• Iain Donnelly

Chapter 1 The UK Police Service – how does it work?

Police ranks

It's worth first of all, explaining the rank structure of the UK police service.

Police constable

This is the entry point for the overwhelming majority of people in the service.

I say majority because there is now a Direct Entry process that allows a small number of people to enter directly at either Inspector or Superintendent rank. It's probably too early to say whether this will be a success or not, but anecdotally the stories I'm hearing are not encouraging. The attrition rate for direct entry Superintendents is high as they suddenly realise the enormity of what they have taken on and the direct entry Inspectors often struggle to gain the confidence of their staff who quickly see the gaps in their knowledge and experience.

Having said that, I've worked for many shockingly bad police managers over the years who did have that experience and despite that, they were still terrible managers who made terrible decisions.

The police constable or PC rank comprises about eighty per cent of the officers in the service nationally, and many will stay at this rank their entire service, moving around laterally to do a variety of roles in a variety of departments. Those with a hankering and aptitude to investigate crime will become detective constables (DCs), and it is not unusual for someone to move to and fro between uniform and detective roles, particularly if they’re successful in promotion processes and move up the ranks. Uniform PCs and Sergeants wear epaulettes with their shoulder number printed in silver lettering. In the Met my collar number was 233, and when I transferred to the West Midlands, they gave me a new shoulder number of 0341, which took me a while to adjust to. In the Met, PCs also have their local divisional two-letter call sign above the number, so in my case, as I worked in Clapham (LM) I was LM 233.


This is the first rung on the supervisory ladder in the police service and in my view the most crucial supervisory rank. A good sergeant is worth their weight in gold. The best ones have complete integrity; they lead by example, drive performance, motivate staff, create an enjoyable environment to work in and get the best out of their team. A weak, lazy or bullying sergeant will do the exact opposite. Those who investigate crime have the title Detective Sergeant, normally referred to as a DS. PCs or DCs typically refer to their sergeant as 'Sarge', however in London they are also referred to as 'Skipper', sometimes shortened to 'Skip'. In some forces, including the West Midlands, where I spent the second half of my thirty-year service, sergeants are often referred to as the 'Stripe', on the basis that they wear the three sergeants’ stripes on their shoulder epaulettes.


This is the first rank where one could accurately be termed a 'manager' in the police service. They typically lead teams of four or five sergeants and perhaps anything between twenty and fifty constables. They are generally uniform inspectors or detective inspectors, and there are lots of other niche roles where inspectors may not fall neatly into either of those categories. These roles may involve working with partner agencies, managing violent offenders or sex offenders in the community and lots of other things that the police now do, but which the public probably knows little about. Male inspectors are addressed as 'Sir' by their staff and female inspectors as 'Ma'am', although typically both sexes are addressed simply as 'Boss'. There are again regional variations and in London inspectors (and above) are frequently addressed as 'guvnor' which is often shortened to 'guv'. In the West Midlands and many Northern forces, they tend to refer to inspectors and above as 'gaffer'. I always knew when I was talking to a fellow ex-Met officer in the West Midlands because they would refer to me as 'guv' which made me smile. Uniform inspectors wear epaulettes on their shoulders with two silver pips.

Chief Inspector

This is the first rung on the senior management ladder, and chief inspectors or detective chief inspectors will sit as a member of the local or departmental senior leadership team (SLT) or Senior Management Team (SMT). This is widely perceived to be one of the most thankless ranks in the police service, where chief inspectors carry a great deal of risk and responsibility but get paid barely more than an inspector. In my first chief inspector role, I managed ten inspectors, about twenty sergeants and about one hundred and fifty constables and members of police staff. Uniform chief inspectors wear epaulettes with three silver pips and are addressed in the same way as inspectors by their staff.


Superintendents carry a lot of responsibility, and frequently this is where the 'buck stops' organisationally. That is not to say that ranks above and below do not carry risk, because they all do, but I would argue this based on the breadth and seriousness of the decisions that superintendents frequently have to make. A typical superintendent will either manage the day-to-day delivery of local operational policing, or they will manage a large central department with responsibility for many members of staff. They operate at both a strategic and operational level and in addition to the day job they have the authority, (provided the necessary legal conditions are met), to make decisions that can have a significant impact on the lives of private citizens. For example, they can authorise someone to be kept in custody beyond the statutory period of twenty-four hours. They can authorise covert surveillance on an individual or an address, and they can authorise the acquisition of telecoms data and internet data to progress a criminal investigation. A good superintendent will know a hell of a lot, and they will be able to draw upon the learning from a long career in policing to support their staff and make difficult decisions. Perhaps this is why there appears to have been such a high drop-out rate amongst the new direct-entry superintendents since 2016. Superintendents wear a silver crown emblem on their epaulettes.

