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British police

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

A law enforcement helicopter (Eurocopter EC135T), shared by the English police forces of Avon and Somerset, and Gloucestershire.
A law enforcement helicopter (Eurocopter EC135T), 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 Britain in 1812, 1818 and 1822 a number of committees had examined the policing of London. Based on their findings the home secretary Robert Peel passed the Metropolitan Police Act of 1829 , introducing a more rigorous and less discretionary approach to law enforcement. The new Metropolitan Police Service, founded on September 29, was depersonalized, bureaucratic and hierarchical with the new police constables (US = patrol officers) 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 initially clearly civilian and their armament was 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 then home secretary, Sir Robert Peel.

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 Wiltshire in 1839. Around thirty counties had done so 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 centralized paramilitary force, the Royal Irish Constabulary, was created (see Royal Ulster Constabulary).

Within the Metropolitan Police a detective force was founded in 1842 and following the Turf Fraud scandal of 1877 it was reorganized into the CID in 1878. A pension was guaranteed by the Police Act of 1890 , previously it had been discretionary. The police became unionized 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 resisted change, there were still over 200 separate police forces before World War II and 117 before the mass reorganization of the Police Act of 1964 which created 49 larger forces covering several counties or large urban areas. These new forces were distanced from the public and operated with limited accountability.

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 3 magistrates, 9 local councillors and 5 independent people, is responsible for overseeing each local constabulary. They also have a duty under law to ensure that their community gets best value from their police force.

Use of firearms

Unlike the police in most other countries, the British police are noted for not being routinely armed, except in Northern Ireland, at airports, nuclear facilities, and on 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, following which around 17% of officers in London were authorised to carry arms. After the deaths of a number of members of the public in the 1980s, control was considerably tightened and 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 (US = patrol officers) are currently an extending baton (US = nightstick) and, in all but 2 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 clear even quicker in well ventilated areas.

Recent and current issues

Evidence of widespread 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 UK miners' strike (1984-1985) saw thousands of police from various constabularies 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 institutional racism in the Police, especially since the 1993 murder of Stephen Lawrence, there have been ongoing problems.

On October 22 2003 5 police officers resigned and 3 were suspended after a BBC documentary revealed racism among recruits. 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 [1] .

See also

External links

  • Association of Chief Police Officers
    • Police Guidelines
  • Association of Police Authorities
  • National Black Police Association
  • HM Inspectors of Constabulary
  • Government Site on Police Reform
  • British Police Slang and Acronyms
  • Chronology of British Policing
  • London Policing Museum
  • Official, central police website

Last updated: 02-07-2005 17:51:15
Last updated: 02-11-2005 17:47:38