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Law and Order in the UK

Law and Order

A while ago now I did a series of posts on 'the fic writer's guide to Britain'. I always intended to write one on policing, and law and order more generally, and now seems as good a time as any to finally get around to it! I'll mostly use media examples, and supplement with how things work in the Met (Metropolitan Police Service, second only to the NYPD in terms of size) and my local force, Gwent Police / Heddlu Gwent, which has around 1,350 sworn members.

Mention is made of Scotland and Northern Ireland, but they have seperate systems so unless I say otherwise I'm referring exclusively to England and Wales.


Police in the Past

Back in the day, or pre 1800, policing was a local and ad hoc affair. You might have a local constable or night watchman - or, then again, you might not. Private citizens who caught criminals for the reward money could be found in some areas; the infamous Jonathan Wild, the 'Thief-Taker General', took to staging robberies to claim the cash, for example. Legal matters like conducting arraignments and trying minor misdemeanours were dealt with by unpaid JPs (Justices of the Peace) who varied widely in their diligence and commitment to the role, leading to the introduction of paid justices - or magistrates - in hotspot areas.

The first professional police force was founded in 1749 by one such magistrate, Henry Fielding. His six man strong Bow Street Runners was built upon by his brother, John, who gave the UK its first taste of efficient policing. Outside London, other towns and cities were taking note - the City of Glasgow Police was established in 1800, for example - and back in the capital further improvements were being made; the Marine Police Force (i.e. Thames River Police), which focused on preventing theft from ships and the docks, came into being in 1798.

Sid James as Dick TurpinBow Street Runners in Carry On Dick
Notorious highwayman, Dick Turpin, gives the Bow Street Runners the runaround in 1974 comedy, Carry On Dick. Highway robbery was one of the Runners' primary focuses - though the real Turpin was tried and executed for horse theft a decade before they were established.

By the 1820s it was time for more innovation. Sir Robert Peel, the Home Secretary (i.e. government minister for domestic affairs), championed the establishment of the Metropolitan Police in 1829, a force which would cover London and its environs - excepting the 'city' (a district of central London) which got its own City of London Police in 1832. The early success of the Met lead to the 1835 Municipal Corporations Act, requiring royal boroughs to set up paid police forces. More laws followed, extending this to other areas, and by 1851 there were some 13,000 policemen in England and Wales.

Policemen were nicknamed for their founder - 'bobbies' or 'peelers' - and great pains were taken to ensure they were not perceived as an offshoot of the military. Gone was the Runners' army red, replaced by sensible blue tunic and top hat. Police - expected to live exemplary, strictly regulated lives - were issued with a wooden truncheon for protection and a rattle to signal for assistance, though in some instances officers could be authorised to carry a firearm.

In 1856 the County and Borough Police Act was passed, compelling each area in England and Wales to have a force subject to central inspection, with the General Police Act requiring the same of Scotland in 1857. By 1900 there were around 47,000 policemen spread over the three countries - and many of these were fulfilling much more specialist roles than originally envisaged. Plainclothes detectives, for example, first emerged in the 1850s, and were forced to come under greater scrutiny and stricter control following the 1877 Turf Fraud Scandal.

Ripper Street
In BBC drama Ripper Street Matthew Macfayden plays a fictionalised version of DI Edmund Reid, the head of the Met's H Division CID (Criminal Investigation Department) at the time of the Jack the Ripper murders. He's dressed like a typical middle class civillian, while two regular constables wear the Met uniform of the early 1890s - those chains visible at the front of their tunics are attached to the whistles which had phased out rattles in the 1880s.


Police Ranks

Today there are 45 territorial police forces in the UK, and three special forces - British Transport Police, Civil Nuclear Constabulary, and Ministry of Defence Police. If you're talking about the police generally, it's now the police 'service' rather than 'force'.

Before getting into the police 'proper', you have:

VPC - Volunteer Police Cadets. In the past a police cadet was a person serving a kind of apprenticeship into the force, today it refers to a member of a youth organisation open to children and young people aged 10 - 19. Read more at the NVPC website.

Special Constables. Part-time volunteers with the same powers as regular officers.

