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
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
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
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.