The book’s cover
The book’s cover

David explains that as part of his research for the book, he walked with a colleague from Marble Arch along Oxford Street, down through Leicester Square and on to Parliament Square, on the lookout for police officers.

“That’s the beating heart of London, from a terrorist point of view it’s target-rich,” he observes. “We did not see one police officer patrolling.

“Where have they all gone? What are they all doing? I’ll go out into Cambridge this afternoon, I’ll walk around, I’ll go through the market square, I won’t find one policeman in uniform – whereas 10 years ago, I would have done.”

David believes that these days there is an “issue around the concept of ‘service’”. He says: “No-one actually regards service to the public as valuable, and that was something that was drummed into us – certainly when I was in training and when I was a senior officer. It’s what you’re there for and it isn’t done anymore.

“I regard it as critically important that the police are led, and they’re not. There are any number of managers in the police service who would be very good in charge of Marks & Spencer or John Lewis – but they’re not leaders, they’re not leading.

“That’s what you need; you need people who are willing to go out there and lead – and also are prepared to criticise their staff.”

Whatever the debate around the merits of modern policing styles, David says society is not nearly as dangerous as many people believe it to be today.

“The trend line for serious crime since the 1990s is down, not up,” he states. “Statistically there is less crime now than there was in 1997, but sometimes we just don’t call it what we used to...

“For instance, in the statistics of crime there are things called ‘assaults without injury’, so they’re counted as violent crime.

“That is I go into a minicab office, I ask for a minicab and they say ‘We haven’t got one’ and I lose my temper and say ‘Well b***er you, I want one’.

“Technically, that is an assault without injury and sometimes they’re reported and they have to go into the statistics.

“Twenty years ago they wouldn’t have got anywhere near a crime book, or crime statistics. They just would have been written down as a ‘dispute’ – but they’ve become statistics.

“So don’t believe there’s crime in the way that there used to be. The level of crime is nowhere near what people believe it is.”

That said, he believes there is much to be done to uphold standards in UK policing.

The second part of the book’s title is ‘Why the Police have stopped policing and what we must do about it’, so what must we do about it?

“For me, the core of it is about leadership and about the way that officers are managed, certainly in terms of these recent scandals in relation to sexual misconduct.

“No-one was intervening. There were lots of people who knew, for instance, what the rapist of Sarah Everard was doing – he used to be referred to as ‘the rapist’ among his colleagues. His nickname was ‘the rapist’ because people knew what he was like.

“David Carrick, who was convicted of 37 cases of rape, was known as ‘a bit of a boy with the women’.

“You need to be able to intervene. What you need is effective leaders, and we’re not producing the effective leaders in the police service – so from my point of view then it’s essential to look outside the tent.

“Officers of the rank of inspector and above should be recruited from outside the police service.

“They should be brought in, they should be developed and they should be trained – and they should have a different mindset.

“It should be a management mindset, a leadership mindset, based on the need to manage staff, and manage them more rigidly and effectively – and get them out on the street in uniform, patrolling.

“The other thing I believe very strongly is direct recruitment of detectives. We have a real problem in this country – there’s something like a 15-20 per cent deficit in detectives, because no-one wants to be a detective.

“They should be directly recruited from outside; it’s operating to a certain extent in London and some other large cities, but it’s not being funded properly, it’s not being supported properly.

“But there’s no reason to believe that you couldn’t have a very, very effective detective force in this country, based on the model that you have in the United States, for instance with the FBI.

“People would queue to the vanishing point if the job was paid properly and trained properly and put in place properly.

“So I think direct recruitment of detectives, direct recruitment of managers and senior leaders – but most of all, direct recruitment from outside of chief constables and commissioners, is key.

“You cannot convince me that we have the skills available in the police service to fill those posts, and there are so many examples of chief constables failing.

“I have examples in my book of chief constables being involved in sexual misconduct. One chief constable was suspended because he was wearing medals that he wasn’t entitled to.

“There are chief constables up and down the country being suspended as we speak. That’s not senior leadership, not when you’ve got someone who’s in charge of a workforce of perhaps 6,000 or 7,000 and a multi-million-pound total resource budget.

“It wouldn’t happen in industry and it shouldn’t happen in the police service.”

David Murray-Gilbertson. Picture: Keith Heppell
David Murray-Gilbertson. Picture: Keith Heppell

As well as his work in the UK, David has advised on policing in the USA, Canada and South Africa. He now writes on history, policing and public policy subjects and has been published in the print and online media.

He is also a regular contributor to programmes broadcast on these subjects on television and radio.

To find out more about what he feels has to be done to bring UK policing standards back up to where they once were, check out his book, The Strange Death of Constable George Dixon: Why the Police have stopped policing and what we must do about it, available now from troubador.co.uk, as well as from Amazon and other retailers.

This site uses cookies. By continuing to browse the site you are agreeing to our use of cookies - Learn More