ON a visit to Liverpool I saw a sight I had not seen for many years in Sussex.

It was a couple of policemen on the beat simply patrolling the local streets.

Admittedly they were a far cry from the friendly local neighbourhood policemen that used to be a common sight all over Britain.

They were patrolling in pairs rather than singly. They were bristling with new technology and they may have been armed – it was hard to tell.

There was a time when police were part of the community. They knew hundreds if not thousands of people in their neighborhoods

Some took part in a widely accepted form of local justice – if they saw boys committing minor offences such as scrumping apples, they would inform the parents and expect some form of punishment at home.

In fiction, policemen were portrayed as friendly folk such as Dixon of Dock Green, played on screen by the avuncular Jack Warner.

Sometimes they would be chided for being slow, even slightly dim, but generally they were welcome and trusted.

I think that generally happy relationship started to deteriorate in the 1960s and it is much more complex today. Crime levels have risen everywhere and the police have become more remote. Police stations have closed and there has been a reluctance to investigate some routine offences.

At the same time there have been cases of police corruption and allegations of brutality.

Police nowadays have to deal with all sorts of problems which simply did not exist half a century ago.

Typical of them are widespread reports that The Level in Brighton is being used at night by gangs armed with knives selling drugs to children.

On Monday the Argus had a front page story about police fearing for their lives as a teenager brandished a 12-inch knife blade in a drugs bust. This was a highly visible scene at the junction of Queen’s Road and Church Street, right in the heart of Brighton.

It seems to me we have become ambivalent about the police. We want them to be tough and tender at the same time.

We want them instantly available, not just to deal with armed drug dealers but to investigate small burglaries. We complain when the slightest degree of force is used and when officers make split-second judgments which turn out to be wrong.

We moan about paying too much for policing yet we want more bobbies on the beat. We are sad when officers are injured or even killed doing their duty as happened in the Westminster Bridge attack in London yet we sneer at the police for being incompetent.

One of the hardest jobs in Britain today is that of being a chief constable dealing with a public which knows what it doesn’t want but can’t decide what it likes. They have to cope with vast amounts of bureaucracy, much of it unnecessary, which is a deterrent to investigating crime.

These days they also have police commissioners breathing down their necks and some have proved to be useless. Katy Bourne in Sussex is one of the better ones but there are real question marks over whether commissioners are more effective than the old-style police committees for keeping a close eye on the law.

There is constant criticism from the Police Federation, which speaks for most officers, and now retired officers have formed a group to complain loudly that things are not what they used to be. Action is clearly needed to prevent Brighton from succumbing to the gang-bred lawlessness that is affecting parts of London and other big cities such as Manchester – and Liverpool. The good news from Sussex Police is that 70 people joined the fierce last month and there are more to come.

Katy Bourne says this shows the problem is being tackled robustly although the Federation says it is simply a drop in the ocean.

I have never called for more bobbies on the beat. It’s a pleasant luxury to have community coppers but they are a low priority these days.

And if I was the victim of a serious crime such as a mugging or a smash and grab raid, I would far rather see officers use a fast car to catch the culprits than have a single policeman or woman chasing them on foot.

Today’s top police officers are a far cry from Dixon of Dock Green. They have to be intelligent, adaptable, speedy and, sophisticated.

And they have to be one step or more ahead of criminals who may be armed and extremely dangerous.

In Liverpool there is a roll call prominently displayed at the police headquarters of officers who have died doing their duty. It is a long list and must never be allowed to happen here.