Chief Superintendent

Officers at this rank have overall responsibility either for an individual geographical command unit delivering policing services, or a central corporate department. If I describe the West Midlands Police, that will give you an idea of how it all works. Most of the forty-three forces in England and Wales operate fairly similarly, albeit that there are differences in size. Some forces are massive, like the Met, West Midlands and Greater Manchester and some are tiny, like Warwickshire or Durham.

In the West Midlands, we had eight geographical command units, all of which were run by a Chief Superintendent. We had Birmingham West, Birmingham East, Coventry, Solihull, Wolverhampton, Walsall, Sandwell and Dudley. In addition, we also had Chief Superintendents responsible for the following departments;

1. Response department who managed all the 24/7 emergency calls

2. Force Operations who managed firearms, dogs, traffic, public order/searching

3. Investigations department (in old money CID)

4. Public Protection Unit, who investigated child abuse, domestic abuse and offences against vulnerable adults

5. Force Contact, who dealt with all of the incoming 999 and non-emergency calls for service, emails, visits to police stations etc

6. Force Intelligence who gather, analyse and disseminate intelligence relating to criminality and support complex investigations.

7. Criminal Justice department who staff the custody suites (cell blocks) and ensure that the criminal justice system and courts get what they need for prosecutions.

8. Complaints, discipline and anti-corruption unit (sometimes referred to as the Professional Standards department)

Chief Superintendents generally tend not to get massively involved in the day to day running of their 'command units', leaving that to their superintendents and chief inspectors. They operate at a more strategic level and spend a lot of time meeting with senior representatives from partner agencies and community representatives (e.g., MPs, local authorities, health, education etc.). They get involved in areas of cross-departmental policy and issues impacting on the wider force.

Chief Superintendents wear epaulettes with a silver crown emblem and a single silver pip above it.

Chief Officers

The most senior ranks in the police are collectively referred to as 'Chief Officers' and the titles are the same everywhere in the UK apart from the Met.

The first rank on the ladder is Assistant Chief Constable (ACC), a rank referred to as 'Commander' in the Met. They can be recognised by the circular, silver bay leaf wreath on their epaulettes.

Next comes Deputy Chief Constable (DCC), referred to as a Deputy Assistant Commissioner (DAC) in the Met. They can be recognised by the bay leaf wreath with a single silver pip above it.

Then we have the Chief Constable rank, the Met equivalent being Assistant Commissioner. They wear the bay leaf wreath with a silver crown above it.

Finally, in the Met, they have a Commissioner, who, because of the size of the Met, is even more senior than a Chief Constable. The Commissioner wears the same emblems on his or her shoulder as a Chief Constable, but with the addition of a single silver pip.

The Chief Officers of each force work as a team (or in some dysfunctional forces, actively against one another) and have either wide-ranging geographic or thematic responsibilities. Typically, in a force, you will have one ACC responsible for all of the geographic command units, one responsible for crime and public protection and one for everything else. The DCCs tend to oversee the performance of the force in the widest sense as well as professional standards and organisational change/business improvement programmes, and the Chief Constable is ultimately responsible for everything.

Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs)

Rather like Theresa May, PCCs were an unwelcome gift to the police service from David Cameron when he was Prime Minister. Mr Cameron, you will remember, also oversaw the loss of 20,000 officers and later ran away from the mess he created, when another of his bright ideas didn't work out quite as he hoped or expected.

PCCs are elected to the role, which sounds great in theory; however, when it all started in 2012, the electoral turnout was woefully poor, with some regions having a turnout of only 10%. In 2016 average voter turnout was still only about 25%, which was hardly a ringing endorsement of the successful candidates. The calibre of many of these PCCs has been poor, and they all have different priorities, which brings them into conflict with Chief Constables, who have a completely different set of priorities mandated by the Home Office.

PCCs usually align themselves with a particular political party. Thus, they inevitably see the world through a short-term political lens rather than prioritising what is best for individual victims of crime, regardless of age, gender, ethnicity or postcode.

You've probably guessed by now that I'm not a massive fan of PCCs. We were blessed with a great one in West Midlands, but sadly they're not all like him.

