International Policing

Mathieu Deflem
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This is a copy of a publication in the The Encyclopedia of Police Science, Third Edition, edited by Jack R. Greene, pp. 701-705. New York: Routledge.
Also available in PDF format.

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 2007. "International Policing." Pp. 701-705 in The Encyclopedia of Police Science, Third Edition, edited by Jack R. Greene. New York: Routledge. 

International policing refers to police practices that involve citizens or jurisdictions of more than one nation. Police is hereby defined as the institution associated with crime control and order maintenance as it has been legitimated in the context of nation-states. Justified by an increasing internationalization of criminal activities, international police operations have gradually expanded, with historical roots tracing back to at least the 19th-century formation of national states. In the contemporary era, concerns over illegal immigration, the international drug trade, and international terrorism have greatly impacted the scope of international policing.

At least three forms of international policing can be distinguished. First, certain societal developments that extend beyond the boundaries of individual nation-states affect police organizations and practices across nations supranationally. The influences of political and economic modernization, most notably, bring about important reorganizations of policing, for instance in the context of the spread of capitalism and the development of democratization. Second, police institutions cross the boundaries of their respective nations by means of transnational operations. Transnational policing involves police actions oriented at foreign citizens within the police organization’s own jurisdiction or investigative and intelligence work initiated against nationals and foreigners located abroad. Third, international police cooperation involves various types of collaboration among the police institutions of different countries to form bilateral or multilateral unions and cooperative agreements of temporary or more permanent duration. The functions of such cooperative measures can include investigative enforcement tasks, such as joint operations to track down international fugitives from justice, as well as international assistance in the methods and organization of police work, such as the importation and exportation of police technique.

In the context of industrialized nations, important historical changes can be observed in the forms of international policing as they began to develop from the 19th century onwards. First of all, the goals of international policing transformed from political objectives to distinctly criminal enforcement tasks. The earliest 19th-century efforts to organize international police work, especially on the European continent, involved distinctly political objectives to counteract the popular opposition against conservative governments. In 1851, for example, the Police Union of German States was formed among the police of seven sovereign states, including Prussia and Austria, to gather intelligence on social democrats, anarchists, and other politically suspect groups and individuals. The Police Union organized regular meetings among the heads of participating police and instituted systems of international information exchange. Because of the Union’s political objectives, however, cooperation was limited in international scope to several German-language states, and the Union eventually dissolved in 1866 when war broke out between Prussia and Austria.

During the latter half of the 19th century, police institutions gradually underwent a process of bureaucratization whereby police began to develop expertise in terms of the proper means of police investigation as well as with respect to the enforcement tasks which were conceived on the basis of expert systems of knowledge concerning crime and its internationalization. International police work therefore gradually moved away from the political dictates of the governments of national states towards the adoption of enforcement tasks of a distinctly criminal nature. Under conditions of increased police bureaucratization across industrialized nations, criminal enforcement tasks could be shared among the police of various national states to become the basis of expanded international cooperation. Towards the latter half of the 19th century, police institutions thus moved away from the policing of politics towards the policing of international crimes such as the international organization of prostitution and the rendition of international fugitives from justice.

A second important historical development in international policing involved a move from transnational police measures and limited international cooperation plans instigated for a specific purpose towards the establishment of international cooperation on a permanent and multilateral basis. Throughout much of the 19th century, most international police activities were either transnational in kind, originating from one country to another, or involved cooperation that was limited in international scope to the participation of the police of only few nations and initiated only for a specific purpose and ended after completion of the operation. Towards the turn of the century, however, more and more attempts were made to establish an international police organization as a permanent structure and with wide multilateral participation. At first, most of these efforts failed because they did not take into account achieved levels of police bureaucratization. In 1898, for instance, the government of Italy tried to foster international police cooperation to fight international anarchism, a political type of violation police organizations across different nations no longer agreed on to collaborate. In 1914, the government of Monaco initiated the First International Criminal Police Congress, which was restricted to the fight against criminal violations, but which was attended only by legal and political officials and failed to attract any participation from police officials.

The first efforts to organize international police cooperation on the basis of achieved levels of police bureaucratization took place in the 1920s. In 1922, the New York City Police Department established the International Police Conference with the express purpose of fostering police cooperation on a wide international scale. Yet, this effort remained largely ineffective because systems of technology in the areas of communication and transportation were at the time insufficiently developed for there to be any truly international criminal concerns that involved the United States. The geographical proximity of a multitude of nations in Europe, conversely, led to the formation of a successful international police cooperation effort when the International Criminal Police Commission was formed in Vienna in 1923. The Commission established a central headquarters and various systems of international information exchange, such as printed bulletins, a radio communications network, and regularly held meetings. The Commission gradually expanded its international membership and even survived the turmoil of the Second World War, during which period its headquarters were taken over by the Nazi regime. Reformed in 1946 as the International Criminal Police Organization, the organization still exists today, better known as Interpol, and now counts member agencies from 182 countries.

Throughout the history of international policing until today, a persistence of nationality can be observed in at least three ways. First, police organizations prefer to work unilaterally without cooperation from a foreign police force. As such, transnational police operations remain the most preferred form of international policing activities, especially among those police organizations that have sufficient means to undertake international activities alone. Second, most police cooperation efforts are limited in international scope and initiated on the basis of a specific need. Rather than relying on formal membership in a broad multilateral organization, police prefer to work out arrangements pragmatically with one another on the basis of specific needs. Third, whenever police engage in international cooperation through an organization with relatively extensive international membership, the form under which cooperation takes place is collaborative and does not involve the formation of a supranational police force. Instead, exchange and communications among the police organizations of different nations takes place through a central headquarters, personal meetings, technologically advanced systems of information exchange, and other agreed upon efficient methods of collaboration.

