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Police uniforms and equipment in the United Kingdom

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Police uniforms and equipment in the United Kingdom

Police uniforms and equipment in the United Kingdom have varied considerably from the inception of what was to become the earliest recognisable mainstream police force in the country with the Glasgow Police Act 1800 forming the City of Glasgow Police and then the Metropolitan Police Act of 1829, Allowing the formation of the Metropolitan Police Service. With 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 coats and top hat, to the recognisable modern uniform of a white shirt, black tie (or cravat for women in many forces), reflective jackets, body armour, and the panda car.


Equipment that an officer may carry

Various items of equipment are usually carried on the duty belt of uniformed officers, although some have pouches attached to their stab vest, eliminating the need for a belt. Plain-clothes officers may wear a harness, which can be worn under clothes. They usually have:

  • Baton (either extendable, telescopic or extendable pr-24x side handle batons)
  • Airwave personal radio
  • CS/PAVA Incapacitant Spray
  • Police notebook
  • Pens
  • Personal digital assistants (some forces)
  • Torch
  • Leg or arm restraints
  • Speedcuffs
  • X26 Taser (now becoming routinely issued)
  • Extra equipment, such as a first aid kit (including a pocket mask, disposable gloves, germicidal wipes, hypoallergenic tape, wound dressings, a triangular bandage, and sterile plasters), may be stored in a patrol car.


    For much of the twentieth century up to the mid-1990s, male police officers wore a formal work jacket with polished silver buttons, and black trousers with a sewn in truncheon pocket. No stab vest was worn and much less equipment was carried than is today. Following concerns about the police uniforms' safety it was suggested that the uniform should be changed.

    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, as its widespread use was hampering in some situations. In 1994 the Home Office, in agreement with 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, Blue NATO Jumper, 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 Service, due to it being recognised as the first police service in England. 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

    The Metropolitan Police officers were unarmed to clearly distinguish them from military enforcers, which had been the system of policing seen before the 1820s. Their uniform was also styled in blue, rather than the military red. Despite the service being unarmed, the then Home Secretary, Robert Peel, gave authorisation to the Commissioner to purchase fifty flintlock pistols, for exceptional incidents that required the use of firearms. As time progressed, the obsolete flintlocks were decommissioned from service, being superseded by early revolvers. At the time, burglary (or "house breaking" as it was then called) was a common problem for police, as house breakers were usually armed. Due to the deaths of officers at the hands of armed criminals in the outer districts of the Metropolis, and after much press coverage debating whether Peel's service should be fully armed, the Commissioner applied to the Home Secretary to supply all officers on the outer districts with revolvers. These could only be issued if, in the opinion of the senior officer, the officer could be trusted to use it safely, and with discretion. From that point, officers who felt the need to be armed, could be so. The practice lasted until 1936, although the vast majority of the system was phased out by the end of the 19th century.

    From 1829, to 1839, Metropolitan Police officers wore blue swallow tail coats with high collars to counter garroting. This was worn with white trousers in summer, and a cane-reinforced top hat, which could be used 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. In the early years of the Metropolitan Police, equipment was little more than a rattle to call for assistance, and a wooden truncheon. As the years progressed, the rattle was replaced with the whistle, swords were removed from service, and flintlock pistols were removed in favour of revolvers.

    In 1863, the Metropolitan Police replaced the tailcoat with a tunic, still high-collared, and the top hat with the custodian helmet, which is based on the Pickelhaube. With a few exceptions (including the City of London Police, West Mercia Police, Hampshire Constabulary and States of Guernsey Police Service), most forces helmet plates carry a Brunswick star. The helmet itself was of cork faced with fabric. The design varied slightly between forces. Some used the style by the Metropolitan Police, topped with a boss, while others had a helmet that incorporated a ridge or crest terminating above the badge, or a short spike, sometimes topped with a ball. Luton Borough Police (1876-1947) wore a straw helmet in a similar style to the bermudan police helmet, with a small oval plate. During WW2, all police forces wore a plain peaked cap, or a military style steel helmet when appropriate.

    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. The custodian helmet was phased out in Scotland in the early 1950s.