UK police structures

The sorry truth is that if someone were given the task today of devising the most inefficient structure for UK policing, they would be hard-pressed to come up with something worse than what we currently have, with 43 different forces in England and Wales. There are 45 if you include Police Scotland and the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Every force does things slightly differently and is funded slightly differently. On top of that, we also have a rather motley collection of PCCs adding to the confusion.

As well as having a costly command team of Chief Officers for every force, there is also a lot of wasted money and duplication of effort running 43 separate finance departments, IT teams, HR departments and all sorts of other functions. These functions arguably could and should be delivered more effectively from a smaller number of regional hubs.

Certain policing activities are delivered regionally, like Counter-Terrorism and Serious and Organised Crime. The Counter-Terrorism Units (CTUs) and the Regional Organised Crime Units (ROCUs) are funded and managed differently to the 43 forces, but they draw their staff from those forces.

Finally, there are the odds and sods of policing. These are police units who have a particular mandate, and generally do not have the full range of policing powers outside those locations or functions. One of these is the British Transport Police, who are funded by the rail network. They are responsible for the safety of the trains and the stations. There are the Ministry of Defence Police, who maintain the security of MOD establishments and then there is the Civil Nuclear Constabulary who maintain the safety of nuclear facilities and nuclear materials in transit.

TV Cops vs Real-life Cops

There seems to be an endless fascination with the British police, who are portrayed every day in TV dramas, films, fly-on-the-wall documentaries and sitcoms. This inevitably shapes perceptions of real officers for better and for worse.

Here are my top twenty TV police drama irritations that conspire to make watching any of them a tense experience for my wife if I'm in the room. At best, I sit rolling my eyes, and at worst I end up shouting at the TV. Some of the worst offenders of all of them ironically are the most popular, e.g., BBC's 'Line of Duty' (shockingly inaccurate) and 'Bodyguard' (woefully bad). Sorry to readers who loved those series, but the police advisors should hang their heads in shame. However, I suspect that more likely the scriptwriters just ignored what the police advisors were telling them.

The following points are explicitly directed at TV scriptwriters, directors and producers who have been making these basic errors for so long now that I suspect that they have become unquestioned 'facts' in the minds of the general public.

  1. Uniform officers standing either inside or outside the room where a suspect is being interviewed. I have never seen a uniformed officer stood at attention, like a spare prick at a wedding, outside or inside the interview room. In case anyone hadn't noticed, the police service in the UK has barely got enough officers to deal with your burglary anymore, never mind stand around outside interview rooms for no reason.

  2. Uniformed officers wearing their hats inside the police station. Police officers do not wear their hats inside the police station.

  3. Blue lights left flashing on a stationary police car. This is even more annoying when it's parked on the pea-gravel drive of a wisteria-clad house in the Cotswolds responding to yet another middle-class pretend murder in the village. Blue lights on a police car are only ever used to facilitate progress through moving traffic when responding to an urgent call or to warn of an obstruction on the road. Once you get to where you are going, you switch them off. Otherwise, you will get a flat battery, and your colleagues quite rightly take the piss out of you.

  4. Senior officers pompously addressing junior officers as 'Constable'. Senior officers generally refer to junior officers by their first name, e.g. Paul or Sarah. There are only three categories of people who ever use that expression when addressing uniform police officers. Firstly, government ministers at the gates of Downing Street or upper-class twits trying to avoid getting arrested for drink driving by name dropping that they were 'speaking to the Chief Constable earlier that day'. Secondly, pompous barristers in court who as a collective are psychologically and procedurally stuck somewhere between 1850 and 1911. Finally, left-wing students at demonstrations who think they're hilarious. In this last category, they tend to pronounce it 'Cuntstable' with the emphasis on the first syllable.

  5. Senior officers interviewing suspects in custody. Senior officers (including senior detectives) never interview suspects in custody. That would be done by a detective constable or a detective sergeant, i.e. someone who knows what they're doing.

  6. Senior uniform officers directing serious crime investigations. Uniform officers do not direct crime investigations. Detectives run those investigations, generally detective inspectors or detective chief inspectors; however, the lions share of the work is done by detective sergeants and detective constables, all of whom wear plain clothes. Uniform officers mostly work in the community, managing day-to-day policing services to the public. I have nothing against uniform officers, as I was one myself at many ranks. However, they do not investigate serious crime.

  7. Several uniform officers of various ranks (frequently a couple of PCs, a sergeant and a completely random Chief Superintendent thrown in for good measure) following the detective around like zombies, sitting in meetings but never saying anything or contributing anything. See point 1 above regarding the loss of 20,000 officers.

