A rising number of top police officers lack experience of the crime-fighting frontline, says the president of the Police Superintendents' Association.
Top police should do their time on the beat, Ian Johnston says
Ian Johnston said fast-track schemes for university graduates had led to some climbing the ranks too quickly.
The chief superintendent said police had lost the "link between operational experience and advancement".
But the Association of Chief Police Officers said the selection process put a great emphasis on operational skills.
Ch Supt Johnston is the first senior officer to break ranks and speak out about the way chief constables and their deputies are recruited.
"My view is that current practice does not respect operational credibility, in fact it devalues it," he said.
"I question whether the current process we use to determine which officers go forward (to the highest ranks) is testing people's operational ability.
"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 acknowledged the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) would be offended by his remarks.
"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," he added.
Acpo president Ken Jones said like all large organisations, "talent and potential is developed and the service has sound processes whereby some can be more quickly promoted than others".
He said: "All senior police officers are selected against strict national criteria which properly places great emphasis on operational skills and delivery.
"It also places great emphasis on the abilities of police leaders to be able to fully comprehend and deal with the strategic challenges they are faced with in the 21st century."
Jan Berry, chairman of the Police Federation of England and Wales, which represents rank-and-file officers, said it was vitally important that leading officers had experience of "making key operational decisions in all ranks".
"We are not opposed to schemes which identify and promote the police leaders of tomorrow but it's important they have been at the coal face and understand the impact on frontline officers of their decisions," she said.
Ch Supt Johnston's comments come ahead of the PSA's annual conference, which opens in Kenilworth, Warwickshire, on Tuesday. It is Ch Supt Johnston's first as president.