Technology and the Internationalization of Policing: A Comparative-Historical Perspective

Mathieu Deflem
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This is a copy of an article in Justice Quarterly 19(3):453-475, 2002.
Also available in PDF format.

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 2002. “Technology and the Internationalization of Policing: A Comparative-Historical Perspective.” Justice Quarterly 19(3):453-475.

* Data collection for this research was supported by the National Science Foundation, Law and Social Sciences Program (#SBR-9411478). Opinions and statements do not necessarily reflect the views of the NSF. An earlier version was presented at the annual meting of the American Society of Criminology, San Francisco, 2000. This paper selectively draws from my book, Policing World Society: Historical Foundations of International Police Cooperation (Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2002).


Criminologists and police scholars have discussed the role of technology in the function and practice of police in a variety contexts. Studies have typically focused on technologically driven functional re-orientations of policing to scrutinize these developments in relation to the problems posed relative to normative concerns related to citizens’ and human rights. Less discussed has been the role of technology in the organization of police institutions, including, in particular, the development of international cooperation among police. This paper analyses theoretical and empirical aspects of the role of technology in relation to the internationalization of the police function. Based on historical data of international policing in the period from the middle of the 19th century until World War II, this analysis reveals that technological advances in the areas of communication, transportation, and criminal identification significantly facilitated the internationalization of police operations. At the same time, it is shown, police institutions also held technological developments accountable for an increase in opportunities for cross-border criminality, which in turn justified the planning and implementation of international police strategies. I conclude with theoretical reflections on the relative autonomy of technology as a facilitating factor in the internationalization of policing.


The role of technology in police institutions and police practices has long been recognized as relevant and ambivalent. [*454] Technological advances are particularly relevant for policing because they are seen to influence the organization and practices of police in ways that intimately connect to the police function of crime control. New and more efficient means of crime detection, communication among police, and police transportation all influence how successful police are in doing their job as crimefighters, additionally affecting the level of legitimacy police receive from the public and relevant bodies of governments. The use of technology in policing is also ambivalent. Striking a more general theme of societal modernization in the development of policing, police reliance on technology involves an important tension between demands for effective crime control, on the one hand, and a continued and revived focus on issues of justice and rights, on the other. In the early history of law enforcement in the United States, for instance, the use of new technologies was perceived as beneficial in order to enhance efficiency and counter-act favoritism in policing (Miller, 2000; Walker, 1977). As part of a broader trend of attempts to enhance professionalism in police, the police reform movement of the Progressive Era viewed the use of technology in terms of an egalitarian, democratic, and unpartisan mode of policing. The increasing use of technology in police institutions, in other words, was held to be virtually synonymous with advancing progress and civilization. However, soon after technologies were introduced and applied by police, suspicions also mounted against an excessive and unbalanced reliance on technology. In particular, civil-libertarian currents sought to curb technologically driven police practices that were motivated by a blind reliance on the often assumed, but largely unproven merits of technologies at the expense of concerns of civil rights and constitutional demands of due process. Technologically powerful means —wire-tapping is the classic example— are not necessarily the most opportune from a moral and legal viewpoint and can therefore not always rely on support from the public and/or find approval from government. The tension between a need for efficacy in crime control and the recognition and respect for citizen and human rights has remained a central topic of controversy since technologies have been applied in policing. The problem is accentuated even further as the latter half of the 20th century has witnessed an unprecedented increase in the use of technology for purposes of social control, including a diverse and broad arsenal of means, such as heat, light, motion, and sound sensors, video and audio surveillance systems, biometric access codes, DNA analysis, and computerized information and analysis systems (Marx, 1998, 2001).

Next to studies of the practical aspects of the use of technology in police (e.g. Ackroyd, Harper, Hughes, Shapiro & Soothill, 1992; Manning, 1996), police scholars debating and criticizing the impact of technology have mostly focused on the clash between a quest for technical efficiency and concerns of a normative nature (see, e.g., Haggerty & Ericson, 1999; Manning, 1992a, 1992b; Marx, 1995; Meehan, 2000). Only few scholars attribute liberating qualities to technology in policing to argue [*455] that a careful and responsible use of technological advances in police practice can safeguard abuses of power based on biased discretionary decision making powers (e.g., Leo & Ofshe, 1998). More typically, police scholars have criticized high-tech strategies of policing because of their pervasive powers to erode civil liberties and the distorted, narrow conceptions of a crime-free social order that drive their use (e.g., Julie, 2000; Rosenberg, 1998). Problems associated with an over-reliance by police on technology are particularly acute in societies that are complex in matters of economic organization, social organization, and cultural make-up while also aspiring to democratic ideals. Although technologically sophisticated forms of control are typically justified as objective, scientific, and neutral, critics argue that they are in fact socially used and culturally interpreted (Marx, 2001). As a society is an essentially moral order, there are very good reasons to keep the debate on these normative issues alive, as we are reminded of the opportunities and obligations that accompany an open and free society that is also committed to a degree of order (Marx, 1988).

