Authorised Professional Practice

This page is from APP, the official source of professional practice for policing.

First published
Written by College of Policing
Public order
21 mins read

The public order command structure is based on the gold, silver, bronze and police support unit (PSU) commander roles. For some operations there may also be a requirement for a sub bronze commander role.

Those who have been given authority through their role for a specific operation or incident carry out the command role. Commanders must be trained, accredited and operationally competent. Their role is to make decisions, give clear directions and ensure those directions are carried out.

For further information see the authorised professional practice (APP) on Operations.

Gold commander

The gold strategy is the foundation on which all subsequent planning and deployment rely. The gold commander’s leadership ability and strategic oversight are, therefore, critical to the successful planning and deployment of an operation.

Role and responsibilities

The gold commander:

  • is responsible and accountable for the policing of the operation/event
  • determines the strategic objectives
  • retains strategic oversight and overall command responsibility throughout the operation
  • sets the tactical parameters of the operation but does not manage tactical decision making – this is the silver commander’s responsibility
  • sets, reviews, communicates and updates the strategy based on the threat assessment and available intelligence
  • in response to a spontaneous incident, develops a working strategy into a formal strategy
  • consults stakeholders when determining the strategy, including partner agencies and community groups as appropriate
  • ensures that the strategy for the incident or operation is documented (ie, by a loggist) in order to provide a clear audit trail, which includes any changes to that strategy
  • chairs the strategic coordinating group (SCG) where there is a multi-agency response to an incident or operation, although this responsibility may be delegated to another agency, depending on the nature of the operation
  • ensures that, where appropriate, public order command protocols are set, agreed and understood by all relevant parties
  • considers whether to consult a public order tactical adviser
  • considers setting tactical parameters for the police response, which may include outcomes (preferred, acceptable, unacceptable)
  • should not become drawn into making tactical-level decisions
  • has, within the command structure, overall responsibility for health and safety, diversity, equality and human rights compliance and ensures that relevant impact assessments are completed
  • identifies the level of support needed to resolve the incident or operation and resources the police response
  • is responsible for the development of a media plan

Responsibilities to the silver commander

The gold commander:

  • remains available to the silver commander and suitably located in order to maintain effective strategic command by ensuring that appropriate communication mechanisms exist
  • reviews and ensures the resilience and effectiveness of the command team, identifies the force requirement for mutual aid support, and ensures the effectiveness of the silver commander
  • approves the silver commander’s tactical plan and ensures that it meets the strategic objective for the incident or operation on an ongoing basis
  • decides whether the incident or operation should be declared as a critical incident (declaration and management responsibility fall to the silver commander)

When there are large scale operations that span multiple force areas there may be a requirement for coordination of response at a national level. While each separate force operation will have its own force level gold commander, a coordinating gold can be appointed to ensure consistency of approach at the national level and between the force golds. 

The coordinating gold will take the lead in negotiation with event organisers (whether private sector or government department) at the national level, ensure consistency of approach among the various gold commanders involved in terms of the request for resourcing, particularly where mutual aid resources are being requested (see the APP on Mobilisation) and bring a consistent approach to risk assessment for the overall operation.

A coordinating gold commander can be appointed following consultation between the National Police Chiefs' Council (NPCC) public order lead and relevant chief constables. It is also recommended as good practice that the NPCC public order lead, in consultation with the host force chief constable, appoints an appropriate gold commander to review those operations that necessitate significant mutual aid. 

In the unlikely event that agreement cannot be reached between relevant parties, resolution of any disputes should be subject to discussion by the NPCC chair.

Silver commander

The silver public order commander develops, commands and coordinates the overall tactical response of an operation, in accordance with the strategic objectives set by the gold commander.

Role and responsibilities

The silver commander:

  • establishes a command structure that is appropriate to the circumstances and sufficiently resilient and robust to achieve the strategy
  • provides the pivotal command chain link between bronze commanders and the gold commander
  • assesses the available information and intelligence to properly evaluate the threat, vulnerabilities and risk
  • remains suitably located in order to maintain effective tactical command of the incident or operation
  • ensures that all decisions are documented in the command log in order to provide a clear audit trail
  • ensures that, where appropriate, all staff involved in the operation are briefed and debriefed
  • considers the wider community, public safety and evidential implications of using certain tactics
  • manages and coordinates, where required, multi-agency resources and activities
  • ensures that any deployment is commensurate with the level of threat faced
  • ensures that threat and risk, and impact assessment(s) are completed where appropriate
  • consults a public order tactical adviser, where appropriate, as soon as practicable, and remains responsible for any decisions made following consultation with the adviser
  • considers the assignment of adequate medical support
  • considers the need for operational parameters
  • considers control room requirements and the communications structure for the event
  • coordinates the tactical plan of bronzes when sub bronzes are deployed