PCSO - Police Community Support Officer. Introduced in 2002 they lack full police powers (something set to change in 2017) and tend to deal primarily with community engagement issues.


Successful applicants are trained under the IPDLP (Initial Police Learning and Development Programme). Sections of this will be completed at a regional training centre - Hendon Police College is the best known - and the rest on placement with the Force. After successfully completing probation, an officer might look to move into a specialised role, everything from traffic police to underwater search to dog handling, or start their way up the uniformed ranks.

PC - Police Constable. The backbone of the police service, PCs will spend their days patrolling, dealing with the public, filling out paperwork, attending incidents, and generally doing their bit for law and order. Until 1999 women were usually designated WPC, and kept that 'W' distinction all the way up the ladder.

Dixon of Dock Green
Long-running BBC drama Dixon of Dock Green is still the go to view of what the British PC should be - even if he has been promoted and has the triple chevrons of a sergeant in this pic. He was a kindly type who always had time to chat with the public, and dealt with minor infractions by giving the wrongdoers a good talking to. (Or, should they be troublemaking youths, a good clip around the earhole.)

Sergeant. Supervises teams of officers and oversees their operational work. As the designated custody officer, sergeants also work in custody suites. There they ensure all arrests made are legitimate, book people into detention, and oversee the care and treatment of all detainees.

Bob Cryer
Sgt Bob Cryer of ITV police procedural The Bill. His rank is denoted on his epaulettes.

Inspector. The senior operation officer - they oversee all officers on duty at any given time. Occasionally people might be able to get direct entry to the service at this level, or more often at sergeant's level, as part of graduate and senior leadership recruitment drives.

Chief Inspector. Overseeing wider teams - for example Gwent Police has two Chief Inspectors who oversee Neighbourhood Operations for the entire Force, one for each Local Policing Area.

Superintendent. Another step up in terms of repsonsibility - in Gwent the two superintendents have overall control of the two LPAs (local policing areas).

Harry Mullet
Superintendent 'Horn Rimmed Harry' Mullet in ITV detective drama A Touch of Frost. Mullet was always worrying about funds and often clashed with DCI Frost on issues like providing overtime or forensics resources for investigations. Senior officers retain more formal day-to-day uniform than 'front line' police.

Chief Superintendent. Usually in command of the biggest force subdivision, the BCU (Basic Command Unit).

Assisstant Chief Constable / Commander (Met). Between one and six per force.

Deputy Chief Constable / Deputy Assistant Commissioner (Met). One per force, except in Scotland which has a single force for the whole country.

Chief Constable / Assistant Commissioner (Met). The top job, except for in the Met where they have two more senior ranks: Deputy Commissioner and Commissioner. Confusingly other Forces have these titles, but the Police and Crime Commissioner is an elected role introduced in 2012. They then appoint a deputy and oversee police funding and produce a crime plan for their Force. (I actually sit on the Gwent PCP (Police and Crime Panel), which holds the Commissioner to account.)

Alternatively, after completing their two years probatonary period in uniform, an officer might go into the CID - Criminal Investigation Department - though it will likely take at least four years before acceptance. My knowledge of the US system is admittedly patchy, but it's not a 'career fork' the way it would be in the NYPD, for example. The ranks are directly equivalent so a move into CID is horizontal rather than vertical, and an officer can move back into uniform without much hassle.

For a time (1990s / 2000s) most forces operated a tenure policy - if an officer had been in the same role (excluding uniform patrol) for ten years or so without progress, they would be forced to make a sideways move back into uniform. Technicalities don't always match up with perception, so some CID officers resigned rather than be 'demoted'. Uniform officers can also be attached to CID for particular cases / roles, and will often wear plainclothes for the duration. They retain their regular uniformed rank however.

CID career progression looks like:

DC - Detective Constable. The rank is directly equivalent to PC, although they still tend to be perceived as more senior than their uniform colleagues. Competition to get accepted into CID is usually tough, which probably adds to this perception. Most of the training (ICIDP - Initial Crime Investigators' Development Programme, and PIP - Professionalising Investigation Programme) will be done on the job after successful completion of the NIE (National Investigators' Exam).

DS - Detective Sergeant.

DI - Detective Inspector.

