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Police careers - specialist units and departments

While the ‘bobby on the beat’ is still of vital importance, modern policing now actually covers a diverse range of jobs. So if you are ready for the next challenge in your career or feel you have the skills to thrive in a new role, here's an overview of specialist departments and units within the police.

Criminal Investigations Department (CID)

CIDs deals with investigations into serious crimes. These count as robberies, burglaries, sexual offences, fraud, serious assaults and murders. CID officer sometimes assist uniformed officers in investigating the less serious crimes, such as theft. The CID has the same rank structure as the uniformed branch. Officers are known as detective constable, detective sergeants and so on.

CID officers do not work the shift system and they are often required to work long and irregular hours. A major inquiry can demand of CID officers working every hour of the day. The work is often slow and requires great patience as well as good memory and attention to detail. The pay structure is identical to that of the uniformed police, with an additional plain-clothes allowance.

It's a fact that many police constables apply to join CID, but few are selected. CID requires certain qualities and commitment and officers will need to show an aptitude for this kind of work. To aid selection a constable can request a temporary attachment to a particular squad. If they show particular ability in this work, then his/her senior officers would put them forward for consideration by an interview board.


SOCA or the Serious Organised Crime Agency was created in April 2006, the Agency having been formed from the amalgamation of the National Crime Squad (NCS), National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS), that part of HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) dealing with drug trafficking and associated economic crime and the part of UK Immigration dealing with organised immigration crime (UKIS).

Their stated aim is to prevent and detect serious organised crime and to contribute to its reduction in other ways. In addition, SOCA is tasked to provide support to law enforcement partners, notably UK police forces and HM Revenue and Customs. Their work often involves very extensive and time consuming operations. Operations include undercover work, physical or technical surveillance, witness protection and financial investigation.

It effectively replaced the National Crime Squad with a remit to tackle all forms of organised crime. It comprises four functions – investigation, enforcement, intervention and corporate services. In 2007 SOCA's budget was approx £450 million, with around 4,500 employees. SOCA main activities are fighting drugs trafficking, organised immigration crime, individual and private sector fraud – almost any crime where there is an organised element.

Drugs squad

Where the SOCA tackles the large-scale drug trafficking, local forces have squads to deal with drug offences in their area. They will be involved in surveillance of local drug dealers, raids on premises and making arrests and will often work closely with their national counterparts.

Economic Crime Unit/Detective

Established in 1946 and run by the Metropolitan Police in cooperation with the City of London Police, this unit also operates within the Serious Fraud Office. The SFO is a government department established to investigate large-scale fraud. Some regional forces also have specialist units dealing primarily with fraud.

Specialist Operations

Specialist Operations has branches covering a wide range of functions, including:

  • Anti-terrorism
  • Covert operations & intelligence
  • Diplomatic protection
  • Firearms
  • National identification
  • Photographic and graphics
  • Royal protection
  • Special Branch

Special Branch

Each force has its own Special Branch dealing with terrorism. Its work covers investigations into firearms or explosives, which may be linked with threats to national security. This involves surveillance work and also keeping regular officers informed of any threats. Established over a century ago to tackle the threat posed by the Irish nationalists who took to terrorism tactics, its post-war remit expanded to other perceived threats to national security. Generally, recruitment is via the CID. However, in the Metropolitan Police its members are generally recruited from the uniformed officers directly.

Firearms Branch

Each Force has a number of officers in a specialist team who are trained and equipped to participate in operations that require firearms. Extremely thorough training is part of becoming a specialist firearms officer, while qualities of calmness and quick thinking are essential.

Traffic department

A traffic officer is concerned with all aspects of road safety, while still getting involved in policing all kinds of non-traffic incidents. The work of traffic officers is much more complex and multi-layered – here's a sample of some of the duties:

  • dealing with motorway pile-ups and road accidents
  • checking that vehicles on the road conform to the legal safety requirements
  • dealing with motoring offences, such as speeding
  • breath testing procedures and dealing with drink driving offences
  • managing the traffic when the road is blocked by an incident or accident
  • court proceedings to support a prosecution

Drivers of traffic cars (and motorcycles) operate independently and are based in special premises. Drivers and riders go out on patrol and from there can be called to incidents when a police presence is required. Training in advanced driving skills takes place at regional driving schools and is essential for public safety and the protection of the officers themselves. They are also equipped with the specialist knowledge required, such as the various vehicle regulations.

Royal and diplomatic branch

Police in this branch are responsible for the protection of members of the royal family and their residences, and also embassies and diplomats. They are highly trained in the use of firearms, self-defence and advanced driving skills.

Dog handlers

Dog Handling Teams harness the powers of dogs’ senses of smell and hearing to assist with the detection and prevention of crime. Dog handlers are also used by many agencies outside of the police including HM Revenue and Customs, the armed forces, fire and rescue services and prison services. The role of a police dog handler is to assist the police in a ride range of specialist roles including:

  • Search for explosives, weapons and narcotics
  • Aid in the search for missing or injured people
  • Track and detain offenders who are on the run from the police
  • Locating dead bodies and blood, either buried or on the surface
  • Airport and port control

Mounted Police

Horses are mainly used by the police for:

  • crowd control during demonstrations and sporting events
  • imposing a police presence in serious disturbances such as riots (horses are trained to remain calm even under the noisiest and most violent conditions)
  • in rural areas, horses are used in searches of wide open spaces
  • in London, the Metropolitan Police horses take part in ceremonial occasions and are ridden on patrol

As units are small, there are long waiting lists and it may be a surprise that no experience of riding is necessary. However, you must have served two years as a patrol officer before being considered for any position. Training in riding and caring for the horses at a special training centre is complemented by regular refresher courses. Probationers are expected to pass examinations in stable management and horsemanship and are also expected to stay in the branch for a number of years.

River police

Forces with large rivers or coastal waters within their area will have a river police section to assist in the policing the following situations:

  • assisting boats in difficulties
  • inspecting docks, riverside premises and landing places
  • dealing with thefts from ships, houseboats and riverside warehouses
  • rescuing people (sometimes retrieving bodies) from the water
  • making safe drifting boats, or other objects which can cause hazards on the water
  • monitoring water pollution
  • working with HM Revenue and Customs to counter smuggling
  • searching for suspects and criminals

Limited places means competition is strong, applicants must have served two years as a constable on patrol and experience on the water – a good swimmer and knowledge of boats – are advantageous.

Underwater Search Unit

Highly trained divers are needed in many forces to take part in underwater search units. The units are called in for underwater searches for suspected weapons, stolen property or missing people. There is fierce competition for places and candidates need to be extremely fit, as the work can be very physically demanding.