The silver public order commander works closely with the gold commander and bronze commander(s) and:

  • develops, reviews and coordinates the tactical plan in order to achieve the gold commander’s strategy within any tactical parameters set
  • tests the gold commander’s strategy to ensure that it is achievable and proportionate to the threat faced
  • tasks and coordinates the bronze commander(s) in accordance with the tactical plan
  • ensures that any changes to the tactical plan are communicated to the bronze commander(s) and, where appropriate, the gold commander
  • ensures that the tactics employed by the bronze commander(s) meet the strategic intention and tactical plan
  • where appropriate and in communication with the gold commander, declares and manages the operation as a critical incident
  • sets the working strategy, including any appropriate tactical parameters, where a gold commander is not yet in place
  • maintains objectivity so as not to become drawn into bronze decision making

Bronze commander role and responsibilities

The bronze commander:

  • possesses clear understanding of the gold commander’s strategy, the silver commander’s tactical plan and their own role within it
  • implements the relevant part of the silver commander’s plan by using appropriate tactics within their geographical/functional area of responsibility
  • develops a deployment plan relevant to the geographical or functional role
  • makes decisions within their agreed level of responsibility, which includes seeking approval for any variation in agreed tactics
  • where circumstances change, tests the silver commander’s tactical plan to ensure that it is achievable and proportionate
  • ensures staff within their area of responsibility are briefed and understand their role, responsibilities and limits
  • updates the silver commander on any changes, including any variation in agreed tactics within their geographical/functional area of responsibility
  • remains suitably located in order to maintain effective operational command of their area of responsibility and remains available to those under their command. Bronze commanders should, however, ensure that those carrying out tasks have sufficient independence to conduct their specific role in accordance with the strategy and tactical plan
  • communicates and coordinates with other bronze commanders as appropriate
  • ensures that all operational decisions made are documented in a command log, to ensure that a clear audit trail exists
  • ensures deployments of PSUs are aligned to the deployment plan and overarching tactical plan
  • maximise opportunities to delegate areas of responsibility to unit commanders in line with their deployments providing they are able and competent to do so

PSU commander

The police support unit (PSU) commander needs to be trained to the national standard and is responsible for the leadership, deployment and control of one PSU working under a bronze commander or sub bronze commander, in accordance with public order deployment planning. The PSU commander also needs to work effectively with other PSU commanders and/or specialist resources. This may be achieved by communicating with other PSU commanders and coordinating deployments in line with the overall plan.

Public order command structure diagram

command structure starting from Gold commander, going to Silver and then to two Bronze commanders, one geographic and the other functional

Sub bronze commander

The command structure required for complex and/or large-scale pre-planned or spontaneous events may be influenced by a number of factors, for example:

  • requirement for large deployment of resources, including mutual aid
  • geographically large and/or multiple footprints
  • extended duration of an event, which may have repercussions for command resilience
  • requirement to manage a range of geographic and functional responsibilities simultaneously

In these circumstances, the designated role of a bronze public order commander within the command structure of the overall operation may not reflect their actual operational responsibilities. This can be overcome by using sub bronze commanders as part of the command structure to assume operational responsibilities for a given geographic area or function.

Sub bronze commanders come under the command of geographic or functional bronze commanders who have some tactical responsibility. These bronze commanders, in turn, are under the command of a single silver commander who is responsible for coordinating individual tactical plans to ensure that they are in line with gold’s strategic objectives and any tactical parameters. Sub bronze commanders operate in accordance with the operation order.

The benefit of the sub bronze commander role at complex and/or large events includes enhancing the command capability and reducing the demand on the silver commander.

Command structure diagram (sub bronze commander)

This example command structure diagram (sub bronze commander) illustrates how sub bronze commanders can be incorporated into a command structure for an operation with a public order element.

Note: where sub bronze commanders are to form part of the command structure, careful consideration must be given to who should undertake the role. If a sub bronze commander is undertaking an operational-level public order role, only accredited and experienced bronze public order commanders should be used. The bronze commanders in these situations, who undertake an element of tactical responsibility, must be accredited as both bronze and silver public order commanders.

Command structure with sub bronze commanders, including rally, assembly and march

Public order tactical adviser

Public order tactical advisers (POTACs) are nationally trained and accredited to provide pertinent advice based on the role performed by the commander. The decision and rationale for not using a POTAC during the planning and operational phase should be documented as part of a commander’s decision-making audit trail.

