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Comparative Criminal Law and Enforcement: England and Wales

Law Enforcement: The Police And Prosecution

The first English police were medieval constables and the unpaid parish constables who were responsible for maintaining the King's Peace. The urban Watchman had a similar duty. It was not until 1829 that a paid, full-time organized and disciplined police force became established in London: the Metropolitan Police.

Today, the investigation of crime and the arrest, questioning, and charging of those suspected of committing criminal offenses in England and Wales is primarily in the hands of Table 1 SOURCE: Home Office. Criminal Statistics: England and Wales 1999. London: Stationery Office, 2000. Home Office. Home Office Statistical Bulletin, The 2000 British Crime Survey. London: Stationery Office, 2000. forty-three regional police forces. As of 2000 there were 124,418 police officers and 53,227 civilian staff; the Metropolitan Police is the largest force with 25,485 officers covering the whole of the London area. They are not armed with guns unless working in a special unit such as those assigned to protect diplomats and public officials, or are in armed response units ready to respond to incidents where weapons are used.

The organization of the police in England and Wales is very different from that found either in the United States or in the rest of Europe. Unlike the United States, there are far fewer police forces and there is no equivalent to the distinctions made between federal, state, county, and city police forces. Unlike many European police forces, there is no national police force answerable to a central government department. However, regional and national police work has been developing in recent decades and there is now a National Crime Squad, set up in 1998, with a cross-jurisdictional role. Furthermore, the Home Secretary, the political head of the Home Office, has considerable influence (although not direct operational control), through the system of central government grants that, along with local council taxes, funds police work. The control of the police is shared between central government, local government, and the police as semi-autonomous professionals.

Special laws and codes govern the operation of police work. Decisions to stop, search, arrest, or question suspects are governed by rules set out in administrative codes pursuant to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. The act requires the publication of a series of Codes of Practice to regulate police work when dealing with criminal suspects. Code A deals with the powers to stop and search a suspect in the street; Code B is concerned with the search of premises and seizure of property; Code C relates to the detention, treatment, and questioning of suspects; Code D regulates identification procedures; and, Code E specifies the procedures to be followed for tape recorded interviews with suspects.

The function of the police is to be the main agency responsible for responding to crime, but they also have several other important responsibilities: crime prevention; the maintenance of public order at large events such as royal ceremonies, sporting occasions and public meetings; traffic control, and road safety; custody of lost property; and the provision of emergency service to a variety of persons in need (e.g., those who have lost their door keys, or who have been involved in motoring accidents).

There are other agencies responsible for responding to lawbreaking such as Her Majesty's Customs and Excise, in the case of smuggling, and the British Transport Police, who deal with crime on the railways and at ports and docks. In contrast to other European countries, the responsibility for most crime is given to the local police force, who have the duty of responding to both major and minor crimes. In England and Wales the prosecutor plays no part at the crime investigation stage, and there is no investigating magistrate as there is in France. Within the police there is a functional division between the detective branch and the regular uniformed police officer. The detective branch is called the Criminal Investigation Department (CID). They respond to major crimes such as murders and have units responsible for investigating more routine crimes such as burglary.

Since 1950 the crime trend has been steadily upward, but it leveled off in the 1990s. Recorded crime figures collected by the police and published annually by the Home Office show that in the year between April 1999 and March 2000 there were 5.3 million crimes recorded by the police. However, a more reliable guide to the extent of crime is provided by the British Crime Survey. Organized by the Research, Development and Statistics Directorate of the Home Office, the survey is now regularly conducted every two years and gives an estimate of the total amount of crime based on a sample of 19,500 respondents. In 2000 it was estimated that there were over 16.5 million crimes reported by victims in this survey. The survey only relates to crimes against the individual and therefore does not include public order offenses (e.g., involving drugs), property crimes committed at the workplace, or crimes involving public bodies such as the railways or tax fraud.

The crime pattern is very different from the United States, with the latest British Crime Survey showing that 22 percent of crimes are violent (homicide, robbery, rape, wounding, sexual offenses) and 80 percent are property crimes. In the twelve months from April 1999 to March 2000 across the whole of England and Wales, there were 765 offenses recorded as homicide (murder, manslaughter and infanticide) and 749 attempted murder offenses recorded (Povey et al.).

The police have a duty to respond to criminal incidents but they are not required to prosecute in every case. Investigations often result in no prosecution because there is not sufficient evidence to charge the suspect, or there may not even be a suspect. Where there is sufficient evidence and a person is charged, the police have the option of not sending the case papers on to the Crown Prosecuting Service, but rather diverting the case from the normal system by issuing an official caution in lieu of prosecution. For this to happen the police should have sufficient evidence against a suspect to be able to have the CPS prosecute the case, and the suspect must admit his or her guilt for the offense. He may then be given a formal caution that is placed on the offender's record. This system of diversion is used primarily with young offenders; indeed the majority of youngsters aged ten to seventeen are given a caution. For young offenders the use of cautioning was reformed in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 to a system of reprimands and final warnings.

In most cases where the police have sufficient evidence against a suspect, the case papers are forwarded to the prosecuting agency. There are a number of prosecuting bodies for criminal offenses in England and Wales such as the Post Office and the Inland Revenue (responsible for collecting taxation). Since the Prosecution of Offences Act 1985 there has been one agency responsible for the great bulk of routine criminal cases dealt with: the Crown Prosecution Service, known as the CPS.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawComparative Criminal Law and Enforcement: England and Wales - Law Enforcement: The Police And Prosecution, Prosecutors: Crown Prosecution Service, Criminal Courts: Pre-trial And Trial