Uniformed Policing: An International Overview

On the front line are the uniformed police, performing what is known in the trade as ‘public order’ duties. They are the men (and in this day and age they almost always are men) who first respond to the gunshots from the spooky old house or the discovery of the mangled body in the tree. They also include the gruff desk sergeant the investigators speak to at the police station or the friendly beat cop swinging his baton near the abandoned church. They are the public face of policing and investigators will probably deal with them more than anyone else involved in the law and order business.

The world has two quite different forms of policing. In the United Kingdom, United States and British Dominions (i.e. Australia, Canada, the Irish Free State, Newfoundland, New Zealand and South Africa), policing is a civil affair, although some forces are more paramilitary than others. Policemen are civilians in uniform, enforcing the law by consent of the populace and on their own initiative. Although they may be military veterans, they by no means have to be. All but the most senior officers (and often even they) are usually men who began their careers as ordinary policemen.

In Continental Europe and Latin America, policing has a far more militaristic tone. If policemen are not actually serving soldiers, as many are, they are almost always military veterans and wear a military-style uniform. They enforce the will of the government on the populace, following strict bureaucratic rules from which they rarely deviate. Commissioned officers are drawn from the traditional officer class (and have usually served as military officers) and it is rare for men to rise from the ranks. In this system there are frequently separate forces handling the policing of rural areas and urban areas. The former, often known as a gendarmerie after the famous French force, is usually far more paramilitary in nature and is often actually part of the army. It also often has a better reputation among the populace than its urban counterpart.

The many territories of the British Empire generally follow a hybrid system. The police usually have a somewhat paramilitary character, although there may be separate forces in larger towns which follow a purely civil system. Ordinary policemen are ‘natives’ who cannot usually rise beyond NCO rank. Senior officers are usually Europeans who join directly as ‘gazetted’ officers (similar to commissioned officers in the armed forces). There is, however, often a class of inspectors (comparable in some ways to military warrant officers) between these two groups consisting of educated natives who usually join directly at this level. Increasingly, selected natives are being gazetted, either directly from university or from inspector rank, although they will always be a small minority. In the colonies of other European powers the system is usually very similar to that in the fatherland, although usually with native other ranks. In all colonies, including Britain’s, troops are far more readily involved in policing than in Europe itself.

One thing almost all ordinary policemen, from all systems, have in common is their working-class origin and lack of education. It is unusual for even middle-class men to join the police except in the higher ranks and anything more than a basic education is very rare. Native policemen are frequently illiterate and even Europeans may not have a very high standard of literacy.

In most countries the policeman is generally unpopular, often portrayed as a brutal, unintelligent, lazy thug more interested in enforcing his and the repressive government’s will than helping the people he polices. Frequently the police are rather too good at reinforcing this stereotype. This is not the case in all countries (in Great Britain, for instance, the policeman is generally respected and regarded as a protector and not an oppressor) and sometimes one force (for instance, the Gendarmerie in France or the Carabinieri in Italy) may be held in much higher regard than others.

European policing systems often employ a class of police officials who are separate from the uniformed officers, although they may wear uniform on formal occasions. These men are usually qualified lawyers who join directly as police officials and are technically civil servants and not police officers. They are often in charge of police precincts. The uniformed and detective officers in the precinct answer both to them and to their own hierarchy, creating a rather confusing three-tier system of uniformed officers, detectives and police officials who are often at odds with one another and try to circumvent each other’s authority. Usually only the officials can rise to the highest ranks in the force.

Police forces, especially in the English-speaking nations, are increasingly employing policewomen. However, their numbers will remain small until after the Second World War and they are almost invariably restricted to duties relating to women and children.

In many countries, policemen generally patrol in pairs. In this system, in any confrontation where there is a possibility of conflict it is usual for one man to do the talking while the other stands nearby watching and waiting to back up his partner if necessary. In other countries, however, usually where policing is less paramilitary, policemen invariably patrol alone.

Police uniform varies widely, from a uniform almost or entirely identical to that of the army to a uniform deliberately designed to be non-military in appearance. Blue or green is the traditional colour, although khaki is often preferred in hotter countries. Sometimes different uniforms are worn in summer and winter. Police tunics in this era usually have standing collars fastened at the neck, although more senior officers may wear open-necked tunics with ties. A policeman’s personal identification number is usually worn somewhere on his uniform.

In most countries outside the British Empire, policemen are generally armed, usually with a revolver or automatic pistol and a wooden baton. In some European countries they still carry swords as a matter of course. In the United Kingdom (except for Ireland) and some Dominions they are generally unarmed except for a short wooden truncheon. Policemen in other British territories are also usually unarmed except for a baton of some sort, although there is often a separate reserve force which is armed, usually with rifles or carbines, and available to provide heavy support when needed. Even in the United Kingdom, however, firearms are usually easily available in most police stations if they are needed. By this time, handcuffs are carried by most uniformed policemen and detectives.


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