Although decision making rests with the commander, POTACs are responsible for providing appropriate, valid and reasonable advice.

POTACs provide knowledge on a wide range of issues relating to public order tactics and the potential outcomes. Key functions of the POTAC include providing:

  • advice, including theoretical outcomes, to support command decision making
  • up-to-date knowledge on public order legislation, national/regional policy and standards for operational practice
  • advice on contingency planning, and ensuring bronze commanders have up-to-date information on gold and silver decision making
  • support with risk assessments

Command of large-scale operations

A level 2 PSU is a numerically fixed body of officers equipped and trained to national standards. The basic formation of a PSU allows for the effective deployment of resources as a standard unit. The PSU consists of three serials and must be commanded by an inspector who has successfully completed PSU commander training.

When large numbers of PSUs are being deployed, the basic mobilisation unit (BMU) structure may be used.

Where an event or incident may impact upon more than one force or where substantial resources are deployed in support of another force, a protocol between forces should be considered to ensure a coordinated delivery of the policing response. The protocol may cover issues such as:

  • planning
  • training
  • command
  • communications
  • media
  • complaints

The receiving force (for local, regional or national mobilisation) must ensure that commanders are appropriately briefed for the operation. The briefing should include strategic objectives, command structure, public order command protocols, specific roles and responsibilities, tactical planpolicing style considerations, local procedures and policies (including specific legislation being used). It is crucial in such operations that differences in terminology and working practices are addressed through command protocols and effective briefing processes.

BMU command

Mutual aid to support a pre-planned or spontaneous event may result in BMUs being deployed. The BMU consists of a group of three PSUs under the command of an operationally competent public order bronze commander. This BMU lead role is not a public order command function in itself, but reflects the welfare and logistical responsibility for the three PSUs placed on the BMU lead by their own force.

Including an accredited public order bronze commander with a BMU provides the flexibility for the requesting force should they wish to deploy the BMU lead to perform a bronze command or sub bronze command role. In these circumstances, and where practicable, the BMU lead should be involved in the tactical planning process prior to the event, and should preferably be deployed with their own PSUs. If they are used as either a bronze or sub bronze commander, the BMU lead must be clear on their roles and responsibilities in relation to silver and gold command.

Accreditation of commanders

Public order operations must be commanded by appropriately trained and operationally competent commanders. Forces should have processes to assess whether operations meet the criteria to mandate the accreditation of commanders. Chief officers must also ensure that arrangements exist whereby appropriately selected, trained and operationally competent commanders are available to command public order operations.

When an officer from England, Wales or Northern Ireland attends and successfully completes a course of instruction based on command modules in the national public order training curriculum, they are assessed to be occupationally competent to perform that command role.

Chief officers are responsible for ensuring that individuals who pass the course and are assessed as occupationally competent are subject to a continuous professional development programme. Commanders must demonstrate that they are operationally competent by performing the role for which they have been trained, in accordance with nationally agreed standards. Their operational competence should be assessed by their force.

The process of reaccreditation requires that commanders produce a portfolio of evidence annually. Public order commanders who perform a bronze role should attend public order training in line with their force policy.

Individual forces may provide further supplementary local training to support the local and regional issues identified in their respective public order strategic threat assessments.

Forces should retain records of any command accreditation and reaccreditation so as to evidence and support the continuous professional development of commanders.

Public order command protocols

Command protocols in a public order context should provide commanders and deployed officers with an understanding of what they are required to do. They may include:

  • overall aim/strategy of the operation
  • clarification on roles, responsibilities and resource allocation
  • how the command team reacts to changes
  • operational contingency plans
  • how the proportionate use of legal powers is ensured
  • how the deployment of specialist equipment and resources is managed
  • where necessary, how the public order command team works with other deployed command teams (for example, firearms)
  • how commanders communicate with each other, and with officers on the ground
  • how commanders communicate with the media
  • procedures for the transfer of command from one commander to another
  • the relationship between the formal command team and existing force systems and processes

Understanding the requirement

For pre-planned events and operations, development of a gold strategy should take place from the outset, thereby avoiding the need for a working strategy.

A meeting should be held with the objective of formulating the gold strategy. The strategic planning group may comprise:

The gold commander may wish to consider including other staff, departments, commanders, partner agencies, organisers and community representatives.

The gold commander should also identify any unique operational requirements.

If practicable and time permits, the gold strategy may be more accurate and detailed if it is derived from a range of information sources.

Gold strategy

This outlines the overall intention of the policing operation, including the potential outcome(s) sought. In doing this, it should establish a set of objectives relevant to the current knowledge of the situation and the analysis of the threats and risks presented.

