Uniforms and equipment of the British police

Uniforms and equipment of the British police

The uniforms and equipment of the British police have varied considerably from the inception of what was to become the earliest recognisable mainstream police force in the country with the Metropolitan Police Act of 1829. With the development of the Metropolitan Police Service and the various County Police Acts, policing became a more standardised practice in the United Kingdom throughout the late nineteenth century, the uniforms and equipment became equally standardised. From a variety of home grown uniforms, bicycles, swords and pistols the British police force evolved in look and equipment through the long trenchcoats and bowler, to the recognisable modern uniform of a white shirt, black tie, reflective jackets, body armour, and the panda car.

Equipment that an officer may carry:

* Monadnock Extendable Baton or Rigid PR-24 Baton.
* Personal radio operating on the secure digital Airwave network.
* CS/Pava Incapacitant Spray
* Police notebook
* Personal digital assistants are now in use with many forces
* Torch
* First aid kit
* Leg or arm restraints
* Speedcuffs (new type with fixed body in middle, not a chain linking them)


related offences, it was suggested that the uniform should be changed [cite book |title= Armed Police, The Police Use of Firearms since 1945 |last=Waldren |first=Michael J. |authorlink= |coauthors= |year= 2007 |publisher= Sutton |location= England |isbn= 0750946377 |pages= 224] .

From the 1990s it was generally accepted that the police could patrol in "shirt-sleeve order" which meant that they need not wear the jacket [cite book |title= Armed Police, The Police Use of Firearms since 1945 |last=Waldren |first=Michael J. |authorlink= |coauthors= |year= 2007 |publisher= Sutton |location= England |isbn= 0750946377 |pages= 224] , as its widespread use was hampering. In 1994 the Home Office, backed by the Government and on the cooperation of many Chief Constables, changed the uniform from the business attire with no protection of the torso, to a uniform with black trousers, stab vest, duty belt and reflective jacket.

Although there are minor variations in the styling, pattern and insignia, the police forces of Great Britain, Jersey, Guernsey, the Isle of Man and Gibraltar all wear very similar uniforms. In general, these have taken their lead from the Metropolitan Police, with changes appearing in that force first. The base colour is a very dark blue, almost indistinguishable from black (and recently often is black), which earned the police the nickname of the "boys in blue".

Uniform history

When the Metropolitan Police Service was formed in 1829, uniforms were carefully chosen to not resemble that of a military one. Due to red being the colour of the military at the time, blue was chosen instead. In the early years of the Metropolitan Police the officers wore blue swallow tail coats with cane reinforced tophats, and anti-garotte collars. The early police officers equipment was little more than a rattle to call for assistance, and a wooden truncheon. Although cutlasses were kept in the Police station for use in an emergency, also the MPS purchased fifty flintlock pistols. Incase of a firearms incident, the police officers were not armed to counter the fear of armed enforcers within London, due to this being the only form of policing seen beforehand. In 1839 The officers changed to a black business attire uniform, but still kept much of the same equipment except for the rattle being replaced with the whistle. Swords being removed from service, and flintlock pistols were removed in the favour of revolvers.The first uniform, which was a lighter blue than later versions, was a high-collared tailcoat, worn with white trousers in summer. The headgear was a hardened top hat, which served the dual purpose of protecting the officer from blows to the head and allowing him to use it as a step to climb or see over walls. The sleeves of the dark blue coats originally had a pattern of white bars, roughly 6 mm wide by 50 mm high, set roughly 6 mm apart. This immediately distinguished them from naval or maritime personnel. Although this feature was taken up in the Dominions, it was not used in the USA.

The tailcoat was later replaced by a tunic, still high-collared, and the top hat by the custodian helmet (both adopted by the Metropolitan Police in 1863). With a few exceptions (including the City of London Police and the Hampshire Constabulary), the helmet plate was (and still is) based on the Brunswick star. The helmet itself was of cork faced with fabric. The design varied slightly between forces. Some had that favoured by the Metropolitan Police, topped with a boss, others had a helmet that incorporated a ridge or crest terminating above the badge, while others had a short spike, sometimes topped with a ball.

The tunic went through many lengths and styles, with the Metropolitan Police adopting the open-neck style in 1948 (although senior and female officers adopted it before that time). Senior officers used to wear peaked pillbox-style caps until the adoption of the wider peaked cap worn today.

Female officers' uniforms have gone through a great variety of styles, as they have tended to reflect the women's fashions of the time. Tunic style, skirt length and headgear have varied by period and force. By the late 1980s, female working uniform was virtually identical to male, except for headgear and sometimes neckwear.

