The chairwoman of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, Sara Thornton, said evidence suggested random police patrols did not prevent or solve crime.
But Bill Longmore and Christopher Salmon, police and crime commissioners for West Mercia and Dyfed-Powys respectively, both spoke of the importance of keeping officers on the streets if at all possible.
On the subject of “bobbies on the beat”, Ms Thornton said: “It’s a difficult one because it’s one of those features of policing that the public have come to like and respect over many, many years. But in fact the evidence would say that random police patrol doesn’t prevent crime, doesn’t solve crime, it doesn’t in fact make people feel safer.”
Asked if she thought the days of routine patrols were over, she said officers would “always respond to the pub fight, domestic abuse, to people in difficulty” but, in the future, patrols would not be focused on areas of low crime.
But Mr Longmore said: “Personally, I think it would be a very sad day if we were to lose that, as it has been an important part of why policing in Britain has been so well respected worldwide.
“I’m sure it would be particularly troubling for our older generation who have grown up with ‘bobbies on the beat’, and feel a sense of safety when they see police officers on the streets.
“Having said that, this very discussion clearly demonstrates the harsh realities of the decisions that forces nationwide are facing because of continued government cuts.
“The reductions in the numbers of officers we have seen across England and Wales in recent years has been considerable, and forces have no choice but to change the way they operate.
“As I have said previously though, there is only so far the government can cut before something has to give, and in the future we all may have to change our expectations about what services police can realistically deliver.
“Depending on how big those future cuts will be, I can certainly see that some forces may have to consider how sustainable and effective it is to keep traditional bobbies on the beat.”
Mr Salmon vowed there would “always be a place for local officers policing our local communities. Across Dyfed-Powys we’re working hard to deliver a better police service with less public money,” he said.
“Since my election we’ve saved £8.8m on policing, have increased the number of police officers and have increased the amount of time being spent on the beat.
“Crime and anti-social behaviour is down and I continue to prioritise the front line.”