Life on Mars
Sam Tyler didn't just wake up in 1973 in BBC time traveling police drama, Life on Mars, he also found himself demoted from DCI to DI.

DCI - Detective Chief Inspector. The rank of basically every main character in UK detective shows!

DSU - Detective Superintendent.

DSC - Detective Chief Superintendent.


Police in the 20th Century

Just like every other aspect of British life, WW1 delivered a major shake up to crime and justice. The voluntary Women's Police Service was founded in 1914, and a year later Grantham Borough Police officially swore in Edith Smith as the first policewoman with full powers of arrest. Women's Police Patrols continued throughout the war, and the Met finally gave women constables the power of arrest in 1923. Further progress was steady but slow: women officers dealt almost exclusively with 'women's issues' like prostitution, runaway girls, comforting victims, etc, and in many Forces served as glorified secretaries and tea ladies well into the 1960s and sometimes later.

WPC 56
BBC drama WPC 56 depicts the challenges WPC (Woman Police Constable) Gina Dawson faces in the 1950s as the first policewoman in her small hometown force. For more on women police in this era, I highly recommend Joan Lock's memoirs of life as a 'lady policeman' in the 50s.

WW1 also galvanised the police into demanding better pay and conditions. Huge police strikes in 1918 and 1919 left parts of the country at the mercy of race rioters and looters, and lead to the founding of the Police Federation in 1919 to ensure that the police didn't become unionised. The Federation is an opt in staff association which now has around 124,000 members and lobbies on behalf of police of all ranks - but, on the flipside, it is illegal for police to strike.

At the outbreak of WW2 there were around 60,000 police officers - just under 20,000 of those serving in the Met - and although all but reservists were exempt from conscription, in practice many of these physically fit young men quickly volunteered for military service. To make up the shortfall 17,000 War Reserve Constables, with all the arresting powers of a regular officer, were sworn in, along with more women and other temporary measures like the PAMS (Police Auxiliary Messenger Service), which consisted of teeange boys under 18 with access to their own bicycle.

John Christie under arrest
The most famous WRC is probably John Christie, a serial killer who murdered his first victim while he was still a serving constable in 1943. He went on to kill at least seven other people before being hanged for his wife's murder in 1953.

After WW2 the focus turned to better organising and streamlining Britain's many police forces. In 1939 there had been over 200 separate forces across England and Wales, so the Police Act of 1946 amalgamated and merged smaller forces to leave 133. This was further condensed down to 49 in 1964, and to 43 in 1974. To get these new larger forces to work, new technology also needed to become an integral part of police life. Public Police [telephone] Boxes - just like Dr Who's TARDIS - had first been introduced in 1891, but now they began to be phased out in favour of the walkie-talkie radio and the growth of mobile vehicular patrols, as opposed to foot and cycle patrols.

The Sweeney
1970s ITV drama The Sweeney made police look cool! It followed the work of the plainclothes 'Flying Squad', the robbery squad within the Met's Serious and Organised Crime Command, whose officers drove fast cars and carried firearms - just like their American counterparts.

The popularity of shows like The Sweeney also coincided with more public scrutiny of what the real police were up to, and corruption scandals began to fill the headlines. In 1977 the Flying Squad's commander, DCI Kenneth Drury, was sentenced to eight years for corruption, with many other officers choosing to resign rather than face conviction. Operation Countryman, a massive internal Met investigation, commenced in 1978 and heralded a new low point in police and public relations. As the 1970s gave way to the 1980s unemployment and unrest was rife throughout the UK, and when police were deployed to deal with the huge NUM (National Union of Miners) strikes of the mid-80s, they became a real symbol of hatred for left wing working class communities.

Battle of Orgreave
June 1984, the Battle of Orgreave - the mainstream media attempted to paint the police as vallant heroes in its aftermath. The reality was that police had been instructed to incite a riot to destroy public sympathy for the miners, and viciously beat unarmed picketers until they accomplished it.

Things went from bad to worse. Accusations of corruption remained rife, alongside tales of police brutality, incompetence, and institutionalised racism, sexism, and general prejudice. In April 1989 the actions of South Yorkshire Police at the Hillsborough Disaster reignited hostility - intense over-crowding at a FA semi-final cup match as a result of poor policing lead to a human crush, complete with footage of police watching on or forcibly beating men back behind the railings as Liverpool fans were trampled to death in the stands.