However, from a perspective aimed at describing and explaining social life, there are clear limitations to the existing research on police technology. Indeed, in terms of the scholarly quest to account for variation in reality, it appears that a certain fixation on the powers and potential abuses of technological advances has held critics of police technology captive. Most critical in this respect is that (potential) risks associated with police technology are often conceived and criticized as (actual) dangers, thereby ironically adopting some of the ideological baggage that comes with the successful development and implementation of technology. Avoiding the pitfalls of these normatively guided fears and ideals in police scholarship, my analysis favors a sociological model that clearly separates between analytical and moral questions (Durkheim, 1906). Thus, I will in this paper not primarily seek to argue for or against the use of police technology, but instead uncover some of its empirical manifestations and the conditions and consequences thereof. Specifically, I will analyze the role of technology in a variety of historically relevant international police practices and the circumstances under which they have taken place. Empirically, I focus on developments from the middle of the 19th century until World War II, involving law enforcement agencies from the United States and Europe. Theoretically, my analysis concentrates on the status of technology as a relatively new and independent force in society, qualitatively altering social relations and institutions. On the basis of a bureaucratic organizational perspective rooted in the sociology of Max Weber, a dual role [*456] of technology will be uncovered in influencing both the means and the objectives of international police activities. In these developments, I will argue, technological advances were instrumental in facilitating an internationalization of policing in a form that is independent from law and politics. This relative autonomy of international police practices and organizations has significant implications for efforts to provide adequate democratic oversight and due-process protections.


A Brief History of International Policing

This analysis is part of a larger project on the history of international police cooperation from the middle of the 19th century until World War II (Deflem, forthcoming). I defend a theoretical model that attributes the internationalization of policing to the fact that modern police agencies behave as bureaucracies (sanctioned by states with the task of order maintenance and crime control) that have a tendency towards independence from their political centers on the basis of professional expertise and acquired knowledge. Inspired by the sociology of Max Weber (1922), my perspective defends the argument that police institutions are organized along bureaucratic lines and that they have a tendency towards bureaucratization (Deflem, 2000). The bureaucratic organization of police can be observed from the fact that police agencies are subject to a principle of delineated jurisdiction, are hierarchically ordered, rely on specialized training, and are guided by general, impersonal rules. Bureaucratization refers to the trend of bureaucratic organizations to claim and gain a high degree of autonomy in their operations and internal organization relatively to outside control and supervision from political and popular bodies. Based on a Weberian perspective, the key factor responsible for this development of the bureaucratization of police is the technical superiority of modern police institutions in employing the most efficient means to achieve the objectives of crime control and order maintenance.

Although there are important variations in the history of police systems across national states, the process of bureaucratic organization and bureaucratization has influenced police institutions in many societies around the globe. Accompanying these historical developments, two stages can be differentiated in the historical conditions that determine the internationalization among police (Deflem, 2000, pp.603-608). First, certain structural conditions need to be met that enable police institutions to cooperate internationally, and, second, specific motivational incentives need to be developed for cooperation to become operational in international police practices and organizations. In terms of the structural opportunity of international police cooperation, I argue that cooperation among police [*457] of different nations can be achieved when police institutions have gained a degree of independence from their respective governments to move beyond the confines of their respective nationally circumscribed jurisdictions. Structurally similar positions of institutional independence of police across nations creates conditions favorable for cooperation as police recognize one another as fellow professionals, rather than diverse nationals. And with respect to the operational motives police agencies must develop to construct a field of international activities, police bureaucracies develop ‘myths’ or systems of knowledge which detail definitions and solutions to problems for their organizational domain of operations. In the case of international policing, the knowledge system to operationalize international collaboration is provided by a professional interest in the control of international crime. Such information can be successfully developed when police bureaucracies possess and share specialized knowledge about international crime, including official data about its nature and extent, as well as the technical expertise for its control.

Technology and Police Across National Borders

I will analyze selected episodes in the history of international policing to defend the thesis that the bureaucratization process that facilitates the internationalization of policing is influenced by a number of important factors which relate to advances in technology. The theoretical perspective adopted in this analysis conceives of technology in a non-deterministic way as the methodical application of systematically gathered knowledge (most typically, applications based on the natural sciences). My definition of technology does not imply any of the normative characteristics that police scholars all too often attribute to technologies in terms of the negative implications of their use relative to concerns of rights and justice. In much of the police literature, technology is often condemned as lacking a human touch on the basis of the notion of an efficiency-oriented purposive rationality gone adrift, resonating the familiar pessimistic theme of reason turned against itself (Julie, 2000; Manning, 1992a, 1992b; Marx, 1998). Such an outlook fails to adopt a conception of society that accounts for a plurality of rationalization processes in society, not all of which obey to the logic of purposive (ends-means) rationality (see Shields, 1997b). For the increasing intrusion in society of technological developments has not prevented a continuance of societal rationalization in terms of rights and norms (Marcuse, 1964). As much as our age is dominated by technology, modern society is also unprecedented in terms of attained level of legality [*458] and democracy. Advanced democratic societies offer rich potentials to set limits to technically dominated accomplishments to bring technological ability in tune with practical needs and cultural requirements (Habermas, 1968, 1992).