    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, the female working uniform was virtually identical to male, except for headgear and sometimes neckwear.

    No.1 Dress

    Formal uniform comprises an open-necked tunic (with or without an attached belt, depending on the force and rank of the Officer) 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, 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 the epaulettes of their shirts, while Constables and Sergeants also wear "collar numbers" on them. Shoulder numbers in the Metropolitan Police are displayed on the shoulder of the tunic (despite the lack of epaulettes on the tunic in junior ranks) as are all rank insignia (except for that of Sergeant, which are displayed in the form of a sewn-on badge on the sleeve). No.1 dress is worn with black, polished shoes or boots. Male Constables and Sergeants in English and Welsh forces wear the High Helmet with this dress, whereas the peaked cap is worn by Inspectors and above. In Scotland, all male officers now wear a peaked cap. Female officers of all forces now wear bowler hats. At more formal occasions, such as funerals and parades, white gloves are worn.

    Working Dress

    Until 1994 the No.1 Dress was also the everyday working uniform, but today it is rarely seen except on formal occasions. The normal working dress retains the shirt and trousers. In some forces short sleeved shirts may be worn open-necked. Long sleeved shirts must always be worn with a tie or cravat, worn with or without a jersey or fleece. If a jersey, fleece or jacket is worn over a short sleeved shirt, then a tie must be worn. In 2003, Strathclyde Police replaced the white shirts with black wicking T-shirts with stab vest on top, for the majority of officers on duty. Some forces use combat trousers (trousers are of a cargo pocket style i.e. two thigh pockets and two conventional side and rear pockets) and boots. Today, female officers almost never wear a skirt in working dress, and sometimes 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 stab vests, a type of 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. 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. The only English police forces to have abandoned the custodian helmet is the Thames Valley Police in 2008 due to budget cuts and West yorkshire police in 2015 as it was replaced by peaked caps.

    The Metropolitan Police approved the use of name badges in October 2003, and new recruits started wearing the Velcro badges in September 2004. The badges consist of the wearer's rank, followed by their surname. Senior officers wear these in No.1 Dress, due to the public nature of their role.

    Increasingly officers are wearing 'Tactical' uniform to perform everyday roles as the increased level of equipment carried on the police duty belts and operational requirements expand.

    Officers of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) wear a uniform which is somewhat different, reflecting the different roots of the force and nature of the role that it carried out for much of its history. The main colour to be found is a dark and light green with the uniform looking very unlike police uniforms over in Great Britain. The RUC officially described this as 'rifle green', that is to say the same colour as used by Irish and rifle regiments of the British Army, such as the Rifles (formerly the Light Infantry and the Royal Green Jackets) and Royal Irish Regiment. This reflects the force's de facto status as more of a paramilitary force, or gendarmerie, than police forces in Great Britain. 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 and having less of a military connotation, in keeping with the spirit of the time. RIC uniforms were originally a very dark green almost black colour. The custodian helmet was never worn by either the RUC or the PSNI, although a similar design known as the "night helmet" was worn on night shifts by the RUC until the early 1970s, and previously by the RIC.

    Ceremonial and dress uniforms

    The mounted police of the Greater Manchester Police and of the Merseyside Police wear a ceremonial uniform which includes a distinctive cavalry-style helmet, similar to those worn by the Household Cavalry. Mounted police in Cleveland wear a similar uniform, but with a red rather than a white plume.

    Police Officers may wear mess dress to formal dinners if appropriate but is most usually worn by officers who have achieved the rank of Superintendent or above. The mess dress of the Metropolitan Police is dark blue with black cuffs and a black 'roll' collar having an embroidered badge (Brunswick star) on each lapel. That of the Commissioner includes a two-inch oak leaf lace strip on the trousers and a set of aiguillettes. A matching black waistcoat is worn and badges of rank are displayed on the epaulettes.

    The Commissioners and other senior-ranked officers of the Metropolitan Police Service and the City of London Police wear a full dress ceremonial uniform on State and special occasions (see External links below); this includes a high-necked tunic with silver or gold trimmings and is worn with a sword and a plumed hat.