The Sun on Hillsborough
The mainstream media again sided with the police - claims that the involuntary urination of dead and dying men being pulled to safety from the terraces were deliberate acts of anti-police sentiment incited particular disgust. The Sun is still shunned in Liverpool, and its reporters are banned from Liverpool FC grounds and news conferences.

In the 1990s the police continued to struggle with their public image; the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993 and the inquests which followed put the spotlight on racist attitudes, while perceived police preoccupation with breaking up raves and cracking down on minor drug use and possession left them appearing out of touch with the realities of modern Britain. High profile drives to improve police diversity - along with a fall in crime figures from the mid 1990s - began the process of public rehabilitation.

Here is popular BBC sitcom, The Thin Blue Line, making fun of the police's newfound obsession with PR, while highlighting the contemporary public concerns about institutional prejudice and police membership of the Freemasons:


999, Emergency!

999 is the emergency services number, originally introduced in the London area in 1937 - within a week it had resulted in an arrest. The number was extended to major cities after WW2 and the rest of the UK in 1976. Today the European emergency number 112 will redirect, as will 911. The number for non-emergency policing issues is 101.

999 vs 101


Police Today

Speaking generally, today the police seem to be held in much higher regard here than they are in the USA. Real problems persist, unquestionably, but the efforts to combat corruption and improve relations with the public have paid dividends.

In the early 2000s there was a real feeling that what the country needed was a return to grassroots policing and the 'bobby on the beat', a police officer who knew their patch well and was seen out and about on foot in the community. To this end PCSOs (Police Community Support Officers) were introduced in 2002. They lack the full powers of a regular officer and have tended to focus on community engagement and crime prevention - although this will change with the expansion of their powers under the 2017 Policing and Crime Act, and the fact many forces are beginning to deploy them to operational duties as a result of cutbacks in funding.

Two CSOs patrol Newport via the South Wales Argus
Gwent Police CSOs on foot patrol in Newport City Centre, via the South Wales Argus. The uniform seen here is fairly typical for CSOs across England and Wales, and is designed to make them as visible as possible, while also looking unthreatening and approachable.

High profile terrorist incidents also lead to a reassessment of what people wanted from the police. In the aftermath of 9/11 armed police patrolled airports, and the BTP (British Transport Police) was granted its own permanent armed unit in 2011 which you can regularly see on the London Underground. The 2005 7/7 London bombings might have concentrated public opinion in favour of guns, but two weeks later a CO19 (Specialist Firearms Command) officer shot dead Jean Charles de Menezes, an innocent commuter, following a misidentification. When the Police Federation surveyed its members in 2006, 82% were against the routine arming of police officers. Opinion has steadily softened over the intervening years, especially in London where the risks of an incident are high, but overall it remains highly unlikely police in England and Wales will be issued guns as standard kit any time soon.

Police Equipment UK
Typical standard issue police kit: speedcuffs, PNB (pocket notebook), baton, incapacitant spray (usually CS, sometimes PAVA), radio, mobile phone / electronic PNB, body camera (not all Forces), stab vest (to be worn as appropriate), hi-vis vest and bad weather coat. Not pictured: paperwork, forms, evidence and action books, etc. The EPNB is improving it, but there's still a lot of paper being carried.

So, although male officers in the PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland) have always been armed, and female officers since 1993, police in England and Wales have to be an AFO (Authorised Firearms Officer) to get their hands on a gun - and outside London only one force (Greater Manchester) has more than 200 AFOs. In 2015/16 there were 14,000 incidents in England and Wales where a police officer was armed - mostly in London, of course - and of all those a gun was actually fired on 7 occasions. More common is the use of Taser, or stun gun, although officers must again be specially trained to be allowed to use them. In 2015 Tasers were discharged 1,921 times. What I'm saying, in short, is that unless you live in London seeing a cop with a weapon is startling and unusual.

Police in Cardiff for NATO summit
In 2014 thousands of AFOs were drafted in from across the country to help police the Newport NATO summit - there is no way Gwent and South Wales Police Forces could have managed such a major event without the extra numbers. The idea that police are the plucky underdogs taking on better armed criminals has, in my opinion, majorly contributed to the more positive light the English and Welsh forces are currently viewed in.

