Police Miscellany

As a reader I find the way that writers get very simple, easy-to-research issues about police wrong very frustrating. Taken far enough they can burst the ‘bubble’ of the world that they have otherwise successfully created.  The particular issues for me are:

  • police discipline, especially the issue of suspension
  • senior officers
  • police culture
  • informants
  • representative organizations.

Discipline and Suspension

There are two routes by which a police officer can be the subject of discipline – internal, where a supervisor has found him or her behaving incorrectly and invokes formal disciplinary procedures, and externally where a complaint has been made by a member of the public. If there is evidence of wrongdoing both end up with a formal hearing before an assistant chief constable and two superintendents.

Until 1998 police officers were governed by regulations which had changed very little since Victorian times. This listed specific offences, such as drinking on duty, and was based on the military model of discipline rather than the civilian one, despite the fact that police officers are civilians who wear uniforms just to get the job done.  Any allegation needed to be proved to the criminal standard of proof, i.e. beyond a reasonable doubt, rather than the usual one for employment law of being proved in the ‘balance of probabilities’.  The regulations were reviewed and the list of offences was thankfully abandoned.  A code of conduct was introduced which requires that police officers should be honest, impartial, polite, obey orders, only use reasonable force, etc., and any breach of the code can be subject to formal discipline.

The standard of proof was also changed to be the same as in employment law – the balance of probabilities – a change that I had campaigned for as chief officer as I believed that the issue was one of employment and not criminal culpability. In most complaints against police it is only the complainant’s word against that of the officer.  The criminal standard of proof meant that many instances of unacceptable behaviour went unpunished and the officer stayed in the job.  The Police Federation argued that the police had to deal with criminals, often in difficult situations, who would make malicious allegations against them, so the burden of proof should be higher.  This argument garnered considerable public support at the time, but it is specious for two reasons.  First, the case will be judged by police officers, who will be well aware of the danger and sympathetic to the officer.  Second, the fact that someone has a criminal record will seriously undermine their credibility as a witness, so weighty corroboration will be needed.  In addition the more serious the outcome the greater the weight of evidence needed – you need a lot more for murder than for a speeding ticket.


This is a very formal procedure and is still used fairly rarely, usually on if the presence of the officer on duty may be detrimental to or hinder the investigation, or where it is in the public interest. Because of the seriousness of the consequences everything that can be done to avoid it will be done, including restricting the officer to a non-operational role.  No officer is every suspended by the Chief Constable in person.  The Chief Constable will be the final arbiter in the disciplinary process, and so can play no part at all in the investigation of any offence or complaint.  It is always done by an officer from the Complaints and Discipline Office, which is usually called by some euphemism these days, including Professional Standards Office (Thames Valley), Internal Affairs (Greater Manchester, watching too much TV) and best of all the Directorate of Professional Standards Customer Service Team (the Met, getting in every buzzword possible).  The formality of the occasion is such that this officer will read from a prepared script, giving the accused officer the details of the allegation and the reasons for the suspension.  He or she will get a written copy, usually referred to as a Reg. 9 notice.

In crime writing, having protagonists restricted to a non-operational role is in many ways preferable to suspension as they will have access to all the force’s resources and can go to and from police stations and police units. A suspended officer cannot do this; indeed until fairly recently they were banned from all police premises, even social and sports clubs.

Most sergeants and inspectors will only use formal discipline as a last resort. The nature of police work provides a whole range of ‘punishment’ postings for officers who cross them in some way – boring jobs that might entail standing around in the rain, keeping guard on premises or guarding prisoners in hospitals.  In contrast, training and other exciting postings are held out as a reward for good work.  In all my time as operational police officer I never felt the need to initiate formal disciplinary proceedings nor did any of my colleagues.


Most police officers get into trouble through a complaint made by a member of the public. The police are duty-bound to record and investigate every complaint, no matter how trivial.  Minor matters such as those concerning an officer’s manner and attitude can be informally resolved if both the complainant and the officer agree.  Where appropriate officers can be invited to apologize but they cannot be made to do so, nor can the force apologize on their behalf if they do not agree.  In most non-urban forces this type of complaint makes up the vast bulk.  In busier urban forces the position is usually quite different; the majority of complaints are allegations of criminal conduct, such as planting evidence, perjury, assault and malicious prosecution.

The complaints process is now overseen by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), which was set up in 2004. It is the latest in a line of bodies which have gradually increased the degree to which complaints against police are independently investigated and adjudicated.  The major changes brought about by the IPCC are:

  • the oversight of the whole process – previously the Police Complaints Authority only reviewed more serious cases
  • the introduction of non-police investigators – until 2004 all complaints were investigated by police officers with Police Complaints Authority supervising the more serious ones.

