BBC News Magazine

Page last updated at 11:07 GMT, Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Should police officers be made to wear name badges?

Inspector Norman Lawrence with name badge

By Elizabeth Diffin
BBC News Magazine

For years police have been identified by their collar numbers, but now officers in parts of the country are being made to wear name badges. Should the badges be required for all?

Picture the scene: you're unhappy with the quality of customer service you're receiving and think a complaint is in order. But the person dealing with you seems reluctant to tell you their full name.

A not uncommon scenario in shops, restaurants and call centres perhaps, but what happens when the reluctant name-giver is a police officer? And why might that officer think displaying his name makes him a target for violence and intimidation?

Policeman leading away protester
Some police at the G20 did not have numbers on their epaulets

Some chief constables believe such identification is important for holding officers accountable and makes them more approachable. But the rank-and-file staff have raised concerns that such an action could make them more vulnerable to violence - and represents an invasion of privacy.

Greater Manchester Police (GMP) has joined a growing trend for mandatory name badges, becoming the latest force to announce that all staff will be required to wear a name badge displaying full name and rank.

Various segments of police forces currently display full names, but the Manchester regulations affect the largest group thus far: 8,100 officers and 4,000 civilian staff. Only undercover officers and those wearing riot gear will be exempt.

"It's part of our commitment to customer service and will make us more open and accountable," says GMP Chief Constable Peter Fahy.

The trend for name badges reflects broader movements in community and neighbourhood policing across the UK. The Leicestershire Constabulary introduced mandatory epaulettes embroidered with an officer's full name and collar number last spring.

"You're not being dealt with by a number, you're being dealt with by a person," says Inspector Ivan Odell. "We're not anonymous."

Facebook protest

The G20 protests in London last April raised the issue of greater police accountability. Officers allegedly hid or covered their badge numbers while policing the protests, making identification impossible.

Cambridgeshire Chief Constable Julie Spence, with her name stitched into her shoulder epaulettes, o
Cambridgeshire chief Julie Spence has her name stitched on her epaulettes

People concerned about the security and privacy issues surrounding the name badges have created a Facebook group protesting against their mandatory implementation. Some members of the group worry that revealing full names allows people to access the electoral roll, find out where officers live, and attack or harass them.

Mr Hanson says the Greater Manchester Police Federation supports name badges for officers in certain roles, including those who work in the community and with children. But officers who regularly conduct arrests or interact with combative individuals think publicising their full names - especially if it's unusual - could make them and their families vulnerable.

"Any snippet of information in an age of global technology can give those with sinister motivations the ability to trace officers," Mr Hanson says.

But accessing the electoral roll isn't as easy as it might seem. Although anyone can go to their library and inspect the electoral roll for a local area, it is only searchable by address, not name.

"You would have to plough through the whole of the electoral register," says Eric Shelmerdine, a private investigator whose job requires him to track down elusive people. "It would take about a month."

Collectable 'trophies'

Any voter can opt out of the edited version of the electoral roll, which has been around since 2002 and has a national opt-out rate of 40%. The edited roll is the only version available to marketers or websites that advertise people-finding services.

Met officer wearing name badge
Officers often already wear name badges when attending court

And using an officer's collar number to learn their name is not easily done, says Mr Shelmerdine.

Mr Odell says the difference between displaying a collar number or a name is negligible when it comes to personal safety - if someone wants to locate an officer, they'll find a way. Nonetheless, hunting down an officer in order to inflict harm is "extremely rare," he says.

Mr Hanson says the Greater Manchester Police Federation also fears the magnetic badges could fall off in a scuffle, be collected as "trophies," and then used to impersonate a plainclothes officer.

In Leicestershire, magnetic and pin-on name badges have fallen off, inspiring the more permanent embroidered epaulettes now favoured by the force. In all the time they have had some type of name badges, there have been "no problems," Mr Odell says.

The broader concerns surrounding name badges have to do with privacy, which members of the Facebook group point out is covered by the Human Rights Act of 1998.

Simon Davies, the director of watchdog group Privacy International, says the problem isn't in divulging names - it's in making it mandatory.

"Your name is a very personal issue and should only be revealed if you choose to," Mr Davies says. "When society or the government provides a requirement to divulge your name, there can be consequences."

For our names are an essential part of relationships and help us build trust, which is why customer service personnel use them. And Mr Davies thinks police officers should decide whether to disclose their full name, display a partial version, or use a pseudonym.

"If it's a public relations matter, [they should] put a smiley face and their first name," he says. "It's quite possible to have a responsive and responsible law enforcement sector that respects privacy."

Mr Hanson says he's very concerned about the "almost Draconian" way the policy has been implemented and says the Greater Manchester Police Federation "would support a more measured introduction".

As for the Facebook group, some members who say they're police officers have opted to use a pseudonym and/or avatar on the social networking site to obscure their true identity. They say it protects against virtual harassment from those they've arrested - and they'd like the same protection on the streets.

After all, says Mr Davies, "just handing over your name can create a chain of events."