Hence, a scholarly discussion of technology, in casu police technology, should proceed from the tension between efficiency and normativity in societal rationalization which is couched in a demarcation between theoretical and practical questions, respectively. A sociological study of technology must always demarcate between the technical and normative components of technology as a force in social life. This paper will therefore primarily concentrate on theoretically relevant questions on the role played by technology in the internationalization of policing. Specifically, I will show how technology influences the bureaucratization process that has historically enabled the internationalization of policing. The most critical factor of technologies shaping international policing is their capacity to transcend physical and other borders (Marx, 1997). In terms of international police strategies, these borders pertain primarily to geographical space and the related juridical limitations of jurisdictional competency. For the present investigation, it is also important to more carefully delineate the function and impact of technology in respect of both the structural conditions and operational motives of international policing, the two components which I earlier identified as central to the internationalization of the police function.


Reviewing the role of technology in terms of the specified conditions of international policing, this analysis proceeds on the basis of a thematic logic, not necessarily a precise chronological order. The origins of modern forms of international policing are historically rooted in 19th-century efforts to establish cooperation for the control of political suspects, especially in Europe (Deflem, forthcoming). Typically, these efforts involved limited and temporary (unilateral and bilateral) international operations, but sometimes more permanent organizations were formed. From 1851 to 1866, for instance, police from seven German-language states participated in the Police Union of German States, an organization that targeted the political opponents of established autocratic regimes. In 1898, a conference of government representatives was organized in Rome to foster international cooperation in the policing of anarchist movements. From the early part of the 20th century onwards, international police cooperation gradually depoliticized to focus more explicitly on criminal enforcement duties. In 1914, for instance, the [*459] First Congress of International Criminal Police was held in Monaco, around which time similar international police meetings were also held in Latin America and in the United States. But most of these initiatives were not very successful. The International Police Conference, for example, was formed in 1922 in New York City, but existed only for a few years and mostly involved only local American police agencies. It was not until 1923 that a more permanent organization was formed, when the International Criminal Police Commission —the organization today known as Interpol— was founded in Vienna.

Technology and the Structural Condition of Institutional Independence

Throughout the 19th century, the earliest technologies that contributed to transformations in policing and international policing pertained to systems of information exchange. The revolutionary period of the late 1840s in Europe intensified international police activities with political objectives oriented at suppressing liberal-democratic movements. International political policing took place in the form of unilaterally planned intelligence work abroad and/or occurred by means of increased cooperation for shared purposes of political suppression (Deflem, 2000, pp.610-611). International cooperation was accomplished through establishing personal contacts among police officials on an ad hoc basis or through a more structured distribution system of information on wanted suspects printed in search bulletins.

An attempt to more formally structure international police practices took place when in 1851 police officials from seven German-language states, including Prussia and Austria, formed the Police Union of German States (Deflem, 1996). Operative until 1866, the Police Union was, much like other similar bilateral initiatives, primarily concerned with establishing swifter modes of information exchange. These new systems included regularly held meetings (at least one meeting was held every year from 1851 until 1866) and the distribution of regularly printed magazines with information on political opponents. Aimed at enhancing information exchange across national borders, the Union’s organizational structure implied that the participating police organizations had already established or would newly create adequate intelligence systems. Particularly the Prussian and Austrian police institutions participating in the Police Union could rely on technically advanced systems intelligence systems. The Austrian political police, for instance, transmitted weekly reports among various police offices across [*460] the Austrian territory from the first half of the 19th century onwards. During the late 19th century, the criminal police bureaus of Vienna and Berlin distributed regularly appearing bulletins containing printed information on wanted suspects and separately mentioned information on extradited foreigners. These police systems of intelligence gathering and information exchange had immediate consequences in respect of international cooperation, as bulletins were exchanged among police from different nations (Liang, 1992, pp.155-163). Copies of Austrian police bulletins, for example, were from the 1860s onwards regularly sent to police in Prussia, and by the 1880s, the bulletins were distributed across Europe. Similar exchange strategies were developed by German police agencies. Police of Frankfurt, for example, published English, German, and French versions of an ‘International Criminal Record,’ with information on the whereabouts of criminals reported by various police across Europe (Deflem, 1997).