Current uniform

Formal uniform comprises an open-necked tunic (with or without an attached belt, depending on the force) and trousers or skirt, worn with a white or light blue shirt and black tie (usually clip-on, so it cannot be used to strangle the wearer). Although most forces once wore blue shirts, these have been less used since the 1980s (when the Metropolitan Police changed to white) and most now wear white. Officers of the rank of inspector and above have always worn white shirts, and in many forces so have female officers. In some forces, female officers wear a black and white checked cravat instead of a tie. Officers of the rank of Sergeant and above wear rank badges on their epaulettes, while Constables and Sergeants also wear "collar numbers" on them.

Until the mid 1990s this was also the everyday working uniform, but today it is rarely seen except on formal occasions. The normal working dress retains the shirt (open-necked or with a tie or cravat) and trousers, worn with or without a jersey or fleece. Some forces use combat trousers and boots. Today, female officers almost never wear a skirt in working dress, and frequently wear trousers in formal dress as well. Officers also frequently wear reflective waterproof jackets, which have replaced the old greatcoats and cloaks traditionally worn in inclement weather. Most officers now wear body armour when on duty.

Basic headgear is a peaked cap for men, and a round bowler style hat for women. All officers wear a black and white (red and white for the City of London Police) diced band (called Sillitoe Tartan) around the hat, a distinction first used in Scotland and later adopted by all forces in Great Britain. Traffic officers wear white cap covers (yellow in Derbyshire). On foot duty, male constables and sergeants outside Scotland wear the familiar conical custodian helmet. There are several patterns, with different forces wearing different types. Although some Scottish forces have used helmets in the past, they are no longer worn in Scotland.

Officers of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) wear a uniform which is somewhat different, due to the political situation. The main colour to be found is a dark and light green with the uniform looking very unlike mainland police uniforms. The RUC officially described this as 'rifle green'. When the six new versions of the PSNI uniform were introduced, in March 2002, the term 'bottle green' was used for basically the same colour. This was perhaps seen as being a less confrontational description, in keeping with the spirit of the time. RIC uniforms were originally a very dark green almost black color.

Personal radios

In 2004, British police forces began the roll-out of a digital TETRA (Terrestrial Trunked Radio) system for communications, called Airwave. The Airwave system replaced the previous radio handsets and two-way radios with a mobile phone-like device, which is supposed to improve radio coverage, is encrypted to prevent interception, and allows data as well as voice transmission. The roll-out is due for complete coverage of all UK police forces and other emergency services by the end of 2007.

This was a direct response by the Government to the incidents of 9/11, after American emergency services had severe difficulties with communicating. TETRA has been designed for both everyday use and national emergencies, where officers can communicate one-to-one or with separate emergency services efficiently. The radios proved exceptional during the attacks on the London Underground system in July 2005.

Personal radio systems were first issued to police officers and installed in police cars in the 1960s (resulting in the demise of the "police box" telephones made famous by "Doctor Who"). From the 1990s, officers frequently carried mobile phones in addition to their personal radio units.

Firearms and protective equipment

In the United Kingdom and some other countries of the British police tradition, the police are not normally issued firearms, but are issued other weapons (batons, pepper spray, CS spray etc.), although some officers may be issued firearms in special situations. This originates from the formation of the Metropolitan Police in the nineteenth century, when police were not armed, partly to counter public fears and objections concerning armed enforcers. However, the Ministry of Defence Police, Civil Nuclear Constabulary and Police Service of Northern Ireland (formerly the Royal Ulster Constabulary) are issued firearms as a matter of routine. Every force can also call upon armed response units in a matter of minutes, and certain specialist squads, such as the Flying Squad, Special Branch, Diplomatic Protection Group, Royalty Protection Branch, and officers protecting airports and government buildings, are routinely armed.

The weapons carried routinely by ordinary police constables are currently an extending baton and, in all but two county police services, personal issue incapacitant spray, such as CS (a chemical incapacitant) or CapTor (a natural incapacitant based on extracts from Capsicum peppers.) The effects of sprays are designed to be short-lived, subsiding within 30-60 minutes and clearing more quickly in well-ventilated areas. Until the mid-1990s most police forces utilised a 14 inch long traditional wooden truncheon. It was largely replaced by long American-style batons but in many places these were short lived, mainly due to their being unwieldy in during most operational circumstances. At present, more discreet extendable batons are the norm. Most forces are opting to use the PAVA Incapacitant spray instead of the out-dated CS.