The IPCC classify and manage complaints in three categories:

  • a supervised investigation – the force will be responsible for the investigation and will report on its progress and completion to an IPCC supervisor
  • a managed investigation – the force will provide the investigators and the IPCC supervisor will decide how the investigation will be carried out
  • an independent investigation – the whole investigation will be carried out by independent IPCC investigators.

The category to which a case will be allotted will depend on its seriousness and the public interest.

Senior Officers

The following is the rank structure up to Chief Superintendent, which applies to all forces.




Chief Inspector


Chief Superintendent

Above the rank of Chief Superintendent, the structure in London differs from that outside the Met area. Outside London, the structure is as follows:

Assistant Chief Constable

Deputy Chief Constable

Chief Constable

In London (both Metropolitan and City forces) it is as follows:


Deputy Assistant Commissioner

Assistant Commissioner

Deputy Commissioner


Note that the ranks of Chief Commissioner and Assistant Chief Commissioner, much loved by writers and journalists (particularly the BBC for some reason), don’t exist. ‘Detective’ is a designation of the type of job done and only denotes membership of the CID; it is not a rank.  So an inspector and a detective inspector have the same rank, and who will be in charge will depend on the circumstances – if investigating a crime, the detective, if dealing with a public order incident, the uniformed inspector.  (The situation can be different in US forces, as they often have grades of patrolman and detective, and the move to detective is clearly a promotion.)

In order to understand the rank structure it is necessary to give a brief description of how most forces are structured. They are divided into basic command units (BCUs).  These are geographical divisions, usually co-terminous with local authorities, which are big enough to provide 95-98 per cent of policing needs and small enough to be managed by one person, usually a chief superintendent.

Their size varies from around 250 officers to as many as 1,000, although the latter are usually subdivided in some way – which seems to defeat the original object of an unitary command. In the police, as in most organizations, there appears to be a cycle of change taking you remorselessly back to where you came from, and I note that some forces are already beginning to call BCUs divisions – the term that was scrapped fifteen years ago in favour of BCU.

Force headquarters are divided into departments which are usually described as operational and administrative support. The former will encompass functions such as traffic, firearms teams and headquarters CID; each function is headed by a chief superintendent and groups of functions will come under the control of an assistant chief constable.  Administration will include finance, personnel and training, which will be headed by a mixture of civilian and police managers.  Every force has a website and a writer can easily find out this basic information on one visit; even an imaginary force will have a real-life equivalent which can be used.

The last truly operational rank in uniform, on duty 24/7, face to face with the public, is inspector. Those above inspector have operational responsibilities but spend most of their time on management tasks.  Each division and department will have a call-out rota for these ranks in order to cover out-of-hours calls for more serious incidents or where a firearms operation is to be mounted.  This means that the constable’s senior officer is usually the shift, relief or office inspector; the inspector’s is usually the chief superintendent.  BCU officers will rarely meet anyone above the rank of chief superintendent.

Until the 1980s most forces ran their CIDs as headquarters departments so that those based at a station still reported to and were managed by the detective chief superintendent at headquarters. That changed, and the divisional (now BCU) commanders were given control of their own CIDs.  That is still the case except where a murder or other major incident is being investigated, where the investigation team will almost inevitably be made up of officers from all over the force and control of the investigation will come under the direct control of the senior HQ detective.

The profile of the chief officer team – the assistant chief constable (ACC), the deputy chief constable (DCC) and the chief constable (CC) – varies from force to force. They are commonly referred to as the ACPO team from their membership of the Association of Chief Police Officers.  In some forces the culture is that the ACPO team often visits BCUs and carry our regular patrols with officers.  This was my preferred approach and it is surprising how relaxed and informative officers can be if you share their task with them for a few hours.  Some forces are the opposite.  In one force in which I served we only saw one of the ACPO team if there was trouble or we were about to be inspected by Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary (HMI).  One chief I know of hand two nicknames: the Eternal Flame, as he never went out, and the Chinese Chief Constable, Mr Who.

From my perspective the rank which always seemed to have the biggest impact on the public was chief inspector – superintendent sounded more like someone in charge of a public lavatory and many members of the public had real difficulties with the ‘constable’ element of assistant, deputy and chief constable.

A final point from the perspective of a writer. All chief constables were at one point in their careers constables, then sergeants, then inspectors and so on.  They have probably done most of the jobs that their officers are doing and will have pulled, or seen pulled, every scam at every rank.  In real life they are very knowledgeable about what is going on in their forces and usually very empathetic to the problems their officers face.  Most importantly, they can read between the lines of reports and make a good guess about what really happened, no matter what the report says.