From the late 19th century onwards, international police cooperation would depoliticize in its objectives, as national sovereignty concerns and differences in the political-legal ideology of nations prevented collaboration in political matters. However, agreements among police could sometimes still be reached in politically sensitive matters as long as they concerned efficient means of police technique that were conceived in politically neutral terms. For example, when Italian authorities in December of 1898 brought together representatives of 21 nations at a conference in Rome to coordinate the fight against anarchism, the resolutions that were passed at the meeting failed to influence legislation in the participating nation-states (Jensen, 1981). But in matters of practical cooperation among police institutions the meeting was successful. Specifically, all conference attendants, except the English and French delegates, agreed to introduce in their countries the ‘portrait parlé’ method of criminal identification. The portrait parlé (spoken picture) was a refined version of the bertillonage system, which classified identifications of criminals on the basis of certain measurements of parts of their head and body and the color of their eyes, hair, and skin. Measurements based on the bertillonage system were numerically expressed and transmitted from one country to another by means of telephone or telegraph, a practice which the Rome conference encouraged to be further developed.

Among the communications technologies relevant for the internationalization of policing were not only various forms of printed information, but also photographs and other means of identification of wanted suspects and criminals. After the first picture of a convict had been taken in a prison in Brussels, Belgium, in 1843, the police of [*461] Paris were the first to set up a picture collection of criminals in 1874. By the end of the 19th century, photographic identification services were established among all major police institutions in Europe and the United States. In the 1880s, the New York City police department established a picture collection of international rogues and exchanged information with police in Europe (Nadelmann, 1993, pp.82-83).

Perhaps most important of the technological means of criminal identification influencing the internationalization of the police function were the bertillonage and fingerprint systems (Brown & Brock, 1953; Cole, 2001; Nadelmann, 1993, pp.82-85; Sullivan, 1977, pp.38-40). The bertillonage or anthropometry system was developed by the anthropologist Alphonse Bertillon in 1870 and first adopted by the French government in the 1880s. In 1890, the police department of Chicago was the first to implement the system in the United States. In the same year, it was suggested at a meeting of the International Prison Society in Bern, Switzerland, that the method could be used to track down criminals fleeing abroad. When the World’s Fair was held in Chicago in 1893, the local police department showed its bertillonage system to visiting foreign police. The Fair itself also proved a testing ground for the new method, because "the temporary influx of strangers from every quarter of the globe" on occasion of the exhibition was expected to present a "problem of international significance" (Bonfield, 1893, p.714; see McClaughry, 1893).

The application of fingerprint or dactyloscopy techniques for criminal investigations was first suggested in the 1880s by Francis Galton, who in his book Finger Prints argued for the individuality and permanence of fingerprints (Galton, 1892). In the 1890s, police officials Juan Vucetich of Argentine and Edward Henry of Scotland Yard were the first to introduce fingerprint classification systems for purposes of criminal identification in their respective police agencies. In 1891, the Argentinean Police adopted a criminal identification system based on Galton’s classification, and the system was revised and introduced at Scotland Yard in London in 1901. To ease cross-border exchange, fingerprints were numerically expressed on the basis of certain of its characteristics and then telegraphically transmitted (Borgerhoff, 1922; Jörgensen, 1922). Although there was considerable conflict between the proponents of the Bertillonage and the advocates of fingerprinting for several decades (Cole, 2001), the fingerprint system would soon internationalize to remain among the most popular methods of criminal identification until this day. In 1902, Henry P. DeForest introduced the dactyloscopy system in the New York Civil Service Commission. A year later, the [*462] New York state prison adopted the system, and in 1904 the St. Louis Police Department organized its fingerprint bureau with the help of a Scotland Yard sergeant. In the same year, a detective of the New York Police Department traveled to London to inspect the application of the method by Scotland Yard. By the early 1900s, the system was also introduced in Germany, though in France the bertillonage system remained in force for some time after that (Schneickert, 1904, 1911). Already in 1905, Police Chief Richard Sylvester, President of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, argued that the transmission of fingerprints had brought about a considerable degree of international police cooperation, when he remarked, "We find the finger print of England and the finger print of United States filed within the police cabinets of the principal cities of these two great countries. The photographs and measurements of the criminals of Paris may be found in the galleries of the department in Washington, and vice versa" (cited in Nadelmann, 1993, p.86). Technologies of identification were accompanied by other developments of police technique that were held to efficiently respond to the threat of the internationalization of crime, especially in the area of transportation and communication. Among these new technological means at the disposal of police were telephone and telegraph (Jörgensen, 1923; Schneickert, 1917), radio (International Police Chiefs’ Newsletter, 1937), cars (Hanna, 1927), and pigeons and airplanes (Polke, 1941).