Where practicable, the strategy should:

  • be developed at the earliest opportunity
  • be based on all the information available at the time
  • be dynamic and capable of being reviewed
  • aim to minimise recourse to the use of force
  • include narratives to explain each objective
  • be unique for each incident
  • specify the role of the police in the operation
  • if appropriate, specify the responsibilities and requirements of other partners and stakeholders
  • provide a clear indication of the desired policing style, which should be reflected in the tactical plan

The strategic objectives and the rationale behind them should be recorded as part of an audit trail, as should any revisions or amendments.

Consultation with specialist advisers (for example, legal, human rights, tactical), partners and other stakeholders may assist the gold commander in his/her objective setting.

Unique operational requirements

The following information assists the gold commander to identify unique operational requirements.

  • Location, scale, size and timing.
  • Number and motivation of participants (for example, protest, sporting event).
  • Specific vulnerabilities of the crowd (for example, children’s event).
  • Spontaneous incident or planned operation.
  • The role of the police.
  • Relevant legal issues (including human rights).
  • Available information and intelligence.
  • Level of media interest.
  • Wider policing implications.
  • History of event.
  • Results of threat assessment(s).
  • Adequate custody provisions to ensure appropriate detainee care.

Tactical and operational parameters

Tactical parameters may include:

  • considerations associated with the duration of event(s)
  • symbolic or strategically significant locations
  • community or environmental factors
  • prompts and restrictions
  • tactics not to be used (for example, AEP, dogs, mounted police)

Operational parameters are the restrictions and constraints by which bronze commanders must ensure police tactics are deployed. They form part of the tactical plan and may include:

  • timing and duration
  • operational phasing to allow flexibility and review/amendment of tactics as the situation evolves
  • definition of the geographic and functional responsibilities of the operation
  • key or vulnerable individuals or groups
  • symbolic or strategically significant locations
  • environmental features
  • command protocols
  • contingencies
  • operational objectives

Resource considerations

The current operational capacity of the force should be the baseline for considering resource requirements and implications, including any requirement for the activation of mutual aid.

In addition to current operational capacity, additional resources may include:

Policing style considerations

The gold strategy should demonstrate an understanding of the potential impacts the policing style may have on relevant communities/groups. The effective use of, for example, strategic coordinating groups, advisory groups and community impact assessments can enable police commanders to engage the public through key stakeholders, including elected representatives. This can help build a common understanding of the tactics the police may use to deal with any disorder and/or protest.

Such activity can enable police commanders to better foresee the potential consequences of any police action or inaction and secure partner support in managing rising tensions or any aftermath. Used effectively, such processes do not undermine operational independence but can strengthen local accountability. The ‘no promises’ and ‘no surprises’ principles associated with engaging with protest organisers and protest participants also apply to engaging with partners and stakeholders.

Potential outcomes

The gold strategy should identify anticipated outcomes as follows:

  • preferred
  • acceptable
  • unacceptable

The gold strategy should clearly demonstrate the potential outcomes which are acceptable in the circumstances, and identify contingencies to resolve any unacceptable outcomes that could potentially arise.

Tactical plan

The gold strategy, together with any associated tactical parameters and command protocols, underpins the development of the tactical plan. The tactical plan should provide a clear description of the chosen tactical options across a range of operational contexts, and identify any contingencies. The development of the plan rests with the silver commander, who should seek advice from a public order tactical adviser.

Silver may be constrained by the tactical parameters set by gold, but the tactical options represent what may be considered given the particular circumstances. Commanders should make professional judgements on which tactics to employ and when to employ them in order to save life, protect the public or disrupt criminality.

The tactical plan should follow the framework provided by the national decision model. See public order and the national decision model. It is a matter for individual forces to decide how the plan is recorded. Elements of the plan may be recorded in an accompanying decision log during the event. Key elements of the plan, including contingencies, could also be contained in the operation order.

The plan should be flexible and change and evolve according to circumstances and/or threats. It should be reviewed regularly to ensure that it remains a reasonable and proportionate policing response, while continuing to meet the strategic objectives.

Additional considerations

Information and intelligence that directs, constrains or influences the plan should be recorded or referenced and take account of the strategic objectives and tactical parameters. Threats and risks, both emerging and potential, should be captured in relation to, for example, crime, order, property, public/police safety and the integrity or position of the force.

Powers and policy provide the opportunity to outline the relevant legal, policy and standard operating procedures (SOP) and how these are relevant to the plan and possibly the wider operation. Viable and relevant options are outlined in the options section and include the objective to be achieved, strengths and weaknesses along with due regard to human rights issues and obligations.