  8. Suspects in interviews crumbling in a police interview and confessing their guilt. Suspects almost never tell the police what they have done or admit guilt. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, on legal advice, they answer 'No Comment' to every single question asked of them, apart from confirming their name and date of birth. Sometimes, amusingly, they even answer 'No comment' to that, until their solicitor advises them that they can answer that question.

  9. Surveillance officers sticking out like sore thumbs and making it completely obvious to anyone in a 200-yard radius that they're a surveillance officer. Surveillance officers are highly trained to blend into pretty much any environment. They do not wear dangly radio earpieces, speak into hand-held radios or sit in cars in broad daylight watching someone through binoculars or photographing them with a long lens attached to the camera. In reality, it would be extremely difficult to spot a good surveillance team unless you'd been trained as a surveillance operative yourself.

  10. Characters following a suspect in a car on their own, driving directly behind them for miles until they eventually gain the crucial evidence that they need. It is almost impossible to successfully follow someone driving a car without a full surveillance team of at least ten people. You certainly can't do it on your own because you'd get stuck at the first set of traffic lights.

  11. Corrupt officers everywhere you look. Corrupt officers are extremely rare, and Anti-Corruption Units identify and weed them out pretty quickly, unlike 'Line of Duty' where it seemed like pretty much everyone was corrupt.

  12. Actors wearing police helmets that are far too big for them, which makes them look like a complete idiot.

  13. Actors wearing police caps at a jaunty angle, which also makes them look like a complete idiot.

  14. Actors wearing police helmets with the chin strap fastened down. Doubly annoying if combined with point 1 above and triply annoying if combined with points 1 and 2 above. Chin straps are generally only fastened in a situation where the hat is likely to get knocked off… e.g. in a volatile crowd control situation/pub fight/football match when it's starting to get a bit ‘lively'.

  15. The pathologist getting involved in the criminal investigation, e.g. BBC's 'Silent Witness'. The pathologist is a doctor who conducts post-mortems on behalf of the Coroner to establish a cause of death. If it's a crime or a potential crime, he/she will be a highly trained Forensic Pathologist; however, the role remains the same. That is all. They do not get involved in the criminal investigation in any way.

  16. The Coroner getting involved in the criminal investigation. The Coroner is a legal entity, who represents the state, and his/her role is to establish the facts surrounding how a person came to die, regardless of whether the death resulted from a crime, an accident or an unexpected medical emergency.

  17. A prosecuting lawyer or barrister (or God forbid Judge John Deed) getting involved in the criminal investigation. The role of the lawyers is to assess whether there is enough evidence to have a realistic prospect of a conviction at court and then to present the evidence during the court process. That is it.

  18. Scriptwriters completely ignoring all of the most basic legislation (e.g. Police and Criminal Evidence Act) which has been in use since 1984 and dictates every aspect of what we can do and how we are allowed to do it. Every dramatic representation of a police investigation that I have seen on TV dramas would get thrown out of court on the first day. In truth, it would never get to court in the first place because of the cavalier approach to the rules of evidence taken by TV scriptwriters.

  19. Crime scene investigators examining and photographing a crime scene, correctly wearing their white forensic suits, paper bootees and face masks. The senior detective then wanders in wearing his suit and tie, with (probably) dog shit all over his shoes and starts picking things up. A crime scene manager decides who enters a crime scene and anyone who he/she permits enters and leaves via a pre-defined route and are suitably protected by a forensic suit. They touch nothing while they are in there, and there are no exceptions regardless of rank. Forensic examiners are highly trained to do a challenging and unpleasant job. They don't need any 'help', and senior investigators rarely enter the crime scene because they are too busy trying to identify, locate and arrest the culprit.

  20. Cops shouting 'Oi you!! Come here!!' When they see the person, they're looking for in the street, alerting said person and giving them a head start. They then run away, resulting in a totally unnecessary chase on foot, by car or both. If a police officer is looking for someone who is wanted for questioning and sees them in the street, they discreetly and nonchalantly get as close as they can, so as not to alert them, and then they take them firmly by the arm to stop them running away. It's much easier but admittedly less dramatic than huffing and puffing around the streets, across rooftops, over garden fences and jumping between railway carriages.

The question for me is this. To what extent do these TV misrepresentations of policing influence the public perception of and trust in real police officers and investigators? I don't honestly know how much, but I suspect quite a lot. I suspect that it creates either unrealistic expectations because we haven't solved their bloody crime inside 45 minutes, or it makes people believe that we're all bent like in 'Line of Duty'. Maybe I, and every other police officer in the country, just need to switch our brains off and chill out.

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