In the earlier part of the 20th century, technologies of communication and transportation further expanded and were increasingly applied in police institutions, with more and more consequential results for the internationalization of police. In 1914, an important initiative was taken to set up a permanent organization of police, when the First Congress of International Criminal Police was organized in Monaco (Deflem, 2000, pp.612-614). The Congress attracted delegates from 24 countries and focused primarily on various technical means of information exchange. At the meeting, systems of police information exchange were suggested that could be conducted directly from police to police, aided by postal, [*463] telegraphic, and telephonic means of communication. Also proposed were a universal system of identification of fingerprints and photographs, the distribution of an international publication containing search warrants, and the creation of a central clearing house. Eventually, the Monaco Congress adopted resolutions that specified that direct police communications should be developed and improved and that national governments should allow police free use of postal, telegraphic, and telephonic communications for matters pertaining to international criminals (Roux, 1914).

However, despite its emphasis on technical means of policing, the Monaco Congress failed to found an international police organization (Deflem, 2000, pp.614-616). The main reason for this failure is that the gathering was primarily a French initiative undertaken by jurists and political diplomats, not a more broadly appealing effort by police bureaucrats. Betraying the French dominance of the Monaco Congress, a large majority of the attendants were French nationals and spoke in favor of instituting French systems of criminal identification and investigation (such as the Bertillonage) at the international level. Among the Congress’s resolutions, also, was the recommendation that the Paris criminal identification service would serve as central international bureau and that French was to be used in international police communications. However, these suggestions faced severe criticism (most notably, from the German participants), amongst other reasons because the bertillonage system could not be harmonized with the dactyloscopic systems that were in place in other countries of Europe (Heindl, 1914).

Systems of criminal identification also propelled a series of plans to foster international police cooperation in Latin America (Deflem, forthcoming; Marabuto, 1935, pp.26-27). These efforts, worked out at meetings held in Buenos Aires (1905, 1920) and Sao Paolo (1912), were largely unsuccessful in establishing international cooperation, but they were interestingly a direct result of the promotion of methods of criminal identification. Under direction of Argentinean police official Juan Vucetich, methods of modern police operations, especially techniques of criminal identification, were particularly well advanced in Argentina and other Latin-American countries. Vucetich had introduced a fingerprint classification system in the Argentinean police in 1891. Because Vucetich was also at the forefront of efforts to foster international police cooperation in Latin America, it is very likely that these cooperation plans were inspired by Vucetich’s personal ambitions to advance and spread the use of sophisticated techniques of policing and enhance the standards of professionalism among police in South and Middle America. The role of Vucetich is that of a moral crusader in instituting new policies of crime control. Also, because the dactyloscopic system (and other technological developments) served as a useful basis to establish systems of information exchange between police across national borders, the Latin-American plans to organize international police cooperation may indeed have contributed to introduce scientific methods in, and thus enhance the professionalism of, participating police. Remarkable in any case is that international police cooperation in Latin [*464] America was planned without much, if any, reference to an internationalization of crime.

Perhaps no better is the role of technology in the development of international policing manifested as in the International Criminal Police Commission (ICPC), the police organization founded in Vienna in 1923 and today known as Interpol (Anderson, 1989; Deflem, 2000, pp.616-620). The Commission’s headquarters were established in Vienna and, gradually, the ICPC facilities and instituted means of information exchange expanded. By 1934, the Vienna headquarters included specialized divisions on fingerprints and photographs, the falsification of currencies and other valuable documents, and various kinds of information on international criminals and suspects. Next to the headquarters, the Commission therefore established systems of technologically advanced means for international communication, specifically a telegraphic code, a system of radio communications, and printed publications, which next to the meetings served most concretely as efficient means of direct international cooperation among police, unhindered by legal procedure and diplomatic formalities. Other international police initiatives in the early decades of the 20th century likewise placed a premium on technology. An international meeting in Karlsruhe, Germany, in 1925 was entirely devoted to the promotion of new police technologies (Archiv für Kriminologie, 1925). Around the same time, representatives of the Police Reform Movement in the United States traveled to European police, primarily to learn about new methods of scientific policing (Nadelmann, 1993, pp.87-88).

The Role of Technology in the Creation of International Crime

The origins of a professional police system of knowledge about the internationalization of crime date at least back to the 19th-century efforts to control the political opponents of Europe’s autocratic regimes (Deflem, 1996). Police officials felt that enhanced international cooperation was needed not only so that each country could deal with its internal sources of dissent, but also, and particularly, because the liberal-democratic, communist, and anarchist political movements were perceived to be organizing an internationally concerted overthrow of established political regimes by organizing their efforts across nations. To this end, political dissenters were believed to hold (secret) meetings and exchange information to strengthen their political efforts. Additionally, it was widely assumed among police and government authorities that the internationalization of political protest was especially aided by new technological developments in the areas of communication and transportation. [*465]

The Press. The relevance of technologies of communication for international policing is well-reflected in the fact that many of Europe’s political police institutions focused special attention to the printed press. At a time when weekly magazines and daily journals constituted the prime source of information, the relevance of the press as a forum for the distribution of ideas was explicitly recognized among police. Because the press, and printed writings more generally, could be oriented at affecting public opinion across national boundaries, police would likewise have to operate beyond the confines of national jurisdiction. Police and press were closely related institutions during the early development of capitalism inasmuch as policing activities were conceived as concerning control of the public market, whereas the press concerned public opinion, neither one of which were spatially bound to confined regions (Habermas, 1962, pp.77-79). Indicating the enormous power attributed to the written word is the fact that the press formed one of the Police Union’s specifically defined fields of inquiry and that the clandestine opening of letters was a favored method of political policing across Europe (Deflem, 1996).

