Special Constabulary

This article is about the Special Constabularies of the United Kingdom and some of its dependencies. For Special Constabularies in other countries, see Special constable. For role-specific police, see Special police.
Special Constables and regular officers of the Avon and Somerset Constabulary at the 125th anniversary of the Special Constabulary in Taunton, Somerset

The Special Constabulary is the part-time volunteer section of statutory police forces in the United Kingdom and some Crown dependencies. Its officers are known as special constables (all hold the office of constable no matter what their grade) or informally as specials.

Every United Kingdom territorial police force has a special constabulary except the Police Service of Northern Ireland, which has a Reserve constituted on different grounds. However, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (and the previous Royal Irish Constabulary) did have its own Ulster Special Constabulary from 1920 until 1970, when the Reserve was formed. The British Transport Police (a national "special police force") also has a special constabulary. In the Crown dependencies, the Isle of Man Constabulary and the States of Guernsey Police Service also have special constabularies, but the States of Jersey Police does not.

The strength of the special constabulary as of 31 March 2010 in England and Wales was 15,505[1] and 1,653 in Scotland.[2] Special constables are not the same as police community support officers (PCSOs), who are employed by police forces to provide operational support to regular officers. Special constables usually work for a minimum of 16/25 hours per month (depending on the force the national minimum is 16 hours), although many do considerably more. Special constables might receive some expenses and allowances from the police service, including a £1,100 "recognition award" in Scotland and some forces in England, but their work is otherwise voluntary and unpaid.

Special constables have identical powers to their regular (full-time) colleagues and work alongside regular police officers, but most special constabularies in England and Wales have their own organisational structure and grading system, which varies from force to force. Special constabularies are headed by a commandant or chief officer, who are themselves special constables. Within Scotland, a number of forces in England and Wales, special constables have no separate administrative structure and no grading system.


While the idea of a populace policing itself dates back to Anglo-Saxon times, with English common law requiring that all citizens have the legal obligation to come to the assistance of a police officer, it was not until 1673 that Charles II ruled that citizens may be temporarily sworn in as constables during times of public disorder. This ruling was in response to rising public disorder relating to enforcement of religious conformity, and any citizen refusing to acknowledge the call would have been subject to fines and jail sentences. The 1673 act was enforced for centuries after, mainly used to call up constables in the north of England.[3]

Public disorder of that nature was renewed during the industrial revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries, which was coupled with falling living standards and starvation. In 1819, mass meetings calling for Parliamentary reform took place across England, including 60,000 demonstrators rioting in Manchester where a special constable was killed. In light of these events, in 1820, an Act was passed allowing magistrates to recruit men as special constables.

In 1831, Parliament passed "An act for amending the laws relative to the appointment of Special Constables, and for the better preservation of the Police".[4] This Act, forming the basis of special-constable principles to the modern day, and in particular allowed the formation of special constables outside of times of unrest, if the regular police force was deemed to be too small in a particular area. Specials were also granted full powers of arrest like their regular counterparts at this time, as well as weapons and equipment to carry out their duty.

A further act in 1835 redefined the Special Constabulary as a volunteer organisation, and expanded its jurisdiction. The Constabulary was redefined for the last time into the organisation which exists today during World War I, where they were instructed to safeguard water supplies from German infiltrators.

During the Second World War, besides their normal duties, they were trained to deal with a range of eventualities such as first aid in case of injury, initial coordination of the security of aircraft crash sites, clearing people from the vicinity of unexploded bombs, handling of unignited incendiary bombs and checking compliance with lighting regulations.[5]


Requirements for being a special constable vary from force to force. The recruitment process in Scotland is also significantly different from the process in England and Wales. It can take from as few as six to as many as eighteen months from initial application through to attestation where recruits take the Police Oath. A number of different steps are involved in the recruitment process and the order can vary from force to force. The first part of the process usually involves filling out an application form. After that, there may be a combination of entrance test (the Police Initial Recruitment Test in England and Wales or the Standard Entrance Test in Scotland), interview, security checks, fitness test and medical assessment although the exact process is force specific.

Uniform and insignia

Variants of epaulettes used by different forces, comprising collar number, divisional call sign and Special Constabulary insignia

Special constables generally wear identical uniforms to their regular colleagues. In some constabularies, their shoulder number may be prefixed with a certain digit or they may have additional insignia on their epaulettes which is usually a crown with the letters SC above or below it (although some forces just use the letters). Formerly, male special constables in English and Welsh forces did not wear helmets while on foot patrol but wore patrol caps instead, but in most forces they now do wear helmets. Some forces also issue special constables with a different hat badge from that of their regular counterparts although this is now extremely rare.

Within the City of London Special Constabulary is the Honourable Artillery Company Specials;[6] members of this unit wear HAC on the shoulders in addition to other insignia.


Special constables all carry the same personal protective equipment (PPE) as their regular counterparts, such as handcuffs, batons, incapacitant spray (CS spray, pepper spray, or in some forces a solution called PAVA spray) and protective vests.