The biggest problem facing police right now is the lack of funding. Recruitment freezes combined with natural wastage has left many forces stretched too thin, and it doesn't look like things will be improving any time soon.


Looking the Part

Everyday uniforms tend to be less formal than in the USA these days, and regulations concerning facial hair, haircuts, jewellery, etc, are generally less restrictive too. The Met's official stance, for instance, is that officers' appearance 'should be smart, fit for purpose and portray a favourable impression of the Service.'

picture from Daily Mail website
PC Peter Swinger of the Met became an internet sensation after being photographed policing a far-right demonstration with a 'hipster' moustache and beard.

Officers of both sexes are free to have long hair, providing it's worn up and out of the face. 'Established' facial hair is also deemed acceptable and can be grown while on leave, providing officers update their warrant cards. Visible jewellery is to be kept to a minimum, but there is more leeway for religious observance - for example crosses / crucifixes may be worn beneath uniforms, and Sikh officers can wear the Kara and Kirpan. Similarly, hijab, turbans, religious body decoration (mehndi, bindi, etc) are usually fine, though how far religious observance exceptions extend depends on the individual service; e.g. West Midlands Police have recently said they would likely allow officers to wear the burka if they wanted to.

Many UK forces will have periodic crack downs on appearance, with enforcement focus on things like visible tattoos and hair dyed 'conspicuously unnatural colours'. Anything more stringent is likely to be met with derision - Gloucestershire Constabulary was roundly criticised a few years back for attempting to make bearded officers wear beard nets, with the press taking the view that the time and effort would be better spent tackling some of their backlog of unsolved crime.

For more info, check out Police Scotland's uniform and appearance policy.


Tough on Crime

Tough on the causes of crime. That's one of the favourite political phrases in the UK, but although crime rates have tended to go down over the last couple of decades (allowing for improved reporting), public perception hasn't always kept pace. People especially tend to overestimate the amount of violent and serious crime taking place, when actually the biggest drains on police resources are cyber crime, anti-social behaviour, and other low level criminal activity.

Recorded vs perceived crime

It's probably important to point out that what constitues a serious and violent crime in the UK doesn't match up well with the US either - there was this meme doing the rounds a couple of years ago claiming that the UK has more violent crime than the USA when accounting for population size. But... all 'crimes against the person' (i.e. any sexual offenses, robberies, simple assaults, threats with a weapon, etc.) are deemed violent crime here, while the FBI counts only aggravated assaults, robbery, murder, nonnegligent manslaughter and forcible rape.

Homicides in the UK
Per 100,000 people.

Laws governing ownership of anything that might be deemed a weapon are stricter too - legally, guns can only be bought face to face and must be registered with the police, and you can't even sell cans of deoderant or butter knives to anyone under 18. It is illegal to carry pepper or other incapicitant spray, and a civillian carrying a police baton in public is just asking to be arrested. This can mostly be dated back to 1996 and the Dunblane School Massacre in which 17 5-year-olds were killed. It's the only school shooting the UK has had and reaction almost entirely across the board was support for zero tolerance. Knife amnesty drives are commonplace, and just being caught with a bladed implement can be enough to get you a community service order.


Under Arrest!

In the States the detainee is given their Miranda Rights: 'You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say or do can and will be held against you in a court of law.'

Although the right not to answer questions on trial was well established, it wasn't until 1912 that the right not to answer them beforehand was also codified. By 1990 the typical police caution in the UK went something like: 'You do not have to say anything, but anything you do say will be taken down and may be given in evidence.' In 1994 the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act watered down the protection this offered, changing the standard police caution to:

'You do not have to say anything but it may harm your defense if you do not mention, when questioned, something which you later rely on court. Anything you do say may be given in evidence.'

Following an arrest, the person is taken to a police station where they are booked into custody by the custody officer who checks the arrest was lawful, explains the detainee's rights and ensures they understand them - appropriate adults (social workers, legal guardians, etc) or interpreters will be brought in if this seems questionable. They will be searched, their possessions bagged and detained, then put into a cell to await questioning. Photographs, fingerprints, and DNA samples may be taken and logged in the police database.