Transportation. Developments in the means of transportation likewise influenced international police activities. Considered particularly troublesome from the 19th century onwards was the development of the railways. The total number of railway lines increased exponentially from the middle to the late 19th century, with a total of some 4,000 kilometers of railway lines across Europe in 1840 and nearly 50,000 kilometers in 1860 (Pounds, 1985). As early as 1893, a German criminal justice scholar devoted an entire book to the criminal, legal, and police implications of the railways (Loock, 1893). As with the internationalization of political protest, the opportunities of mobilization enabled by the expansion of the railroads were relevant for international police cooperation because they were recognized among police initiating international practices as consequential for crime developments. As early as 1855, for example, a police official participating in the Police Union referred to the expansion of traffic, which "accelerated through the railways, [had] since about 10 years particularly benefited the overthrow parties of the different states in their common organization and dangerous cooperation" (in Siemann, 1983, p.28). Later, from the early 20th century onwards, cars and planes were added to the list of means of transportation relevant for use by criminals seeking refuge abroad and, consequently, by police in their pursuit (Weiß, 1919; Hanna, 1927). These technological developments were considered to enhance a general mobility in society, particularly enhancing opportunities from criminal wrongdoers to seek refuge in [*466] foreign countries beyond the jurisdiction and competence of national police.

Theoretical developments. The idea of an increasingly international character of crime was also aided by new theoretical developments in criminology that were increasingly influential from the middle of the 19th century onwards. Particularly important was the growing popularity of the positivist perspective of criminology which located the causes of crime in a society of living beings, not in formal and nationally variable systems of law (see Deflem, 1997; Pasquino, 1991). According to positivist criminology, crimes were committed by people who were causally determined to act criminally for various reasons related to their body, psyche, or social environment. Findings from the science of criminal statistics had demonstrated the empirical reality of these correlations and causalities. With the discovery of the statistical regularities of crime across national states, the focus of attention shifted from the national jurisdictions of legality to a borderless society of dangerous criminals. Indeed, as one important element of the new sciences of crime, the notion was defended that international crime was on the rise as a consequence of a general modernization of social life. In the late 19th century, the famous French social-psychologist Gabriel Tarde claimed that criminals used "more intelligently than the police the resources of our civilization" (in Marabuto, 1935, p.30). In 1893, the German criminologist Franz von Liszt expressed the similar idea that criminals specializing in monetary crimes had begun to roam the world and that the police response against them should be internationally coordinated (Marabuto, 1935, p.15). Hence, as the society of criminals knows no boundaries, the criminal sciences and the criminal justice agencies that implemented their insights should know no boundaries either (Deflem, 1997). Police institutions mostly lagged behind modernization trends, but the depoliticized conception of international crime was consequential for the development of international policing inasmuch as perspectives on the nature and development of crime could be shared among police of different nations to thereupon plan international cooperation with a relatively broad base of representation and irrespective of the political relations between nations. Under such circumstances of a developing commonality in police culture with respects to the objectives of control, it would become possible for police authorities to organize international cooperation on a broad international basis.

Implications for International Policing. The increasing attention for the international criminal since the second half of the 19th century became more and more consequential in organizational [*467] respects during the first half of the twentieth century. Though doomed to fail because of its French national character, the Monaco Congress is in this sense an important indicator of achieved international police developments because the meeting focused explicitly and exclusively on international crimes that were not political. We find the same emphasis on an internationalization of non-political crime among the founders of the International Police Conference in New York in 1992 and the International Criminal Police Commission in Vienna in 1923. But these two organizations did not make their similar claims with the same level of success.

The International Police Conference (IPC) was organized in New York in September 1922 in order to promote and facilitate international cooperation among police (Deflem, 2000, pp.620-623; Enright, 1925). The publicly stated motives of the organizers of the IPC related to an internationalization of crime that was thought to have increased after World War I. However, such an internationalization of crime with sufficient implications to justify the creation of an international police organization was at this time still missing in the United States. Technological means of communication and transportation were until the mid-20th century simply not sufficiently developed for there to be any real concern of international criminality between the United States and Europe. Police tasks that related to an increasing mobility in social life were either handled locally (e.g., the policing of immigrant groups) or remained restricted to inter-state matters (e.g., white slavery) which were the responsibility of U.S. federal police agencies.