The issuing of equipment varies from force to force with financial factors being the main reason behind the differences. In some forces protective vests, or body armour, may be personally issued to an officer, made to measure, however many other forces cannot afford this practice and instead the use of pool sets is prevalent.

The same practice is also seen with regard to radios: although many forces provide Special Constables with personal radios kept securely at their police station, other forces may only have pool sets. The management task is to ensure there are enough working pooled radios available in a command area to meet any "surge" need.

As for most British police officers, Special Constables do not carry firearms.

Powers and jurisdiction

Territorial police forces

The vast majority of special constables serve with one of the 45 territorial police forces in the United Kingdom. Depending on where they are attested, they have full police powers throughout one of three distinct legal systems - either England and Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland.[7][8][9] This is identical to the jurisdiction granted to regular officers, although prior to 1 April 2007, special constables in England and Wales only had jurisdiction within their force area and any adjacent force areas. Recent changes have seen special constables enjoy the same cross-border powers as regular constables.

British Transport Police

Special constables of the British Transport Police have exactly the same national powers and privileges as regular BTP constables, and the same cross-border powers.[10] BTP special constables do not wear the distinctive "SC" insignia on their epaulettes.


Within recent years the role of special constables has changed dramatically and they are now increasingly used alongside their regular colleagues to perform almost all police duties. As well as patrol duties, they often take part in response duties and specials often police events such as sports matches, carnivals, parades and fêtes. While this event policing is the stereotypical image of a special constable, it only represents one of the wide range of duties undertaken. Many police Forces in England and Wales have introduced Neighbourhood Policing Teams and the Special Constabulary has been incorporated into this concept.[11]

The City of London Police recruits accountancy specialists to work directly for its Fraud Squad.

Special operations

Many special constables have taken the opportunity to join specialist teams within their constabularies such as marine support, dog units and roads policing. Warwickshire Police [12] and West Mercia Police has for a number of years been training some of its Specials to work with the Road Policing Unit (RPU); this has been expanded and some Specials are now working with the force's Criminal Intercept Team.[13] A number of other Warwickshire Specials are also trained in response driving. In 2009 Greater Manchester Police also introduced special constables to permanently working within the RPU and have now established a small dedicated team. Bedfordshire Specials have a tasking unit which specialise in drug enforcement operations, they were also the first force in the United Kingdom to train special constables in the use of method of entry equipment (MOE).

In 1995, special constables from Cheshire Police assisted officers from the Ministry of Defence Police with a surveillance operation at the former Royal Ordnance Factory at Radway Green near Crewe.[14]

Within the Metropolitan Police Service, a number of specials work within SO1, 6, 14 and 18, providing operational support to their armed colleagues.

Public order

As with their full-time counterparts, many special constables are trained in public order duties, including policing of football matches and demonstrations. In West Yorkshire Police, 24 specials have received Level 2 PSU (Police Support Unit) training, and have become part of the Operation Target team.[15] Operation Target has now disbanded, but West Yorkshire Police have kept the service of the specials in their own Operational Support Unit.

South Yorkshire Police has a team of special constables who are part of the Joint Specialist Operations department. These officers are level 2-trained and have method of entry capability. In addition, the special constabulary supervisors who lead the team are qualified PSU commanders.

The Police Service of Scotland make Level 2 PSU training available to Special Constable applicants, and qualified Special Constables are integrated as a part of regular PSUs

West Mercia Police also train Special Constables to PSU Level 2 and regularly deploy specials on PSU support across the UK in line with Police PSU serials

2012 Olympics

There were plans for the Metropolitan Police to have up to 10,000 specials to help with Olympic security. This was to be done either through recruitment, with 700 extra specials being employed in the last year[16] or by borrowing them from other forces.[17] While this idea would have created a much safer environment for the Olympic celebrations, the plans came under fire from the police federation, who said that "volunteer special constables could drop out at the last minute, causing significant staffing problems".[17] After the security firm G4S failed to hire enough security staff, the government called in 3,500 additional military personnel to cover the shortfall.[18]


Historically, special constables were often looked down upon by regular officers and resented, as they were sometimes seen as "hobby bobbies" and not proper police officers. During the 1980s, specials were often considered to be preventing regular officers from earning overtime pay.[19] Nowadays, they have a much closer relationship with the regular police and are a supplement to understaffed police forces.

A sizeable proportion of regular officers have served as special constables before joining the regular force, which is encouraged by recruitment departments. Most police forces will accept applications from the age of 18; and the minimum age to commence training is 17 years and 9 months in Essex Constabulary and 17 years and 6 months for Humberside Police.

Allowing special constables to be paid for their work has been a contentious issue, with mixed comments from all sides, with some people thinking that as specials are doing much the same job as regular officers they should be paid the same, but others thinking that this would attract the 'wrong' type of person (those motivated by monetary gain as opposed to those who are community minded).


Established by Royal Warrant on 30 August 1919, the Special Constabulary Long Service Medal may be earned by Special Constables after nine years service, with a clasp issued for each additional period of ten years service. The name and rank of the recipient and the date of the award are engraved on the rim of the medal.

Special Constables are also eligible for other honours, including the Queen's Police Medal, the Order of the British Empire and the British Empire Medal.

See also


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