What Has Become of the British Bobby?

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Commentator Louise Branson, whose father was a British police officer, laments the symbolic ending of an English icon. London police said Friday they shot and killed a man they believe was "directly linked" to an investigation of recent bombings in London's transit system.


As we've been reporting, British police today shot and killed a man they said was directly linked to the bombings there. For decades, many Britons were proud of the fact that their policemen were not armed. It distinguished their country from others in Europe and from the US. Now that is changing, and commentator Louise Branson is lamenting the end of an English icon.


I grew up with a British bobby. That's what policemen patrolling British streets have been known as since the early 19th century. That bobby was my dad. The news today that police shot a man to death on the London Underground was a shock. Traditional bobbies, like my dad, didn't shoot. They weren't even supposed to carry guns. Yes, British police have increasingly been armed in recent years, but still, at least for me and for many other native Britons, the shooting marked the symbolic end of an era.

The British police have had to respond to a changing country, one that's become more modern, cosmopolitan, violent. That wasn't the Britain bobbies like my dad once policed in a very different way. In fact, the caricature of the British bobby walking the streets, wearing a tall, blue helmet, ready to give directions or help, was the real thing. That was my dad. He patrolled his beat on foot in the English city of Leicester with his partner. He sometimes rode on a bicycle but rarely in a car. He knew everyone's business, they knew him, and they trusted him. Not that he always did everything by the book. On his first day as a bobby, a woman came into the police station with bruises on her face. `Has he been beating you again, my love?' his partner asked. She nodded. The two bobbies went to the man's house, called him out and delivered a milder beating in retaliation. In their view, they were dealing with community troubles and a well-known offender in the most efficient way.

That's a bygone age, though, gone along with many of the other things my dad believed in: Sunday family lunch of roast beef on the table by 1 after a drink in the pub, undying respect for the queen and the royal family and most certainly no shopping on a Sunday. My dad died in 2001. The era of the British bobby was symbolically buried along with him with today's shooting.

BLOCK: Commentator Louise Branson is a member of USA Today's editorial board.

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