In the case of the International Criminal Police Commission, a motivational basis to operationalize international police activities could successfully be created with reference to a cross-national rise and internationalization of crime which police officials argued to have taken place after World War I (Deflem, 2000, pp.623-626). First, there was the widespread idea among police that the level of crime had increased dramatically after World War I. The reports and statistics officials from participating nations provided at the Commission’s meetings confirmed the necessity of an adequate police response and the commonality of the task among European police. Second, there was also believed to have occurred an epidemic spread of a new class of criminals who abused the modern opportunities of society and the increase in mobility after the war. With the latest technologies of communication and transportation at their disposal, these criminals —among them, hotel and railway thieves, white slave traders and drug traffickers— possessed a special capacity to transcend spatial boundaries in disregard of the national jurisdictions police institutions were traditionally subject to. In sum, what police officials organizing the ICPC argued to justify collaboration across national borders was a new class of criminals appearing in all countries undergoing rapid [*468] social change and technological progress, including particularly mobile criminals transcending nation-state borders.


Briefly summarizing, my analysis here has shown, first, that the structural condition of institutional independence of police from the political center of the state was primarily assured by a steadily growing professional expertise in the means of policing. Conditions favorable for international police cooperation were based on a mutual recognition of professionalization and achieved standards of policing, especially in technical respects. Central among these technical accomplishments were both organizational innovations (a division of labor, a structured chain of command, and other elements of formal rationalization) and enhanced skills and means in police activities (scientific methods of crime detection and new technologies of communication and transportation). What these technologically driven accomplishments had in common is that they enhanced the opportunities to cooperate across national borders to realize the potential of technology in diminishing the constraints of dependency on physical space (Marx, 1997).

Second, with respect to the motivational basis for police cooperation, available evidence shows that police expertise in means (technical know-how) had developed before police institutions acquired knowledge (official information) about international crime. When the methods to respond to international crime were already in place, the incidence and nature of international crime was known as a possibility police bureaucracies would increasingly have to deal with. Then international police practices responded to this problem with a technical apparatus that was already developed, leading to dialectically reinforce the notion of an internationalization of crime. Technologies in the means of policing were already developed before similar technological developments were seen to contribute to the creation of certain risks of international crime. In other words, police systems of knowledge about international crime took on an actuarial form, as it presented an enhanced possibility of international crime as a risk to be reckoned with. Resonating the relevance of risk recently discussed by police scholars (Ericson & Haggerty, 1997; Simon, 1988), international crime functioned as a professionally defined construct that was real in its consequences of expanding international police organizations and facilities. The risk (international crime) as well as the response (international police) were conceived in terms of technological progress. This manifests a more general theme of modernization whereby a changing society is conceived as [*469] presenting specific problems that need innovative solutions in the same terms that define those new conditions. The ambivalence of modernity, then, is not just a sociological curiosity described by the founders of the discipline (e.g., Weber, 1922), but finds a concrete expression and practical recognition in the development of the bureaucratic institutions of society.

The accomplishments of police technology were primarily perceived, developed, and implemented in terms of the means of policing. As the application of knowledge, technology is inherently always more instrumental in nature. The emphasis on means explains that the origins of international police activities primarily revolved around technical know-how and policing methods, especially with respect to information exchange and direct ways of police communications. These technical accomplishments could at times even transcend strong political divisiveness. In the case of the 19th-century efforts to organize the fight against anarchism, for example, political-ideological sentiments could not prevent the successful implementation of administrative matters that were enabled because of advances in police technique. From a theoretical viewpoint, this primacy of means in the development of police technology offers support to the Weberian notion that technology is the embodiment of a means-oriented instrumental rationality (Weber, 1922; see Shields, 1997a, pp.193-194).

The instrumental emphasis that is placed on the technologies of international policing also explains the relative lack of effectiveness of instituted international police organizations. For it was precisely with respect to sheer technical capacity that those police forces that had acquired a leading position within a national state typically remained much more powerful than any international organization. Prototypical in this respect is the position since the first half of the 20th-century of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The Bureau held a virtual monopoly in the United States over technologically advanced means of policing ever since it had assumed responsibility of the Uniform Crime Reports in 1930. Perhaps most important among the means aiding the FBI’s international efforts was its huge collection of fingerprints, allowing Bureau agents to maintain an elaborate network of contacts with foreign police. Additionally relevant in this respect was the role of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who —much like Vucetich in Latin America— exerted considerable influence because of his professional charisma in instituting many of the Bureau’s novel and spectacular tools of scientific policing (see, e.g., Hoover, 1934). [*470]

Public police agencies in other nations working beyond the confines of their national jurisdictions or participating in international cooperative efforts were likewise driven by technological concerns. Of course, not all police institutions can achieve these ambitions with the same level of success. There are important differences between local and national or federal police systems as well as between the police of different countries participating in international practices and organizations in terms of their attained level of technological sophistication. This differential development of police technology relates next to sheer technical accomplishments also to the tradition of police culture and the influence of nationally variable contexts in political and economic respects. Most critical in terms of international policing is the relatively high degree of centralization and standardization of police institutions in the traditionally strong national states of Europe, on the one hand, and the pluralistic system of local, state, and federal policing in the United States, on the other. Such differences can pose critical barriers to cooperation among police. In consequence, police institutions of different national states do not meet one another on the international plane in egalitarian terms, but are instead more or less powerful, contribute more or less actively in international cooperation, and function as buyers or as sellers in the global market of the transfer of intelligence and police technology. Yet, although the extent to which police institutions from different nations can choose to work independently or not from international organizations is variable, evidence suggests that they are all primarily motivated by concerns over practical needs and technical capacity rather than any collectively shared interests in a common unitary cause.


