The British police forces, since there's not one national one, are the oldest such organised ones in the world. Officially they are now "police services" rather than "forces".
The first modern police force was London Town's Metropolitan Police was founded by Sir Robert Peel in 1829. 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 boys and girls in blackThe British police are known for their distinctive helmets. Pictured above, they are properly called 'custodian helmets'. They are good for, among other things, covering up a naked man's offensive bits and give rise to the derogatory term "tithead". These are worn by male constables and sergeants on foot patrol. Other male officers wear a peaked cap, while women wear a bowler hat. Some services (including Scotland's) have replaced the custodian helmet altogether, but they are still seen on ceremonial occasions such as Remembrance Day parades.
The classic blue serge uniforms of old, being classic fanservice if worn by a female, have also gone from everyday use. Nowadays, police uniforms are black. Until the 2000s, officers wore a white shirt with a black tienote with women wearing either the tie or a black/white chequered cravat. Senior officers continue to wear white shirts and ties/cravats, but most forces have moved the rank-and-file officers to wearing black t-shirts with a stab vest. Officers who are out on the beat will very often wear a yellow hi-vis jacket over this.
Another widespread symbol of policing is 'Sillitoe tartan' - a pattern of black and white chequers. The pattern appears on the hatbands and sometimes other places on an officer's uniform, as well as other police-related places such as logos and decorations. It is named after a former police chief who introduced it in Glasgow in the 1930s to make officers easily identifiable. The Sillitoe tartan also inspired the police car 'Battenberg' livery, with square panels of hi-vis blue and yellow.
British uniformed police use the following ranks, in rising 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 or PS): 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. Roughly equivalent to the American rank of the same name.
- Police Inspector (Insp): The manager of 3-5 uniform teams that work the same shift, and the highest rank that has to do shift work. Mostly a desk bound position, although a Uniform Inspector can still regularly be called out to any kind of major incident. Roughly equivalent to the American rank of Lieutenant.
- Chief Inspector (Ch Insp): An '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. Roughly equivalent to the American rank of Captain.
- Superintendent (Supt): The overall boss of a large police station, a "super" is mostly an administrator; they may also direct the tactical response to a major incident. Superintendents and higher officers have a few special powers such as allowing a suspect to be detained beyond the usual 24-hour time limit. Most American police forces are too small to have an equivalent, but it would be Major or Inspector in most that do.
- Chief Superintendent (Ch Supt): In most forces, the commander for the highest geographic subdivision of the force's territory. These used to be called 'Divisions' but these days are more often called 'Basic Command Units'. In the Met, they are instead in charge of a borough. A "Chief Super" will often be a long serving officer whose days on the beat are far behind them. Many officers who reach this position are not far from retirement.
Uniformed Police Chiefs include:Officers of these ranks are informally called the 'chief officers', though only the commissioners and chief constables are actual chiefs of a police force.
- Commander (CMDR): A rank that exists only in the Met and City of London forces and has the same insignia as an Assistant Chief Constable. In the latter it is fully equivalent to an ACC. In the Met, it is an extra level of command between the chief supers and the Commissioner's assistants. 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 and will probably end up dead in a very messy way. Commander Gideon is an outstanding exception.
- You may also hear references to "Borough Commanders" who are, confusingly enough, Chief Superintendents.
- Commissioner: The overall chief of the Met and City of London forces. Because of the Met's size and extra responsibilities, its Commissioner is the highest profile police officer in the country, and the appointment of a new Commissioner attracts much media coverage. Not to be confused with the elected position of Police and Crime Commissioner, who is independent from the service they're attached to and manages how their funds are spent.
- The Met Commissioner has a deputy, assistants and deputy assistants. The City of London police has one Assistant Commissioner. The Met's Assistant Commissioners wear the same insignia as a provincial Chief Constable and have as high a media profile. The Assistant Commissioner for Special Operations is the UK's most senior counter-terrorism cop.
- Chief Constable: In all other forces they replace the titles of Commissioner. Other than that there is no real difference.
- Chief Constables have a deputy and at least one assistant. Police Scotland is the only one to have multiple deputies. Often, the Chief Constable will mediate between their police force, governments, media and public, while their deputy handles the day-to-day running of the force.
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): as with their uniformed counterparts, responsible for a group of DCs.
- Detective Inspector (DI): an experienced and seasoned detective. May have DCs reporting to him/her as well as DSs. Sometimes used as a rank for fictional detectives, DIs lead investigations into serious crimes, but not a crime as serious as murder.
- Detective Chief Inspector (DCI): the highest-ranked detective in the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of a large town police station, or else in charge of a specialist unit at the force HQ. The most common rank for fictional detectives, as this is the lowest rank of officer who can lead a murder investigation. However, the real life job is less 'hands-on' than it is in fiction. For example, the jobs of examining the scene and interviewing suspects are usually done by experienced DCs, with the DCI running it from behind the scenes.
- Detective Superintendent (DSupt or DSU): Mostly an administrator but may also lead a serious crime's investigation. A force will typically have one who manages the performance of the local CIDs and others who manage the specialist units that are based at force HQ. These units are called in to deal with serious crimes or those that require specialised detectives.
