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'Allo 'Allo 'Allo. Wot's all this then!
The British police services (no longer called "forces"), since there's not one national one, are the oldest such organised ones in the world.
The first one, London Town's Metropolitan Police was founded by Sir Robert Peel in the 1830s. Peel has the Met's training centre at Hendon (featured in Hot Fuzz) named after him and his name is the source of two of the British English terms for police officers. These are the now-defunct "peelers" (except in Northern Ireland, where it is still used) and the slightly less defunct "bobbies".
The British police are known for their distinctive helmets (worn outside Scotland when uniform officers are on foot patrol), properly called "custodian helmets" and giving rise to the derogatory term "tithead". These are only worn by men (women wear a different sort of hat) and are good for, among other things, covering up a naked man's offensive bits. Some forces have replaced them with a more modern design for routine patrols, but they are still seen on ceremonial occasions such as Remembrance Day parades.
- It has been said that the design of the helmets was to allow them to be placed on the ground and stood on, in order to see over fences.
- That was the reinforced top hats worn as part of the earliest police uniforms, not the helmets worn today.
- The helmet allows members of the public needing assistance to spot and identify the constable.
- Contrary to the Urban Legend, police officers are not legally required to hand over their hat to a pregnant woman who can't make it to a toilet in time.
The classic blue serge uniforms of old, being classic Fetish Fuel if worn by a female, have gone for everyday use.
British uniformed police use the following ranks, in order of authority/seniority:
- Police Constable (PC) - a.k.a. "bobby". Rank-and-file police officer, like the American rank of Officer. Not a detective. Normally in uniform, sometimes in plainclothes; CID (the detectives) may refer to them as either "uniforms" or the less common "woodentops" (in reference to the iconic helmets worn by beat officers).
- Police Sergeant (Sgt). The corporal of the police services. Sergeants fill a number of roles, usually as a kind of "group manager" for the constables. The first step up the greasy pole of promotion. A common position to find a Uniform Sergeant in would be at the charge desk in the cell area of a police station (usually referred to as the "desk sergeant", even if others of the same rank are also desk-bound). Usually, a television Police Procedural will depict (at least) one of the uniform Sergeants as the kindly old "seen it all before" copper who the younger officers see as a kind of father figure.
- Police Inspector (Insp). Effectively the office manager to an entire Uniform relief. Mostly a desk bound position, although a Uniform Inspector can still regularly be called out to any kind of major incident.
- Chief Inspector (Ch Insp). The 'operations manager' of a police station. Indeed, many uniform Chief Inspectors will have the subtitle "Chief Inspector of Operations", followed by the station at which they're based. The Chief Inspector is an entirely desk bound job. His/her duties seldom involve actually going out on the street, and most usually involve endless meetings with community groups.
- Superintendent (Supt). The overall boss of a police station, all the other officers (both uniform AND detective branches) are answerable to him/her. If anything an even more desk bound job than the Chief Inspector, a Superintendent is responsible for a police stations performance overall, and liaises frequently with the Police Chiefs.
Uniformed Police Chiefs include:
- Chief Superintendent (Ch Supt). One of many bureaucrats based at Scotland Yard or in charge of a borough, a "Chief Super" will often be a long serving officer whose days on the beat are far behind them. Their duties are mostly as a liaison with the Superintendents at the various police stations inside their jurisdiction. Many officers who reach this position are not far from retirement.
- Commissioner. The person in overall charge of the Met and City forces as a whole. He/she is at the top of the chain. May be required to appear at ceremonial services (a funeral, a commendation ceremony, the opening of a new police station, etc), but otherwise the Commissioner is a rarely seen member of the force.
- Commander (Cmdr). A bit of a curates' egg rank. It exists only in the London Metropolitan (The Met) force and sits roughly in-between the two above ranks. If you meet a Commander in fiction it will probably be on the way out of a brothel and they stand a good chance of being a corrupt sexual deviant (which some might claim is Truth in Television) and will probably end up dead in a very messy way.
- You may well hear references to "Borough Commanders" who are, confusingly enough, Chief Superintendents.
- Chief Constable. Outside of the Met they replace the titles of Commissioner and their deputies (Deputy Chief Constable) replace Commander. Other than that there is no real difference.
Detectives (from the 'Criminal Investigation Department', or CID) use a similar system, but with different connotations in fiction:
- Detective Constable (DC) - roughly equivalent to the American rank of Detective. Bottom of the totem pole: that's why DC "Dangerous" Davies is so pathetic—he's experienced and quite competent, but has never been promoted above DC.
- Detective Sergeant (DS) - roughly equivalent to the American rank of Sergeant
- Detective Inspector (DI) - an experienced and seasoned detective. May have DCs reporting to him/her. Roughly equivalent to the American rank of Lieutenant.
- Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) - roughly equivalent to an American Chief of Detectives. The boss of the detective branch; all the other detectives will report to him/her, while he/she will report to the station's uniform Superintendent.
- Detective Superintendent - these officers are never in charge of divisional CID (that job belongs to the DCI), but are commonly in charge of outside investigation teams who are called in for very special circumstances (aka a murder scene). They bring their own team with them, and will then liason with the divisional officers.
