British police

From Academic Kids

The British police are a group of similar but independent police services which operate in the United Kingdom.

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A police helicopter (Eurocopter EC 135T), shared by the English police forces of Avon and Somerset and Gloucestershire


While constables had existed since Saxon times, the creation of a police force comparable to modern structures did not come about until the early 19th century, with the introduction of a nationwide system of local forces on a broadly common pattern (with some variation). However this had been foreshadowed in the late 18th century with the establishment of the Marine Police based in Wapping, although this was only a localised force with a limited remit.

In England in 1812, 1818 and 1822, a number of committees had examined the policing of London. Based on their findings the Home Secretary, Robert Peel, introduced the Metropolitan Police Act of 1829, heralding a more rigorous and less discretionary approach to law enforcement. The new Metropolitan Police, founded on September 29, was depersonalised, bureaucratic and hierarchical, with the new police constables instructed to prevent crime and pursue offenders. However in contrast to the more paramilitary police of continental Europe, the British police, partly to counter public fears and objections concerning armed enforcers, were clearly civilian and their armament was initially limited to the truncheon; a fear of spy systems and political control also kept 'plain clothes' and even detective work to a minimum. The force was independent of the local government; through its commissioner it was responsible direct to the Home Office. The new constables were nicknamed 'peelers' or 'bobbies' after the Home Secretary.

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Outside of the metropolitan area, the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 and further legislation in 1839 and 1840 allowed counties to create their own constabulary. The first county force created was in Wiltshire in 1839. Around thirty counties had voluntarily created police forces before the County and Borough Police Act of 1856 made such forces mandatory and subject to central inspection. There were over 200 separate forces in England and Wales by 1860, while in Ireland a more centralised paramilitary force, the Royal Irish Constabulary, was created.

Within the Metropolitan Police a detective force was founded in 1842 and, following the Turf Fraud scandal of 1877, it was reorganised and renamed the CID in 1878. A pension was guaranteed by the Police Act of 1890; previously it had been discretionary. The police became unionised during World War I and the strikes of 1918 and 1919 resulted in the Police Act of 1919, prohibiting trade unions but creating the Police Federation. However, the fragmented nature of the police was resistant to change, and there were still over 200 separate police forces before World War II and 117 before the mass reorganisation of the Police Act of 1964, which created 49 larger forces, some covering two or more counties or large urban areas.

These new forces were later to become viewed as being distanced from the public and operated with limited accountability. It remains debatable, in this context, that the lack of measurable accountability necessarily prevented the forces as they were then constituted from being responsive to public demands. Indeed it is undeniable that there was greater public accessibility to the police at this time and that on a day-to-day basis officers were more responsive though how effective they were remains debatable.

In addition to the regional constabularies, there exist a small number of special police forces that have particular powers. The most notable of theses is the British Transport Police, who are responsible for policing on Britain's railway network.

In 2004 the creation of the national Serious Organised Crime Agency was announced.


Except in Scotland, a Police Authority, normally consisting of three magistrates, nine local councillors and five independent members, is responsible for overseeing each local force. They also have a duty under law to ensure that their community gets best value from their police force.

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Thames Valley Police policing an animal rights demonstration in Oxford

Use of firearms

Unlike the police in most other countries, the British police are not routinely armed, except in Northern Ireland, at airports, nuclear facilities, and on some protection duties.

In fact, officers on night patrols in some London divisions were frequently armed with Webley revolvers (and, after the Battle of Stepney, Webley semi-automatics) for over 50 years following the murder of two officers in 1884, though individual officers were able to choose whether to carry the weapons. The practice ended in July 1936, after which arms could be issued by a sergeant if there was a good reason, and if the officer had been trained.

The issue of routine arming was next raised after the 1952 Derek Bentley case, and again after the 1966 murder of three officers in London (Massacre of Braybrook Street), following which around 17% of officers in London were authorised to carry firearms. After the deaths of a number of members of the public in the 1980s, control was considerably tightened, many officers had their firearm authorisation revoked, and training for the remainder was greatly improved and later extended to include some training from the SAS. Currently around 7% of officers in London are trained in the use of firearms. Firearms are also only issued to an officer under strict guidelines (

In order to allow armed officers to rapidly attend an incident, weapons are now frequently carried in the secure armoury of patrolling Armed Response Vehicles (ARVs). ARVs were modelled on the Instant Response Cars introduced by the West Yorkshire Police in 1976, and were first introduced in London in 1991, when 132 armed deployments were made.

In a 1995 ballot amongst members of the Police Federation of England and Wales, over 75% of the vote was against routine arming. However, the huge increase in gun crime since the late 1990s is seen as a major issue. For the first time since 1936, the routine carrying of firearms on normal police patrols was re-introduced in Nottingham in February 2000, in response to a number of gang related shootings on the St Ann's and Meadows estates.

As of September 2004 all forces in England and Wales also have the Taser available, but it may only be used where a full firearms authority has been granted.

