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British Police

The British Police - Police services in the United Kingdom.

A law enforcement helicopter (Eurocopter EC135T), shared by the English police forces of Avon and Somerset, and Gloucestershire.

Table of contents
1 History
2 Accountability
3 Use of Firearms
4 Recent Issues
5 Current Issues
6 List of British Police Forces
7 See Also


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 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 home secretary.

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, 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 C.I.D in 1878. A pension was guaranteed by the Police Act of 1890, previously it had been discretionary. The police became unionized during WW 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 WW 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.


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 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.

The weapons carried routinely by ordinary police constables (US = patrol officers) are currently an extending baton (US = nightstick) and, in some forces, pepper sprays.

Recent 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 presence of Freemasons in the police also caused disquiet in the early 1990.

Current Issues


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 is also frequently causes concern.

List of British Police Forces


The boundaries of the regions covered by the forces date from
1974, and were defined with reference to the local government areas of that time, so we use those in this list.



Northern Ireland

See Also

External Links