Time to blow the whistle….?

The Police Whistle: a symbol of law and order, or an unnecessary reminder of a misogynistic attitude that has no part in modern policing?

The Chief Constable of Gloucestershire recently posted this photograph on his Twitter account: a celebration of success following weeks of hard work and study, culminating in the graduation of police recruits as a much-needed boost to front-line officer numbers. Very many congratulations to each one of them (including former University of Gloucestershire Criminology student Eloise Fennell – front row second from right).


Look carefully at the uniforms. Notice the small chain hanging from the top button of the tunic worn by male officers.   At the end of the chain, hidden in the top left-hand breast pocket, is a police whistle (the General Service Whistle – GSW).  Whereas, the female officers have no chain or whistle. Why is that?

Arguably, the police whistle is a powerful symbol of law and order. It has its roots in the medieval common law principle of ‘Hue and Cry’: the process by which bystanders were summoned to assist in the apprehension of a criminal.  The ‘Hue and Cry’ was not just a civic duty; it was common practice for alerting the police.  The cries would literally follow the criminal as they ran.  We still have the term ‘Whistleblower‘, to describe someone who exposes injustice or corruption which was previously hidden.

Introduced in the 1880s, the GSW was one of the first pieces of equipment specifically made for the police to try to make communication easier between officers. For 30 to 40 years the GSW was issued to male police officers only.

Female officers were not formally established in the police service until 1918/19 when the Metropolitan Police appointed them on a year’s contract as an experiment. The then Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Cecil Macready, reported that while opinion differed widely as to the utility of women in policing, “…on the whole I consider that women are capable of useful employment on certain kinds of work which while not strictly the duty of the Police, is yet closely allied to it and of a useful character.  I refer mainly to the supervision of women and girls in the streets and open spaces.”  In other words, Sir Cecil did not regard the activities of women officers as ‘proper’ police work.  Perhaps Sir Cecil could be forgiven his misogynistic attitude; at that time, society was characterized by a masculine social order that attributed women inferior status.  The acceptance of women into traditional male occupational roles depended on the view taken of the role of women in society at large.  Women were considered inferior to men.

The first ‘inferior’ female police officers had no powers of arrest. When they first appeared on the streets of London, they were required to patrol in pairs, followed at a distance of 6 to 10 yards by two tough uniformed policemen, who were given strict orders not to let the women out of their sight, and to go to their aid at once if they were in trouble.

Thus, women officers did not need a whistle: they were not doing ‘proper’ police work. They had no powers of arrest and were not expected to engage in the rough-and-tumble of policing.

Fast forward to the 21st Century.  Women police officers occupy a huge range of influential and important roles across the service and at every rank.  All operational policing roles are open to women whether that is running armed operations, supervising surveillance, carrying firearms or supporting victims of crime and abuse. The appointment of Commissioner Cressida Dick in 2017 shows that there truly are no limits to being a woman in the modern police service.

Therefore, I pose the question. Is the police whistle a symbol of law and order, or is it an unnecessary reminder of a misogynistic attitude that has no part in modern policing?  I would be interested to hear your views.

John Clay-Davies

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