I have empirically grounded the role of technology in international policing on the basis of a theoretical model that attributes the internationalization of the police function to structural conditions of institutional independence and operational motives in the internationalization of crime. In this evolution, technology has the dual role of providing public police institutions with the means necessary to claim independence from their respective political centers on the basis of professional expertise, as well as of enhancing the opportunities for a newly constructed class of criminals to transcend the borders of national jurisdictions. Both developments contribute to an internationalization of policing to establish structures [*471] of cooperation beyond the formal jurisdictional competence of police, based on an efficiency of the means of police technique and a depoliticized understanding of policing objectives.

The emphasis on an efficiency in means of policing has serious implications in terms of the legality and morality of police. As police agencies and international police organizations employ a technical apparatus of crime investigation and information exchange, normative questions of rights, and often even legal matters of due process and constitutionally guaranteed protections, are typically not or at least not primarily taken into account. In fact, police technologies were historically often developed and implemented to expressly bypass legal arrangements. Extradition procedures, in particular, were seen by police officials as time-consuming and unnecessarily restrictive arrangements that had to be replaced by ways to establish direct police communications across national borders (Deflem, 2000, p.763). The systems of information exchange instituted by international police organizations were similarly intended to bypass the restrictions of legal provisions, anticipating the relevance of the international exchange of expert knowledge and technical know-how among police today (Sheptycki, 1998).

As an emphasis on efficiency and speed replaces concerns for legality and rights, police institutions of different nations could cooperate with one another irrespective of the various, political, legal, and cultural differences between them. Of course, this does not mean that police power is rendered neutral in the idealized sense presented by the agencies and officials involved. The very reliance of police on an overriding principle of efficiency is itself a strategy of domination (Weber, 1922, pp.122-130). Also, other factors besides technology, especially political conditions, may impede or facilitate international police efforts. For example, political conditions pertaining to Europe’s fragile order of national states hindered international police cooperation on a broad international scale during most of the 19th century. International antagonisms in international political affairs then proved to be too strong a dividing force, positing even police with similar objectives and expertise against one another. But as the 20th century unfolded, political antagonisms would gradually be overcome to foster cooperation among police across many nations. The expansion of the membership of the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) and the proliferation of other, bilateral and multilateral, forms of international cooperation among police testify to this. At the same time, political conditions on the world scene would continue to affect international police conditions, especially in those [*472] parts of the world where police institutions could not maintain institutional independence because of their respective governments’ nationalist ideological commitments (Deflem, forthcoming). The role of police agencies in the Soviet Union and the former Communist regimes of Eastern Europe are prototypical in this respect. As such, international policing remains closely related to political conditions that can hinder cooperation in matters of crime control. Conversely, under conditions of a high degree of institutional independence, the fact that police bureaucracies participate in international cooperative efforts poses new challenges in terms of legislative control, due process, and human rights. For without effective principles of democratic oversight in place, requirements of due process will not primarily be considered in international police operations. Revelations of police agencies of a democratic nation cooperating with the police institutions of dictatorial regimes, for instance, will provoke much debate and antagonism. In terms of the transfer of police technology, it is problematic that technologies designed for a particular, legitimate purpose can be used for other, more troublesome objectives, as instruments of legitimate police power can become part of an apparatus of political control (Earth Island Journal, 2002).

Briefly turning to a contemporary condition, in the post-September 11 context the war on terrorism is making high-tech systems of surveillance probably more acceptable than ever. Even civil libertarians concede that there is widespread sentiment that a proliferation of technologically sophisticated police methods, internationally as well as domestically, may contribute to make society safe from terrorist attacks (Wood, 2001). But at the same time, legal and constitutional safeguards are brought into play to curb an excessive use of technology in policing (e.g., Kyllo v. United States, 2001; see Colbridge, 2001). Instead of attributing intrinsic liberating qualities to technology or, conversely, condemning technological applications because of a presumed inherent lack of accountability, a more ambiguous role should be attributed to technology in terms of technical realizations and normative concerns alike. In the modern era of highly technologically oriented police institutions, policing becomes a delicate balancing act, caught in between demands for job effectiveness in matters of crime control, on the one hand, and concerns of due process, on the other. [*473]


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See also my related papers on international policing and my book Policing World Society.