In decades past, female police officers had "W" prepended to their rank, e.g. WPC Annie Cartwright (Life On Mars). This is no longer the case, although the media doesn't always get the hint.
The British bobby (male or female) and their CID partners have had several stereotypes over the years:
An interesting side note is that while there is a perception that officers who graduate from uniform to CID detective have undergone a 'promotion', this is not strictly true. Uniform officers actually have greater powers in the United Kingdom as far as arresting and charging suspects in concerned. This is why the person in charge of the cells is a uniform officer: they simply have greater power within the law to charge and retain suspects (to whom they also have something of a duty of care), while the detectives go about collecting evidence and interviewing suspects. This is a marked difference to the American style of policing: in the UK, a move from uniform Constable to Detective Constable is more of a sideways step than any kind of promotion, while the American model sees "earning your detective badge" as being a step up. Still, the perception persists that detectives are somehow "better" than uniform because the responsibilities of their work are usually more varied.
Until fairly recently, there was a rule in the police service known as "tenure". This rule basically stipulated that if a detective has been serving in the CID for a decade without them making any progress up the ranks then they would be put back into uniform as a means to make sure they aren't getting complacent. More than one detective actually chose to resign rather than face the (supposedly) humiliating move back into uniform division.
No Guns Please, We're British Police Officers
While patrolling officers do not normally carry side-arms and have repeatedly declared an overall preference not to carry them, some police in the United Kingdom are in fact regularly issued semi-automatic weapons for special duties and are authorised to shoot armed suspects without prior warning in special circumstances. These include CO19 (formerly SO19, until it got moved in the MPS structure) for the Metropolitan Police, and are generally referred to simply as the Armed Response Unit by regional forces. A semiautomatic-only version of the famous Heckler & Koch MP5 was the most common shoulder-arm until relatively recently, but 5.56mm carbines such as the H&K G36 or Steyr AUG have begun to displace the aging 'Hockler'. Minimum qualifications for membership of these units are comparable to that of a SWAT team in a major US city.
Interestingly, despite the significantly smaller quantity of firearms in circulation in the United Kingdom and unlike some US forces, a ballistic vest is part of every British police officer's uniform and taking it off while on duty can be a disciplinary offence if they're currently compulsory (for instance after a firearms incident, or gang violence is expected).
- That's because it's not just a ballistic vest, it's also an anti-stab vest. Knives are more common in Britain than guns.
Police Forces Or Services
The British police are divided up into regional constabularies, each covering a different area of the country. Greater London has two, the Metropolitan Police ("the Met") and the City of London Police. In fiction the Met tends to be horribly corrupt and sometimes being worse criminals than the people they arrest and has poor relationships with the other forces (in the past, at least, this was very much Truth in Television, but it is still a popular fiction trope)
There are some other forces though:
- British Transport Police- deal with policing on the rail network.
- Ministry of Defence Police- a civilian force, who protect MOD sites, such as ports like HMNB Clyde, home of the British nuclear deterrent (a place, for obvious reasons, that people break into a lot). All officers are armed when on duty.
- The Royal Military Police, the Royal Navy's Regulating Branch, and the RAF Police have all been folded under the same banner as Service Police with the introduction of the 2009 Armed Forces Act; although keeping the same names they now have a common set of regulations. As their names suggest, they are each a military police for a different section of the armed forces
Many organisations now call themselves police "services", which has got some comment from older officers in crime shows.
Special Branch was a label customarily used to identify units responsible for matters of national security in British and Commonwealth police forces, and work in close concert with MI 5, who do not have any powers of arrest or detention. The Metropolitan Police Special Branch was merged with the Anti-Terrorism Branch of the Metropolitan Police to form a new department called Counter Terrorism Command.
Special Branch has been derided as the "Political Police", as they are given the politically sensitive cases. People tend to think that can include doing the bidding of the party in power in legally questionable ways.
Special Branch should not be confused with Special Constables, who are part-time volunteers.
Uniformed officers traditionally haven't worn name badges, but instead have an alpha-numeric designator on their epaulettes (if they're Constables or Sergeants) that varies from force to force in layout. In the Met, it's generally two letters representing your borough and two or three numbers, so an officer from Havering (KD) might be KD 719. Times are always changing, however, and since 2009 name badges are generally compulsory for public-facing officers.
There have been recent scandals where uniformed officers have removed their numbered epaulettes before expected public disorder situations. One officer found to have done this is currently awaiting trial for manslaughter and misconduct in public office after a member of the public died due to his actions.
Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs)
A creation of the Blair government, PCSOs (you might hear the name "Blunkett's Bobbies", after David Blunkett, the then Home Secretary) are uniformed civilians with blue epaulettes and limited powers (basically to detain you until a full constable arrives). Felt by some to be a cheap way to boost police numbers, their appearances in fiction have been very little, but usually mocked mercilessly. One term, employed by Private Eye among others, is 'plastic police'.
- For example, this Mitchell and Webb sketch.