The weapons carried routinely by ordinary police constables are currently an extending baton (US: nightstick) and, in all but two county police services, CS spray (personal issue incapacitant spray) (o-chlorobenzylidine malononitrile) dissolved in the solvent MiBK (methyl iso-butyl ketone). Its effects are designed to be short-lived, subsiding within 30-60 minutes and clearing even quicker in well-ventilated areas.


Although there are minor variations in the styling, pattern and insignia, the police forces of Great Britain, Jersey, Guernsey, the Isle of Man and Gibraltar all wear very similar uniforms. In general, these have historically taken their lead from the Metropolitan Police, with changes appearing in that force first. The base colour is a very dark blue, almost indistinguishable from black (and these days often actually is black), which has earned the police the nickname of the "boys in blue".

Formal uniform comprises an open-necked tunic (with or without an attached belt, depending on the force) and trousers or skirt, worn with a white or light blue shirt and black tie. Although most forces once wore blue shirts, these have been going out of fashion since the 1980s (when the Metropolitan Police changed to white) and most now wear white. Officers of the rank of inspector and above have always worn white shirts, and in many forces so have female officers. In some forces, female officers wear a black and white checked cravat instead of a tie.

Until the 1980s this was also the everyday working uniform, but today it is rarely seen except on formal occasions. The normal working dress retains the shirt (open-necked or with a tie or cravat) and trousers, worn with or without a jersey or fleece. Some forces use combat trousers and boots. Today, female officers almost never wear a skirt in working dress, and frequently wear trousers in formal dress as well. Officers also frequently wear reflective waterproof jackets, which have replaced the old greatcoats and cloaks traditionally worn in inclement weather. Most officers now wear body armour over their uniforms when on duty.

Basic headgear is a peaked cap for men and a round bowler style hat for women. All officers wear a black and white (red and white for the City of London Police) diced band around the hat, a distinction first used in Scotland and later adopted by all forces in Great Britain. Traffic officers wear white cap covers. On foot duty, male constables and sergeants wear the familiar conical helmet. There are several patterns, with different forces wearing different types. The helmet is not, however, worn in Scotland (although some Scottish forces did use helmets in the past).

Uniform history

The first uniform, which was a lighter blue than at present, was a high-collared tailcoat, worn with white trousers in summer. The headgear was a hardened top hat, which served the dual purpose of protecting the officer from blows to the head and allowing him to use it as a step to climb or see over walls. The tailcoat was later replaced by a tunic, still high-collared, and the top hat by the helmet (both adopted by the Metropolitan Police in 1863). The tunic went through a large variety of lengths and styles, with the Metropolitan Police adopting the open-neck style in 1948 (although senior and female officers adopted it before that time). Senior officers used to wear peaked pillbox-style caps until the adoption of the wider peaked cap worn today.

Female officers' uniforms have gone through an even greater variety of styles, as they have tended to reflect the women's fashions of the time. Tunic style, skirt length and headgear have varied immensely by period and force. By the late 1980s, female working uniform was virtually identical to male, except for headgear and sometimes neckwear.

Recent and current issues

Evidence of corruption in the 1970s, serious urban riots and the police role in controlling industrial disorder in the 1980s, and the changing nature of police procedure made police accountability and control a major political football from the 1990s onwards.

The miners' strike (19841985) saw thousands of police from various forces deployed against miners, frequently resulting in violent confontation.

The presence of Freemasons in the police caused disquiet in the early 1990s.

Despite attempts to end racism and what has been described as "institutionalised racism" in the Police, especially since the 1993 murder of Stephen Lawrence, there have been ongoing problems. At the same time, some commentators and citizens' groups have claimed that political correctness and excessive sensitivity to issues of race and class have reduced the effectiveness of the police force, not least for people living in deprived areas or members of minority groups themselves.

In 2003, ten police officers from Greater Manchester Police, North Wales Police and Cheshire Police were forced to resign after a BBC documentary, The Secret Policeman, shown on 21 October, revealed racism among recruits at Bruche Police National Training Centre at Warrington. On 4 March 2005 it was announced that minor disciplinary action would be taken against twelve other officers (eleven from Greater Manchester Police and one from Lancashire Constabulary) in connection with the programme, but that they would not lose their jobs.

In November 2003 allegations were made that police officers were members of the far-right British National Party.

The absence of a visible police presence on the streets also frequently causes concern. This is partially being addressed by the introduction of uniformed civilian Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs), following the passing of the Police Reform Act 2002, although these have been criticised for being a cheap alternative to fully-trained police officers. [1] (

At the beginning of 2005 it was announced that the Police Information Technology Organisation (PITO) had signed an eight-year £122m contract to introduce biometric identification technology [2] ( PITO are also planning to use CCTV facial recognition systems to identify known suspects; a future link to the proposed National Identity Register has been suggested by some. [3] (

See also


External links


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