Growing numbers of top police officers lack experience in the frontline of crime-fighting, a senior policeman said yesterday.
The way chief constables and their deputies are recruited has led to some climbing the ranks too quickly, according to Chief Superintendent Ian Johnston, President of the Police Superintendents Association (PSA).
Fast-track schemes into forces for university graduates have long been controversial with some sections of the police, and some officers now believe a proportion of recently appointed senior officers lack experience on the beat.
But Mr Johnston's hard-hitting comments ahead of the PSA's annual conference this week in Kenilworth were the first to emerge publicly from such a high-ranking officer.
He acknowledged that chief constables and their deputies in the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) would be offended by his remarks.
"Within the service we have lost the link between operational experience and advancement," said Mr Johnston.
"My view is that current practice does not respect operational credibility, in fact it devalues it.
"I question whether the current process we use to determine which officers go forward (to the highest ranks) is testing people's operational ability.
"Chief officers are required to take critical decisions, and the officers they lead must have faith in their experience and abilities.
"In five years' time we cannot arrive at the situation where we get really big incidents around the country and realise we haven't got chief officers with sufficient experience and sufficient credibility to lead such an incident."
He added: "There are some Acpo people who are going to be quite offended by this.
"But if they get to lead the police service without actually getting their hands dirty, we are going to get to the stage where senior officers are going to have difficulty identifying with the people who work for them, and deliver results for them.
"We do have some current chief officers who believe that with sufficient intellect and strategic vision there is no need for all the chief officers to have had the same operational background.
"If we have a large majority of leaders in the future who have no operational experience there would be no reason for the Government not to parachute people in who have never been cops."