    Personal radios

    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). In 2004, British police forces began change radios from analogue, to digital TETRA (Terrestrial Trunked Radio) system for communications, called Airwave.

    Prior to the introduction of Airwave, all police radio systems were force-specific, with limited capacity for forces to talk to neighbours or to facilitate working in groups away from the direction of the control room. Interoperability with other emergency services was also poor, and was criticised in reports after the Hillsborough and Kings Cross disasters. Most forces’ equipment could not transfer data or text messages – a growing operational requirement. Few had any form of encryption and were open to listening in by anyone prepared to buy cheap scanning equipment. In addition, almost every force had areas in which the police and other emergency services operated without effective radio coverage.

    By the end of 2004, the majority of the existing police radio spectrum, which was subject to serious interference in some areas, was to be withdrawn and replaced by a new spectrum of superior quality, dedicated to use by public safety organisations, on which users would be required to use digital equipment. Knowledge of this change reinforced the need, already identified by the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) and the Home Office, for a new radio strategy. A Review of Radio Communications in the Police and Fire Services of England and Wales was inaugurated, a parallel review was carried out in Scotland, and the Public Safety Radio Communications Project was born. The radios proved exceptional during the 2005 London bombings.

    From the 1990s, officers frequently carried mobile phones in addition to their personal radio units.


    In the United Kingdom (with the exception of Northern Ireland), the majority of police officers do not routinely carry firearms. 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, Police Service of Northern Ireland Belfast Harbour Police and the Belfast International Airport Constabulary are issued firearms as a matter of routine.

    Every territorial police force has a number of officers who are routinely armed in units generally called Armed Response Vehicles. Certain specialist squads, such as the Flying Squad, Special Branch, Diplomatic Protection Group, Royalty Protection Branch, and officers protecting airports along with government buildings, are routinely armed.

    The British Transport Police have armed officers who have been specially trained in firearms operations, and were first deployed in early 2012. These officers are mainly stationed in London, and their primary focus is on the busiest stations. When they need to deploy officers outside London, they work closely with local police forces.


    Until recently, Tasers were issued only to Authorised Firearms Officers, and their use of them was governed by the same rules of engagement as regular firearms. In November 2008, the then Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, announced that 30,000 non-firearms officers would be allowed to carry them. The Government announced funding of £8 million to purchase 10,000 Tasers for the police forces in England & Wales. The Metropolitan police commissioner announced in December 2011, that police were to be routinely armed with these weapons following the deaths of police officers earlier that month.

    The use of Tasers is now governed by the Association of Chief Police Officers policy which states:

    Tasers are to be deployed with Specially Trained Officers, where the authorising officer has reason to suppose that they, in the course of their duty, may have to protect the public, themselves and /or the subject(s) at incidents of violence or threats of violence of such severity that they will need to use force.

    ACPO has prohibited the use of a Taser on a volunteer. Tasers are regarded as prohibited weapons under the Firearms Act 1968, and their possession is an offence. Police constables are exempt as crown servants.

    Incapacitant spray

    Officers may carry either a CS or PAVA (also known as Captor) incapacitant spray. Their effects are designed to be short-lived and exposure to fresh moving air will normally result in a significant recovery within 15–20 minutes. The CS spray issued by UK police services contains a 5% solution of CS whilst Captor sprays contain a 0.3% solution of PAVA. It should be noted that PAVA is significantly more potent than CS.

    Aerosol incapacitants are classified as prohibited weapons by virtue of Section 5 of the Firearms Act 1968 and possession of such sprays is therefore illegal by the general public. They may only be possessed with the authority of the Defence Council or the Scottish Ministers. Police officers, as crown servants, are exempt from the requirements of the legislation and can have lawful possession of an incapacitant spray whilst acting in their capacity as a constable or where necessary for the purposes of their duty.


    Until the mid-1990s, most police forces utilised a 14 inch long traditional wooden truncheon. It was replaced by long American-style batons, but in many places these were short lived, mainly due to their being unwieldy in most operational circumstances.