Police culture has changed significantly since the 1970s when Life on Mars DCI Gene Hunt, although a bit of a caricature, could be said to exemplify a lot of the culture at that time – boozy, chauvinist, macho and very ‘can do’.  Much has changed since that time, but much has stayed the same.  Women still only make up 20 per cent of the police officers and are still not fairly represented in specialities and senior ranks.  Despite the targets set by the Home Secretary following the Macpherson Report, which said that forces should represent their communities, none of the big four (the Met, West Midlands, Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire) has come anywhere near the target.  The Met has been the most successful with 8 per cent, against a target that is closer to 25 per cent.

The majority of the service is still recruited from the white, male working-class, and the culture will reflect that, in the same way that society itself does in terms of language and attitude towards issues such as equality of opportunity. The language out of the public view can be ripe with expletives, especially when things are tense, and the humour, as in all three emergency services, is black – as pitch sometimes.

Each of the functions tends to reflect the type of person attracted to it so that:

  • Patrol reflects the fact that it includes everyone from those who have just joined to the thirty-year veteran.
  • The older constables, especially if they are any good at the job, will have tremendous influence on how a shift or relief operates. Of course the shift is the home of the ‘canteen cowboy’, who has been everywhere, seen everything, done everything, but no one can remember when he last made a decent crime arrest.
  • CID is probably the most varied now, but until the early 1990s it was almost exclusively white male. It tends to reflect the cynical edge of policing, and detectives still tend to have the poorest marriage record and the biggest drink problems (when this gest too bad they are sent back to uniform).
  • Traffic is mainly male and is staffed by men who like driving big fast cars and motorcycles – a bit like Top Gear without Jeremy Clarkson’s subtlety and political correctness.
  • Firearms units tend to have a larger number than usual of ex-services personnel, and the culture is probably closer to that of the army than the police in many ways.


These are an essential element of policing and yet appear to be little used in fiction. People usually become informants for one of three reasons:

  • revenge – the disgruntled ex-wives or girlfriends are often a very good source of regular useful information
  • money – this is not usually the major reason as the money paid out by police is usually quite modest, but it is often associated with the following factor
  • control – this informant tries to manipulate the police to take out a rival, leaving the field clear for them. This scenario is often accompanied by an unhealthy or corrupt relationship between the informant and the handler.

An old detective once told me that with information either your foot is on their neck or their foot is on yours. They’re dangerous people and should only be handled or developed by experienced officers.  Every force, in theory at least, has all its informants registered and the relationship between them and their handlers is monitored.  No officer is allowed exclusive handling rights on any informant, but must share them with at least one other officer, usually a sergeant or inspector.  That said, the competition in CID for the best arrest record and detectives’ drive to be in control of their job and their fate will inevitably mean that some of them will still do their best to keep their informants exclusive for as long as possible.

Representative Organizations

There are four elements of the police service which are represented in some way: three police and one civilian. Union membership tends to be low, especially in the smaller forces, and civilians are represented, if at all, by Unison.  In my experience the civilians working for the police are highly committed and rarely threaten industrial action and relationships between police management and the union are usually good.

The police themselves have three levels of representation.

Chief officers (assistant, deputy and chief constable) are represented by two organizations – ACPO and the Chief Police Officers Staff Association (CPOSA). ACPO does all the policy development work and will represent the senior officers’ view to the government and the public.  It works on the basis of consensus, and although it has done a lot to professionalize its working – it now has a president who serves for four years rather than one – it is still a bit slow on its feet compared to the Police Federation (see below), which often purports to represent the ‘police’ view.  CPOSA negotiates chief officers’ terms and conditions of service.

Superintendents are represented, not surprisingly, by the Superintendents’ Association. Except for the period just after the Labour government was elected in 1997 they have had little influence on policy development.

Police officers are not allowed by law to strike. This law was passed following police strikes in London and Liverpool in 1919 – the situation in Liverpool became so anarchic that the government actually sent gunboats.  As a result the government removed police officers’ right to strike and be members of trade unions.  Instead it created by statute the Police Federation to represent officers from constable to chief inspector.  This body is highly professional at representing its members, both at a local level in terms of disciplinary proceedings and at national level in terms of negotiating pay and conditions.  It has a deserved reputation for being able to run rings around Home Office civil servants and uses its considerable bank balance and position to influence politicians and the community at every level.


Queen Victoria.


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