- Detective Chief Superintendent (DCS): The highest detective rank, answerable to the uniformed chiefs. Most regional forces have just one DCS, as the overall boss of their detective branch.
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:
Police PowersAn 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 - becoming a detective is a specialisation, not a promotion. Uniform officers actually have greater powers in the United Kingdom in the sense that police have to be wearing uniform to use certain powers (e.g. making a traffic stop). The person in charge of the cells will be a uniform officer (normally a sergeant), 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, and they are seen as exercising their brains while their uniform counterparts are seen as the dumb muscle.
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 OfficersMost British police officers do not carry guns. This dates back to the founding of the first Police force in Victorian London: citizens were strongly opposed to the idea of lawmen patrolling the streets, so they were designed to be as PR-friendly as possible. The Police themselves, the Police Federation (the Union for rank and file officers) and the general public are all strongly against the routine arming of police officers in modern times. For the police, the reasons for this are twofold: a) it enables officers to get a lot more hands-on in taking down a suspect, rather than resorting to pepper-spray or a taser, because they don't have to worry about the perp trying to grab their gun and b) if the police were armed, they would have to train officers in how to use them. This would mean laying off everyone who failed to qualify, or accepting Imperial Stormtrooper Marksmanship Academy levels of skill at arms. As "ordinary" British criminalsnote generally do not carry firearms either this is not a major limitation. Most officers instead carry a baton. This is often called a truncheon, though this term specifically refers to the traditional 14-inch wooden baton. These days, a 21-inch collapsible baton is more common.
That said, police forces do have units of armed officers who can respond to a scene if guns are needed. 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. These officers are regularly issued semi-automatic weapons for special duties and are authorised to shoot armed suspects without prior warning in special circumstances. 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, or by default in most parts of London). This is because it's also an anti-stab vest.
Additionally, unlike the rest of the United Kingdom, where officers only carry guns for certain duties, police officers in Northern Ireland are always armed when out on duty. For obvious reasons.
Police Forces Or ServicesThe British police force that is by far the most often portrayed in fiction is the Metropolitan Police Service ("the Met" or "Scotland Yard"). It polices almost all of Greater London, apart from the tiny central area that is policed by 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).
The English and Welsh police are divided up into regional constabularies. Most of the remaining constabularies cover either a metropolitan area, a county or a couple of counties. The Scottish police used to be the same, but they were combined into a single force called Police Scotland in 2013. Northern Ireland also has a single force, the Police Service of Northern Ireland.
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
- The Civil Nuclear Constabulary: If it's nuclear and not a weapon (which are the problem of the MOD police) then this lot are responsible for protecting it. Unlike pretty much all other police in the UK, these guys are heavily armed, regular patrol issue including G36 assault rifles, Glock sidearms, tasers, ASP batons, CS spray and 30mm Autocannons.note
Special Branch"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.
The 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. In reality, this translates to infiltrating far-left and far-right groups, regardless of whether or not the groups in question are lawbreakers. They have also been criticized for suggesting illegal protest actions and sleeping with the people they're supposed to be protecting, then leaving without the consequences.
The Special Branch should not be confused with Special Constables, who are part-time volunteers.
Other notable or well-known units:
- Special Constabulary: Special constables are part-time volunteers, who are expected to work at least one shift per 1-2 weeks. There are some variations in how police services organise their special constabulary. Most often, they give their specials a separate command structure with equivalent ranks (Special Constable, Special Sergeant, etc.), but different rank insignia. The highest-ranked special in the force is the "Chief Officer", who is also a special constable.
- Flying Squad: A elite detective unit in the Met who target robberies. So named because unlike most officers, they travel freely across division/borough boundaries. The only place where detectives carry guns, their most daring work involves disrupting heists in progress. Made famous in The Sweeney.
- Operation Trident: The Met's gang crime unit.
- Public Order Unit: Specialist riot policing units.
- Neighbourhood Policing Team: Known by several names, these are small teams of officers and PCSOs (see below) who carry out community policing in local neighbourhoods. They sometimes respond to emergencies, but are more likely to be involved in endless community meetings and preventative work.
- Joint Units: Police forces can merge certain departments. Traffic policing units have frequently been merged, as their officers tend to operate over a much wider area. Joint units have become increasingly used as a means to save money.
Officer numbersUniformed officers traditionally haven't worn name badges, but instead have worn ID numbers on their epaulettes. These are known as "collar numbers", as they used to be worn on the collar. There have been recent scandals where uniformed officers have removed these epaulettes before expected public disorder situations.
In the Met, it's generally two or three numbers, followed by one or two letters representing your borough or command unit - so an officer from Havering (KD) might be 719KD. (Met epaulettes display this upside down, with the command unit code above the numbers.) Provincial forces tend to have just numbers on their epaulettes. Only Constables and Sergeants have these ID numbers on their epaulettes. More senior officers will instead have a rank insignia on their epaulettes.
Times are always changing, however, and since the 2000s some forces have required public-facing officers to wear name badges. In case anyone is interested, the reason they traditionally don't wear nametags is because officers with unusual or embarrassing names (Pratt, Dick, etc) would be subject to ridicule by antisocial types.