    The use of batons varies across the country, and each force selects which baton is best able to fulfil its needs and provide the best protection to officers. Expandable batons, such as the friction lock ASP are popular, although the PR-24 Monadnock (a 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, and other officers can choose to use this style of baton, after passing the appropriate training however now all police forces carry Asp, Monadnock or Casco batons.

    Batons are offensive weapons; the following are offences under the Criminal Justice Act 1988:

  • manufacturing,
  • selling or hiring,
  • offering for sale or hire,
  • exposing having in your possession for the purpose of sale or hire,
  • lending,
  • giving to any other person, or
  • importing
  • an offensive weapon. The list of weapons regarded as offensive for the purposes of the act includes "straight, side-handled or friction-lock truncheons (sometimes known as a batons)" in the Criminal Justice Act 1988 (Offensive Weapons) (Amendment) Order 2004 and "telescopic truncheons" in the Criminal Justice Act 1988 (Offensive Weapons) Order 1988. The restrictions on the activities listed above do not apply "for the purposes of functions carried out on behalf of the Crown", which includes water bailiffs, immigration officers and police constables. In addition, police constables have "lawful authority" to possess batons.

    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 balance between the distance covered by a motorised patrol and the approachability of the foot patrol. The Metropolitan Police now has over 1500 police bicycles.

    Incident Response Vehicles (IRV) or 'Pandas' are generally used when a '999' call has been received regarding an ongoing incident or emergency. Usually an IRV would be assigned to the call, as their continual patrol of an area reduces their deployment time. Response vehicles tend to be capable of the safe use of speed, common types include, Ford Focus or Vauxhall Astra. These are usually fitted with engines with a size of around 1.6 to 1.8 litres. Although petrol-powered engines once dominated, diesel engines are now becoming more common due to their superior fuel economy and therefore lower operating costs.

    Larger, more powerful vehicles are used by Road Policing Units, Armed Response Vehicles due to the fact that they carry out tasks such as pursuing stolen cars, responding to emergencies in a larger area, or carrying a larger amount equipment than an IRV. It is for that reason that many of the vehicles are in estate car (Station wagon) form. These vehicles tend to be Volvo V70 T5's with a 2.4 litre turbocharged petrol engine or Vauxhall Vectras with 2.8 litre V6, or the new Vauxhall Insignia. As with IRVs, diesel engines are becoming more common such as the BMW 5 Series 3.0 litre diesel which are heavily used by the Metropolitan Police Service. As well as estate cars, 4x4 (SUVs) such as Range Rover, Land Rover Discovery (LR3), BMW X5 or Mercedes M class vehicles are used especially for Motorway patrols. Police officers are required to undergo specialised training before being authorised to drive them.

    Most marked police vehicles are white or silver, although more recently silver becoming more common due to higher resale values after police use is finished, with retroreflective livery markings on the side. These markings usually take the form of a blue, yellow or red strip down the side of the vehicle, or use high visibility battenburg markings (with blue and yellow the accepted Home Office colours for police use). Some carry adverts for police initiatives, slogans such as the Metropolitan Police's "Working for a safer London" (withdrawn in 2012 following rebranding), or the force crest.

    Unmarked police vehicles are used for a variety of purposes, including road policing duties. One popular vehicle for this use is the Škoda Octavia VRS which is chosen due to its high performance but conservative styling. Some police forces have begun using Mitsubishi Lancer Evolutions for the most dangerous or challenging pursuits. The TVCU (Tactical Vehicle Crime Unit) within the Greater Manchester Police uses cars such as the Audi A3 3.2L Quattro, Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, and Subaru Impreza WRX. All the TVCU's vehicles are unmarked and have very high performance.

    Police vans such as the Ford Transit or Mercedes Sprinter are also used and have a cage for accommodation of a prisoner in the back.


    All Home Office police forces have access to air support, often in the form of helicopters. Some forces 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). One of the most common helicopters used by the police is the Eurocopter EC135.


    Forces with significant waterways to police maintain police watercraft, ranging from Zodiac dinghies to Arun class former RNLI lifeboats.

    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.


    Police uniforms and equipment in the United Kingdom Wikipedia

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