Implementation of the plan should be described as a chronological progression through the event. The plan requires sufficient detail, has to be organised, clearly explained and logically progressive. Operational parameters further enable the bronze commander(s) to develop appropriate deployment plans. Realistic and probable contingencies identify events which could reasonably be foreseen, and the response to those events. The plan will also identify who takes command of each contingency, and include relevant documented protocols.

tactical planning group may also be convened to help develop the tactical plan.

Deployment of forward intelligence teams

Overt intelligence and evidence gathering is likely to have a significant impact on the public’s perceptions of the police and their legitimacy in particular. The silver commander must, therefore, ensure that any deployment of forward intelligence teams (FITs) and evidence gathering teams (EGTs) is in accordance with the policing style and tactical parameters for the operation, and that the teams are briefed appropriately.

Taking and retaining photographic images

There are instances where taking and retaining images form part of a public order police response.

Overt filming raises significant human rights issues, notably the question of whether police action is compatible with the right to private life protected by the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) Article 8. The Court of Appeal considered these issues in Wood v Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis [2009] EWCA Civ 414.

Paragraph 86 of the judgment states:

The retention by the police of photographs of a person must be justified and the justification must be the more compelling where the interference with a person’s rights is in pursuit of the protection of the community from the risk of public disorder or low level crime, as opposed, for example, to protection against the danger of terrorism or really serious criminal activity.

In light of Wood, officers need to be aware of considerations and principles regarding taking, reviewing, retaining and storing overt images.

Wood v Commissioner of the Police of the Metropolis

This was a judicial review of the taking of overt photographs by an evidence gathering team at a public order event in April 2005 and the police retention of those photographs. Mr Wood claimed that his right to respect for privacy under ECHR Article 8 had been violated by the police taking and retaining photographs of him.

The Court of Appeal, in a majority decision, found that the taking of photographs in this case was done in pursuance of a legitimate aim, but that it was not proportionate to retain the photographs once it had become clear that the person photographed, Mr Wood, had not committed any offence at the event in question. The fact that Mr Wood had been seen briefly associating with someone with a record of public order offences was found to be insufficient to justify the lengthier retention of the photographs for potential and unknown future use.

Therefore, while the Court of Appeal in Wood has accepted the taking of the photographs in the case, it has found that the purpose for which the photographs were taken and the continuing retention of photographs will have to be justified and proportionate. Once it becomes clear that the purpose for which the photographs were taken is no longer valid or no longer exists, the mere possibility that the photographs could be of some legitimate use in the future will generally be insufficient to justify continuing retention.

Considerations and principles

Considerations when taking and retaining overt images.

  • Is it in accordance with the law?
  • Does it pursue a legitimate aim (that is, the prevention of disorder or crime, is in the interests of public safety, or is for the protection of the rights and/or freedoms of others)?
  • Is it necessary and proportionate?

Principles relating to review, retention and storage of overt images.

  • Records should be regularly reviewed in order to ensure that they remain necessary for a policing purpose and are adequate and up to date. Any records that have no evidential or intelligence value should be disposed of securely.
  • The type and amount of information held on an individual subject should not be excessive and must be proportionate to the risk they pose to the community.
  • The review process should be documented for audit purposes.
  • Storage media containing film footage should be securely stored and available only to staff with an operational need to access it.
  • Footage considered to be of potential evidential value may be retained as part of the prosecution case or another investigation.
  • Footage taken to record the character of a public order event without targeted individuals may be retained in accordance with relevant statutory limitation periods for civil actions. Where the footage shows significant criminal activity, the retention period is 50 years.
  • Records should be disposed of when there is no longer a policing purpose for retaining them.
  • Principles relating to review, retention and storage of overt images should be publicly available.

For further information see the APP on Information management.

Communications interoperability

Effective communication is critical to the success of police operations. Interoperability is the capability of organisations or discrete parts of the same organisation to exchange information and use it to make decisions.

During operational planning, commanders should consider how force-to-force or police-to-non-police partner communications are managed uniformly. Force operational airwave tactical advisers should be consulted in the early stages of operational planning to ensure that communication needs are met for large-scale operations.

For further information see the Airwave Interoperability Manual v2.3. (To access the link, authorised users need to be logged into College Learn.)

Public order deployment planning

Deployment planning should be undertaken by bronze commanders where practicable and once the tactical plan has been defined.

A deployment plan may outline the following, which would be specific to the relevant bronze geographical or functional responsibility.

  • Key information and intelligence.
  • Specific threats and risks.
  • Geographic/functional areas of responsibility.
  • Key powers and policies identified by the tactical plan and priorities.
  • Awareness of how these support the gold strategy.
  • The detailed deployment of resources and contingencies.
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