Custody Suite
A South Wales Police custody sergeant sat at the booking in desk of a custody suite. Custody suite cells are really basic, with just a bench and possibly a toilet. They are designed for short term use and Forces are discouraged from allowing detainees to share a cell.

Anybody being formally questioned at a police station has the right to free legal advice from the duty solicitor, over a telephone service if the offence is minor, or from a solicitor paid for by themselves / their associates. Questioning cannot commence until requested legal advice has been received, although there are a few exceptions. Traditionally this was the time when most problems arose - improper questioning being carried out, threats and actual violence, etc - but the move to first audio and then visual recording of interviews has really reduced the opportunity for such practices. After 24 hours the detainee must be charged or released, or an extension for further questioning applied for (only if it's a serious crime).

Day 188 - West Midlands Police - Custody Interview Room
A West Midlands Police interview room - many forces are still in the process of phasing out audio cassette tapes in favour of digital recordings.

If the person is charged they are then either released on police bail - this doesn't cost anything, it's just a linguistic hangover - or kept in police custody to await a magistrates' court hearing. The first hearing is always heard at Magistrates' or Video Court by a couple of magistrates or a district judge (no jury), and more serious offences are then passed up to Crown Court. At that point the defendant will either be released on conditional or unconditional bail to await further hearings and trial, or they will be remanded in custody and taken to wait in prison.

Magistrates Court
Magistrates' Court - this is a still from a University of Derby video explaining how it works, who is who, and the powers they have.


Police Stations

Whenever I watch US cop shows I'm always amazed at how suspects, witnesses, and total randomers seem to just be wandering unsupervised around the station where they could easily see investigation details, confidential information, etc. I hope it's just a TV thing! The only bit of a police station most people will ever see here is the front desk, or reception. When you walk in off the street this is what you see, where you wait to speak to someone, and, if they deem it necessary, be escorted in and out of the inner workings of the building.

Sun Hill Front Desk
The front desk of The Bill's fictional Sun Hill police station. It's basically like a help desk - and plenty of issues will be dealt with there and then, like handing in lost property or reporting minor incidents.

The public are generally kept away from operational areas and incident rooms where particular crimes are being worked on.

Incident Room
1980s style incident room - during the Yorkshire Ripper investigation the floor of the incident room had to be reinforced to deal with the sheer weight of paper!



Prison deserves its own post, but I'll give it a brief mention here just because it is very different to the USA. The point of prison in the UK is to punish, sure, but more importantly to rehabilitate. There is more focus on education, work, and preventing prisoners from becoming institutionalised. Capital punishment was abolished in 1965, following some famous miscarriages of justice, so we have no equivalent of Death Row or any of its associated problems.

Super popular 1970s BBC sitcom Porridge is the enduring view of prison life in Britain. Fletcher had been in and out of the system his entire life and wanted new cellmate Lennie Godber, in on his first offence, to break the cycle. Opposing views on the treatment of prisoners were personified in nervous Mr. Barrowclough, dedicated to the ideal of rehabilitation, and ex-military man Mr. Mackay who believed it his role as warder to make the lives of those in his charge as miserable as possible.

The most dangerous prisoners are held at Category A prisons (or restricted status for women), but most prisoners will be categorised B on entering the system on remand or after sentencing. Low risk prisoners will be downgraded to Cat C, or Cat D and moved to an open prison where the regime is much more relaxed and they can leave the premises for work. There are also three high-security psychiatric hospitals, the most famous being Broadmoor.

There are frequent spasms of concern about how easy life in Britain's prison system is - so good that suicides are at a 30 year (at least) high and last year saw the worst prison riot since 1990 - and we're riding one such wave at the moment. Uniforms have been made compulsory for all male prisoners again (women have been exempt since 1971), for instance, as a sign of how hard we're cracking down, and how much we want to deal with regular outbreaks of scabies. There is a brilliant Insider View blog looking at modern UK prison life, for those who want to know more.

Modern Porridge
The BBC unwisely made Porridge recently, but at least it provides us with a good example of modern prison uniform.

For more like this, please click the image below:
The Fic Writer's Guide To Britain


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