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The Special Constabulary

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A member of the special constabulary.

The Special Constabulary is a part of the police service in Great Britain, consisting of volunteer officers who serve alongside their regular colleagues to provide additional manpower. Specials are most commonly seen on duty on Friday nights and during the weekend, when they have the time off their normal jobs and when the police are particularly stretched with an increase in the number of revellers on the streets, and higher instances of crimes such as shoplifting.


Although many people do not know what the Special Constabulary is, which frequently leads to an assumption that it is a relatively new entity, Specials have actually existed for hundreds of years, since before the modern police service was even conceived. The main legal beginnings of the modern Special Constabulary can be seen in an Act passed by King Charles II in 1673, which extended common law to give magistrates the power to summon any man to the role of a temporary peace officer in times of unrest. The men in question were given no choice in the matter, and were subject to jail or a heavy fine if they should refuse to perform the duties required of them.

The next major step for the Specials took place during the industrial revolution, when over 300 Specials were used to help manage an enormous demonstration in Manchester in 1819. 60,000 demonstrators turned up, and the resulting riot lasted for several days, leaving several dead and many injured. Following this, in 1820, the government passed an Act clarifying the power of magistrates to summon men to be Special Constables. Despite this, reluctance was still shown, probably because of the destruction which had ensued from the riot of 1819.

1831 saw the first Special Constables Act, which, among other things, allowed local authorities to appoint Special Constables to boost police numbers in the event of the regular police being insufficient to maintain order at any time. Specials were also brought onto a level footing with regulars in terms of powers - the Act states that they should be granted all 'powers, authorities, advantages and immunities' that a serving full-time Constable enjoyed. They were also to be issued with any weapons and equipment deemed necessary for them to perform their role. Specials were also allowed expenses, but there was still a fine of up to five pounds for anyone who refused to become a Special Constable if instructed to do so.

Another Act in 1834 saw the Special Constabulary becoming more like the Special Constabulary of today. It contained two major parts - the first allowed Specials to act outside of their parishes and townships, while the second - and most important - introduced the idea of the voluntary Special Constable.

Specials were used again over the years - the Victorians used them in the 1840s, and the Edwardians employed them during industrial unrest in the early years of the 20th Century - but it took until the beginning of the First World War (1914-1919) for the Special Constabulary to be organised into a body like that which exists today. It became voluntary, part-time and paid only in expenses. During the war their main role was the rather eccentric one of guarding the nation's water supply against sabotage by German infiltrators, but since then they have played far more important roles, including in the General Strike of 1924 and the Second World War of 1939-1945. The final Act that really established the Special Constabulary as we know it today was the Police Act of 1964.

The Special Constabulary Today

In the beginning of the 21st Century, the Special Constabulary is a closely-linked part of every police force in the United Kingdom. Specials have the same powers as regular police officers. The only real restriction on the powers of a Special Constable is geographic - a Special's powers apply only within their own force's area, and those areas covered by the forces which border it1.

Specials wear almost identical uniforms to regular officers, although there is still sometimes a distinguishing feature, which might be the words 'Special Constabulary' or the letters 'SC' topped by a crown and worn on the epaulettes. There is, however, a convincing argument for these marks not to be present, largely due to public misconception of the Special Constabulary that can result in certain individuals aggravating a situation in the mistaken belief that Specials do not have the power of arrest2. Therefore, not all forces require Specials to wear anything on their uniforms which identifies them as different from a regular officer. Internally, there is often a system that allows a Special to be identified by their collar number following a certain pattern, so anything further would be superfluous.

Because they perform many of the same duties as regular officers, Specials also require the same issued equipment, and in the vast majority of cases they are provided with it as a matter of course. As with regular officers, issued equipment includes a personal radio, rigid handcuffs3, some sort of baton4, and an incapacitant spray5.

Rank Structure

Specials have their own internal rank structure, although it does not generally exist in Scotland, and even the most senior Special is technically outranked by a regular Police Constable. There are moves to abolish the rank structure, but the benefits of such a move are dubious, so for the time being at least it will remain.

The exact titles and insignia associated with each rank vary from force to force (unlike rank in the regular service), but they generally follow the order below:

  1. Special Constable
  2. Section Officer
  3. Divisional Officer
  4. County Commandant

There are also usually a number of Assistant ranks, such as Assistant Divisional Officer, which a Special may attain. The role of various ranks within the Specials is also more loosely defined than in the regular service, but generally the higher ranks are expected to supervise groups of Specials, and so often end up spending more time in the station doing paperwork.

What Specials Cannot Do

There are still restrictions on the duties that Special Constables are allowed to perform. Some of these stem from the part-time nature of their position, while others are considered by the majority of Specials to be relics of a time now past, and there is general pressure for Specials to be allowed to specialise in more areas than they are currently allowed to. For example, Specials are not generally allowed to qualify to drive police vehicles for any purpose other than transport, ie, going from A to B. Very few forces allow Specials to drive vehicles on patrol or in pursuit, although given the necessity of a three-week training course for police drivers (which is longer for advanced drivers), most Specials are unlikely to get the time off work to qualify even if they were allowed to.