The use of batons varies across the country and each force selects which baton is best able to fulfill its needs and provide the best protection to officers. Friction lock batons such as the [http://www.asp-net.com/ ASP] are popular, although the PR-24 Monadnock extendable baton (sometimes known as the side-handled baton) or the Monadnock Straight Lock baton is used in some forces. Some forces in the North of England use a one-piece "Arnold" baton.

Police vehicles

Ground vehicles

The archetypal British "bobby" walked his beat alone. Apart from rapid response units, motor vehicles were rarely used except in rural districts (and even there, bicycles were more common). However, following the 1964 Police Act, the police became increasingly motorised and it is now rare to see an officer on foot patrol except in city or town centres, and then rarely alone. More recently, police forces have begun to put officers back on the beat as 'community' or 'neighbourhood' patrols. In an increasing number of urban centres police bicycle units are used to provide a quick response in congested areas, pedestrianised areas and parkland, as well as carrying out patrols. A bicycle patrol provides a happy balance between the distance covered by a motorised patrol and the approachability of the foot patrol. [ [http://www.tfl.gov.uk/tfl/press-centre/press-releases/press-releases-content.asp?prID=298 TFL 999 London Cycling Award press release] ] The Metropolitan Police now have over 1500 police bicycles. [ [http://www.daveches.co.uk/analysis/bikes Police on bikes, from LS8] ]

Patrol cars, sometimes known as panda cars, are in use everywhere and may be crewed by one or two officers. Standards police cars include the Ford Focus and the Vauxhall Astra. In Scotland, because of the necessity of corroborating evidence, there are usually two officers in a vehicle. Rapid response vehicles are utilised for various departments in each police force. Some examples are: armed response vehicles and some traffic department vehicles, which come in marked and unmarked variations. In Northern Ireland, the Ford Mondeo ST is the popular choice as a multi-purpose vehicle. Typical examples of high-powered rapid response vehicles are BMW 5 series (used in the Met as Area Cars), Volvo T5s and V70s, enhanced Vauxhall Vectras and Omegas and various Subaru and Audi high-end models. Police also use Land Rover and Range Rover Vogue models - for responding to motorway incidents and for escorting VIPs etc. - Jaguar cars are even used by some forces. Most forces use the Ford Transit vans as their prisoner transportation vehicles, and the Mercedes Sprinters are used as personnel carriers, with specially adapted versions in use by public order units such as the Metropolitan Police's Territorial Support Group. Police motorcycles, bicycles and horses are also employed depending on the situation.


All Home Office police forces have access to air support, often in the form of helicopters. Some forces, such as Hampshire, also have small fixed wing aircraft. Police Helicopters are required by the CAA to be marked in a standard 'high conspicuosity' paint scheme, to make them more visible and avoid the possibility of air proximity hazards with other low flying aircraft. This paint scheme, also used by UK military training helicopters, requires them to be black on the sides and underneath, and yellow on top. When seen from the ground, these helicopters are black but this is to make them more visible against the sky as a safety feature (and yellow against the ground when seen from above).


Forces with significant waterways to police maintain police watercraft, ranging from Zodiac dinghies to Arun class former RNLI lifeboats. [ [http://www.met.police.uk/msu/training.htm Metropolitan Police Marine Unit] ] [ [http://www.strathclyde.police.uk/index.asp?locID=927&docID=-1 Strathclyde Police Marine Policing Unit] ]

Overseas territories

Police organisation and uniform history has varied throughout the British Overseas Territories. Uniforms have often had to be adapted to local climates. The Bermuda Police Service has followed the trends of UK police forces in its dress, having adopted dark blue tunics, trousers, and helmets at its inception. After the appointment of Police Commissioner Colin Coxall, in 1995 (formerly of the Metropolitan Police), the four-pocket jackets and helmets were reserved for ceremonial or public relations occasions, with more comfortable "bomber jackets" and woollen pullovers adopted. In the Bermuda Police, only officers wear white shirts, with sergeants and constables wearing light blue ones. During the summer months, the long trousers are replaced with Bermuda shorts. The traditional image of a Bermuda policeman in the minds of summer visitors is helmeted, with knee socks and shorts. During, and for a short time after, the Second World War, influenced by the large numbers of military personnel on the island, the Bermuda Police took to wearing military-style khaki shorts and shirts during the summer months, but this fad quickly passed.


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