- Britcops
- Divided by a common language

The following article is my best attempt at sorting out the ranks and job titles in British policing, but even the British find it all a bit confusing. I don’t claim that it is one hundred per cent accurate, but it’s close enough.
British provincial police forces (or services, as they are now known) are geographically based, usually by county, but sometimes taking in more than one small county, or covering only part of a single large county. A typical force will employ around three thousand people, about two thousand of which will be police officers.

The ranks in British provincial police forces are, from bottom to top: Constable, Sergeant, Inspector, Chief Inspector, Superintendent, Chief Superintendent (the rank was phased out, but has now been reinstated) Assistant Chief Constable (of which each force usually has more than one, each heading a particular section), Deputy Chief Constable (only one), and Chief Constable (only one).

Chief Constables can deploy their officers as they see fit, but are appointed by and answerable to a police authority--made up of magistrates, local councillors, and independent members--with whom they must plan their strategy.

Typically, however, the Chief Constables, along with their deputy and assistants, are all based at force headquarters, as are the operational heads of individual departments, usually Chief Superintendents, and their staff. Headquarters also houses specialist departments, such as drugs squads, mounted police, etc.

The forces are split into divisions, each division usually being headed by a Chief Superintendent and/or Superintendent, and divisional departments are generally headed by Chief Inspectors.

The divisions are then split into subdivisions, which are staffed according to size; larger ones are headed by a Superintendent, smaller ones by an Inspector. Smaller ones may or may not have their own Criminal Investigation Department, known as CID, which is the plain-clothes department. A uniformed sergeant might head part-time rural stations, and some remote villages have a lone constable.

The Metropolitan Police are based in London, and Scotland Yard is, of course, their headquarters. Their ranks follow the same pattern up to and including Superintendent, but then they have Commanders, Deputy Assistant Commissioners, Assistant Commissioners, the Deputy Commissioner, and the Commissioner. Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police is the highest-profile job in the British police service, and the appointment of a new one gets considerable press coverage.

Once, provincial police forces called out Scotland Yard for investigations beyond their technical capabilities, or for cases that covered a wide area of the country, but that is no longer the case. All forces have access to up-to-date technology, and they mount joint investigations into crimes that cross county boundaries. The Met does, however, still provide services nationwide. Criminal records, fingerprints, and missing persons are kept on a national database operated by the Met, for instance.
All police officers, whether Met or provincial, must serve two years as a constable before they can be promoted to sergeant and two as sergeant before further promotion, and they must pass exams before being eligible.

Promotional steps can't be missed out, though these days they do have a fast track for graduate entrants, which means they have guaranteed promotion, providing they come up to scratch. Therefore every senior officer, including the Chief Constables of the county forces and the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, has been through the ranks from constable up. There is talk of changing this, and going back to the pre-war practice of sometimes appointing people from outside the police to the top job, but I don’t know how likely this is to happen.

The ranks for detectives in all forces are the same as for uniformed officers, but with Detective tacked on the front. Thus a chief inspector in the CID becomes a Detective Chief Inspector (not a Chief Detective Inspector, though my US editions sometimes make this error on the jacket). This is the case up to and including Chief Supers in both the provinces and the Met. Beyond that, they are simply known by the rank, whatever their department. There is no difference in pay between a detective and a uniformed officer of the same rank; being made a detective is not a promotion.

The most obvious difference between British police and their counterparts in the U.S. is that the vast majority of British police officers do not carry firearms. Instead, they carry an expanding baton (nightstick). Some forces also equip their officers with a spray to disable someone temporarily, and some are currently (no pun intended, but I left it in anyway) testing a ‘Taser’ – a weapon capable of temporarily disabling someone by electric shock. It is intended for use as a less lethal alternative to firearms.

There are Firearms Units in most forces, and Armed Response Vehicles are available twenty-four hours a day, but the firearms are kept locked in the vehicle until deployed; the officers do not carry them. Some units (the Special Branch of the Met, which deals with terrorists and gives VIP protection, and police officers at major airports, for instance) do carry arms, but despite global terrorism and the increased use of firearms by criminals, a police officer with a gun is a very rare sight in the UK.
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