This highlights the greatest single problem with the Special Constabulary - despite the commitment of the vast majority of its members, it cannot escape the fact that it is composed of volunteers who have to fit their duties as a police officer around their normal jobs and careers. The constraints on time that Specials have to live with, often taking their training courses in evenings and on weekends so they don't have to take time off work, and the amount of time they are on duty compared to a regular officer, means that there are some positions they are simply not capable of filling. Examples of this would include dog handlers, who live with their canine partners6, and firearms officers, who are continually required to take rigourous and difficult training and assessment courses to keep their positions.

Joining the Special Constabulary

Anybody can join the Specials, provided that certain conditions are met. Applicants must be between 18 and a half and 50 years of age, and must be UK citizens, or Commonwealth citizens whose stay in the country is not limited. Potential Specials should also have no prior convictions (a few parking tickets are usually acceptable), should conform to certain eyesight and fitness requirements7, and should not have any of the proscribed jobs. These are jobs such as traffic wardens, magistrates, security guards, fire fighters and other professions which are considered to have potential conflicts of interest with the duties of a Special Constable.

The exact requirements vary from force to force, and they are changed occasionally - for example, at the moment a general downward trend in eyesight standards is being seen8 - so anybody interested in joining should contact their local police force's recruitment department for the exact information.

Many people join the Special Constabulary as a stepping stone to the regular force, either to determine if it is the right move for them, or in the hope that being a Special will make it easier to enter the regulars. Experiences of moving from the Specials to the regulars vary wildly from person to person, but it is generally considered a bad idea to join the Specials solely as a step on the road to becoming a regular officer - if you are sure you want to join the police full-time, then do so. It is a sad fact that in many cases, Specials have less success applying to become regulars than do members of the general public9. However, for those who are unsure if policing is for them, or for those who do not wish to devote their entire careers to it, the Special Constabulary offers an ideal opportunity.

The Future of the Special Constabulary

At the time of writing, the government is spending a great deal of time talking about reform of the police service, and some of what they are saying relates to the Special Constabulary, and how they can make it larger. It has often been seen in the past that the Special Constabulary has been neglected or overlooked, but now the government is proposing paying Specials an annual bounty of around £2500, distributed according to the number of hours worked.

There is much debate within the Specials as to whether this bounty is a good idea or not, although it seems that it will go ahead regardless - the only questions now are in regard to the exact amounts of money involved, the implementation of such a scheme, when such a scheme might begin, and what kind of effect it would have on the Specials in general. Some argue that people would join the Specials merely for the money, thus creating a group of Specials who are not really dedicated to what they are supposed to be doing. Others argue that it would attract more people to the Specials, which would always be a good idea, and may help reduce leakage of Specials to the regulars. It is also argued that fewer Specials would become disaffected and leave if they were being paid, as they would have more than the insubstantial rewards currently offered.

Only time can say whether any of these predictions are true. What is almost certain is that the Special Constabulary will continue to provide a vital, if not always fully appreciated, boost to the manpower of the Police Service for many years to come.


The Researcher is indebted to the members of the Special Constabulary Forum, who have inspired and encouraged, even at the worst times, and who provided a great deal of information which has gone into this entry.

Useful Links

  • Could You? Police - the website of the latest national recruitment drive for the police service in general.

  • Police Services of the UK - contains links and contact details for most of the police forces in the United Kingdom, many of whom now operate their own websites.

1An exception is made for the City of London Special Constabulary, allowing them the same area of jurisdiction as that given to Specials in the Metropolitan Police, which completely surrounds the small area covered by the City of London Police.2That is usually the point where they discover why Specials are issued with handcuffs.3Used by a trained officer, these are effective for gaining control of non-compliant prisoners to ensure the safety of the officer, prisoner and bystanders. However, they are not particularly comfortable to wear, so it is advisable, if you should happen to be arrested, to cooperate and thus reduce the chance that handcuffs will be used.4Most often either an ASP telescopic baton, or a PR-24 side-handled baton, depending on the preference held by the force in question.5This is usually a CS spray, but some forces are experimenting with an alternative spray called PAVA. Not all forces use these sprays at the time of writing, although most do.6Which would work out as extremely expensive if a Special handler did, say, eight or ten hours of duty a week instead of the much greater number of hours a regular handler could work.7These vary - many forces have no physical fitness test, although they do require a doctor's examination to ensure general good health. Eyesight requirements are also variable - at the time of writing, Thames Valley Police will accept anybody whose vision is correctable with soft contact lenses for at least 12 hours, while the British Transport Police require a minimum standard of unaided vision of 6/24 in one eye, 6/18 in the other, provided that glasses or contact lenses are worn.8This may be a preemptive reaction to disability discrimination legislation which will come into effect over the police service in 2003.9Which may be due to senior officers wishing to avoid accusations of favouritism from applicants who are not members of the Special Constabulary, although this attitude does nothing for the morale of the Specials.

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