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Of course they should be identifiable, otherwise they become (or think they are) above the law. Members of the public are given stiffer sentences for crimes against police officers, they should be held to a higher standard in that case. Why should they be able to hide behind anonymity? I don't necessarily think they need their names, but any officer on duty should be able to be clearly identified at all times.
Stephen Windrow, Hereford

Police should be identified only by a lapel number. Law enforcement should be semi-anonymous under strict rules and codes of conduct. The families of police personnel need to be protected. A member of the public should be able to make a complaint or praise, if necessary, using a lapel number. The police do a very difficult sometimes dangerous job and more politically correct reinventing the wheel ideas will not help to keep officers and their families safe.
Lynne Bayliss , Bridgend

I don't agree that it should be compulsory for police officers to display their name. Their number is sufficient to identify them if there is a problem. In Essex many ambulance crews have a badge with their first name and rank (and not necessarily their real name). In many cases it would be inappropriate to use a police officer's first name.
Tim Harvey, Chelmsford, Essex

I'm sorry. Is this the same police service that's eagerly storing the DNA profiles of everyone they arrest, regardless of whether the individual has committed an offence, and in breach of European law? My sympathies are limited.
John Nolan, Oxford

I do not agree with it. If the defendant knows the name of the police officer, he will be able to find him. I think that they should have nicknames so their privacy is protected and we can still complain in case if anything goes wrong. I don't work for the police but I would be scared if I arrested a person with a gun who could pass the name to his friends. Not me but my family could be in danger.
Maggie, UK

Working in the data field, I would find it worrying for police to have to reveal their full names on a badge. The amount of places you can gather information about someone, just based on that name alone, coupled with an approximate age, is staggering. If this "friendly" name tag needs to be implemented, perhaps it can be a pseudonym that can give all the "friendly face" that the officer is known as in their professional capacity (as a replacement to their number alone), but that would shield them from the identification by their real names. In all the rush to protect and be nicer to us, the general public, we shouldn't forget we need to protect our police officers too.
Rich James, Bristol

When I was in the Army we used to have name tags on to our uniform for all to see. There may be certain units of the police that would not want their name known and this is acceptable, however I see no reason why the general rank and file officers cannot wear name tags. It makes it easier for members of the public to converse with them.
Martin, Bath, UK

It all depends on context. If an officer (especially those above the rank of sergeant, who do not wear collar numbers) is in a public-facing area of the station, or is attending a community surgery, or is visiting someone to inform them of the death of a loved one, a name badge is perhaps appropriate. When attending front-line duties such as riot control or a drugs raid, it is perhaps less so. As with so many aspects of policing, a pragmatic approach is needed, not a one-size-fits-all one.
Hugh Annand, Letchworth Garden City, UK

When asked by a police officer, I can be made via various means to reveal my identity. The easiest way is to just be arrested and a refusal to co-operate just gives them the excuse to do so. However when trying to identify a police office it is not as uncommon as the commentator thinks to find no badge numbers or ones that have been deliberately obscured by hi-vis jackets or stab jackets or just by simply not wearing them. I've often noticed officers with no means of identification patrolling on the streets of Liverpool or driving around in vehicles with no epaulettes, and as for the PCSOs, as soon as you start asking for numbers from them then you fail the so called "attitude test" and they radio for the big boys to turn up.
Joe Bloggs, Liverpool

No way should our forces be made to wear name badges - who thought this one up? My niece is a police constable and I would be even more worried about her if I thought her name was on display for everyone to see. Ridiculous, and dangerous idea.
Sheila, Belfast

"It's part of our commitment to customer service and will make us more open and accountable," says GMP Chief Constable Peter Fahy. Blimey, anyone would think that the police has morphed into a supermarket! Customer service is secondary to upholding the law and arresting criminals. I totally agree that, due to the kind of people the police have to deal with, their identity should be restricted to their collar number. Even though it is hard to track people down, it is still easier when you have a name.
Alex, Bristol, UK

I find it so amusing the police are worried their right to privacy is being breached... now you know how we all feel with the anti-terror stop and search laws. When I'm at work, the people I'm helping know my name. The public is the customer in this case and we have every right to know who it is we're talking to in case you want to complain - or even commend.
Kimberley, Nottingham

Much as I like to know who I am dealing with, I quite understand the police being reluctant to reveal their names. A number should be quite enough to identify an officer unless s/he chooses to reveal their identity. It may take a while to trawl through databases to locate an individual by name but, for those with the time and inclination, it could be quite a lucrative enterprise. That said, on one occasion when I rang the police, the person who answered the call refused to identify themselves. They wouldn't even give an identification number, which I find totally unacceptable.
Nick, Sheffield

Just make it an offence for a policeman to cover up their ID number, and the exposure of their name is no longer an issue; problem solved (unless of course there's more to this than protecting a police officer from 'harassment').
Michael Finch, Chichester, UK

Your e-mail address
Town/city and country
Your comment

The BBC may edit your comments and not all emails will be published. Your comments may be published on any BBC media worldwide.

Print Sponsor

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific