The feds in a unitary state
August 7, 2011 6:57 PM   Subscribe

In recent coverage of the Mark Duggan shooting and subsequent riots, I've seen a few instances of people referring to the police as "feds". Obviously in Britain there are no actual feds since there's no federal government, so what's the story here?

Half an hour before his fatal encounter with the police, Mark Duggan sent a text to his girlfriend saying that "The feds are following me." The Guardian reports someone in Enfield refusing to talk to the police as saying "Why would we talk to feds? You're the reason this is happening."

Am I correct in guessing that the term is an import from American crime dramas and police procedurals? Is this usage common in Britain, or limited in usage to just London or to young people or to a particular class?

If it is a term with a commonly understood meaning, would it just be the Met that would be the feds, or any cop in general?
posted by strangely stunted trees to Writing & Language (7 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Urban Dictionary has an answer.
posted by trogdole at 7:26 PM on August 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

You're right on both counts: it is an "imported" term and its use is restricted to young urban youth. I can't speak about the rest of the UK but it is in common use in London and would therefore apply to the Metropolitan Police.

As with a lot of London slang it is slowly spreading outwards into the commuter belt; I'm sure it won't be long before the upper middle class kids in Surrey's private schools are employing the term.
posted by alby at 11:20 PM on August 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

Yep - from US drama, and Hip Hop, of course. Fair play - Americans took 'cops' from the London police force!
posted by Hugobaron at 4:44 AM on August 8, 2011

I'm guessing you know this, but in the US I can't think of many examples where we'd call the normal police "feds." Typically it's used to mean the FBI. The FBI is traditionally the agency that investigates organized crime, though DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) and ATF (Alcohol/Tobacco/Firearms) and the Secret Service (if counterfeiting is involved) can get into it as well.
posted by davextreme at 6:35 AM on August 8, 2011

True, davextreme, but in the UK police are not under local authority; they're all essentially arms of the Home Office. The closest equivalent with any authority in this sort of drugs case would be the SOCA. The unit attempting to arrest Duggan was Operation Trident, a specialized task force for drug and gun crime, which is part of the Met (i.e. Greater London police).

I don't know that the criminals make such distinctions, particularly since they're unlikely to know much about American political structures, but it's useful to know that until Cameron's National Crime Agency is implemented, there isn't a one-to-one mapping possible.
posted by dhartung at 4:21 PM on August 8, 2011

dhartung: right. I was just pointing out that in the US I don't think we ever call police "feds" simply because they're not federal employees. It's I guess more pendantically appropriate to do it in the UK where they are federally-employed?
posted by davextreme at 1:54 PM on August 9, 2011

But that's exactly the thing that sparked my question and made me think the term must be a crime-drama Americanism - the police in Britain aren't federally employed, nor is anyone else, because Britain is a unitary state rather than a federation and there is no federal government.

I agree, though, that the kids out smashing windows and setting fires don't give a flying rat's ass about either comparative US/UK constitutional structures or lines of reporting authority for law enforcement bodies.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 11:08 AM on August 10, 2011

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