The population of areas for which chief constables are responsible varies from a few hundred thousand to two or three million and it is commonplace for chief constables for larger force areas to be drawn from the chief constables of smaller forces. A chief constable has no superior officer, but is responsible to the local police authority.
The title is a derived from the original local parish constables of the eighteenth century and earlier. Constable and Constabulary were terms adopted in an attempt to provide a historical link with the older forces and to emphasise local control. Much of the debate about policing in the early nineteenth century (when modern police forces were introduced in Britain) concerned fears that the new forces might become paramilitary agents of central government control. To this day other British police ranks, such as Inspector and Superintendent, are determinedly non-paramilitary – only Police Sergeants hold a quasi-military rank and even then the term Sergeant had long existed as a non-military officer of subordinate rank.
The Chief Constable is assisted by a Deputy Chief Constable (DCC) and one or more Assistant Chief Constables (ACC). The Chief Constable, DCC and ACCs are collectively known as the "Chief Officers" of a force and belong to the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO).
The County Police Act 1839 gave the counties of England and Wales the opportunity to establish full-time police forces, headed by a Chief Constable who was appointed by the justices of the peace of the county. The first county to implement this was Wiltshire, which appointed its first chief constable on 28 November 1839. Other counties followed this pattern; for instance, Essex appointed its first Chief Constable on 11 February 1840.
In London, the Metropolitan Police and the City of London Police are led by Commissioners rather than Chief Constables. Chief Constable was, however, a lower rank in the Metropolitan Police which existed between 1886 and 1946.
In 1869, the divisions of the Metropolitan Police were grouped into four Districts, and four new officers called District Superintendents were appointed to command them, ranking between the Divisional Superintendents and the two Assistant Commissioners. These officers were to be generally military officers, civil servants or lawyers who were directly appointed to the rank. This caused a certain amount of concern, since some saw it as the creation of an "officer class" for the police, which had always been resisted.
In 1886, the rank of District Superintendent was renamed Chief Constable, as it was decided that it could be confused with the Divisional Superintendents. Unlike their superiors, Chief Constables were actually sworn into the office of constable, hence the name. A fifth Chief Constable was later created in the Criminal Investigation Department. The rank became junior to the new rank of Deputy Assistant Commissioner in 1919.
In 1933, the Districts were taken over by Deputy Assistant Commissioners, with the Chief Constables remaining as their deputies. In 1946, the rank was renamed Deputy Commander.
The rank badge of a Metropolitan Police Chief Constable consisted of crossed tipstaves in a wreath.