The conditions that facilitate international policing activities include societal developments in the internationalization of crime as well as organizational and technical changes in policing. With respect to the internationalization of crime, an expansion of the opportunities to engage in criminal activities is often the explicit basis on which international police actions take place. Thus, the international organization of the political opposition in the 19th century and the international dimensions of various types of criminal conduct from the latter half of the 19th century onwards influenced police organizations to adopt strategies that likewise were international in nature. In more recent times, international crimes propelling international policing include such diverse activities as international fugitives from justice, the international drug trade, international trafficking in illegal goods, smuggling, illegal immigration, and cyber crimes. Most important in the present era has been the proliferation of security concerns surrounding international terrorism.

Certain aspects in the development and organization of policing are also responsible for the internationalization of the police function. Especially relevant in this context are technological changes in the areas of communication and transportation as well as criminal identification methods. Among the relevant communications technologies that have historically increased international police work are telegraph, telephone, radio, and the internet, whereas relevant transportation technologies include railways, automobiles, and aircrafts. Ironically, these very same technologies also contributed to the internationalization of crime to which police organizations respond. Additionally, police can rely on advances in criminal identification technologies, ranging from fingerprinting in the late 19th century to DNA analysis today. These techniques are shared among police in different nations and thus facilitate international police cooperation through the exchange of information.

In the modern context, it is important to observe that police agencies from the United States are disproportionately more involved in international policing activities than police from any other nation. U.S. participation in international policing is primarily dictated by concerns over the international drug trade, illegal immigration and border control, and international terrorism. Unlike the insularity that marked U.S. police work until the earlier half of the 20th century, police organizations from the United States, especially those at the federal level, have a very significant international presence. The most preferred method of international policing among U.S. agencies is unilaterally instigated transnational police work. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), most notably, each oversee hundreds of agents who are permanently stationed abroad through a system of so-called legal attach├ęs. FBI agents, for instance, are stationed in more than 50 countries in all continents of the world. The FBI also oversees international police training programs at the FBI National Academy in Quantico, Virginia, and the International Law Enforcement Academy in Budapest, Hungary. Similarly, the Operations Division in the DEA organizes international activities through its Office of International Operations, involving an extensive system of legal attach├ęs, border-related activities, and international training programs. U.S. police assistance programs organized by the Department of State have also been implemented during peace-keeping missions and in post-war situations, such as in Haiti, Kosovo, and Iraq.

The extent to which U.S. law enforcement has been involved in international police actions has led to an Americanization of police practices in foreign nations. At the same time, however, other nations have also been developing relatively autonomous systems of international policing in terms of the specific needs of their local and regional concerns. Most clearly, the member nations of the European Union have established a new European Police Office (Europol) with headquarters in The Hague, The Netherlands. The establishment of Europol was first specified in 1992 in the Treaty on the European Union. In 1995, a Europol convention was drawn up which went into force in 1998, and a year later the Europol headquarters were opened. Europol’s range of activities includes the fight against all serious forms of international crime, such as drug trafficking and terrorism, that affect two or more member states of the European Union. Like other similar international police organizations, Europol is not a supranational police force, but a coordinating mechanism among designated police organizations in the various member states of the European Union.

Since the events of September 11, 2001, international terrorism has become the central catalyst of international policing activities. The events of 9/11 have in the first instance brought about an expansion and strengthening of police powers within nations as well as on an international scale. In the United States, the PATRIOT Act (‘Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism’) of 2001 has broadened police powers especially towards foreign suspects and terrorist organizations. The police attention towards international terrorism amplifies the centrality of U.S. agencies in international policing activities, but U.S. law enforcement is not alone in its counter-terrorism investigations. In many nations across the world, police powers oriented at suppressing terrorist groups have also expanded greatly. At the level of international police organizations, likewise, counter-terrorism has become a key concern. Interpol and Europol, in particular, have expanded their respective programs and strategies against international terrorism. Interestingly, many of the current counter-terrorist police strategies have been developed irrespective of legal and political concerns, but have been based on professional expert conceptions of the policing of terrorism. Police organizations typically de-politicize international terrorism to conceive of it as a crime that has repercussions beyond the borders of national states. Since 9/11, many governments have again attempted to exert control over their respective nation’s police and intelligence forces to bring counter-terrorism measures in line with national security issues, but longstanding developments in the bureaucratization of a global police culture can often withstand these political pressures so that international policing operations, even in the ideologically sensitive area of terrorism, remain planned and executed on the basis of the professional standards of police expertise.

References and Further Reading
  • Anderson, Malcolm, and Monica den Boer, eds. Policing Across National Boundaries. London; New York: Pinter Publishers, 1994.
  • Deflem, Mathieu. “The Boundaries of International Cooperation: Problems and Prospects of U.S.-Mexican Police Relations.” In Police Corruption: Challenges for Developed Countries - Comparative Issues and Commissions of Inquiry. Edited by Menachem Amir and Stanley Einstein. Huntsville, TX: Office of International Criminal Justice, 2004. 93-122.
  • ------. “Social Control and the Policing of Terrorism: Foundations for a Sociology of Counter-Terrorism.” The American Sociologist 35(2004):75-92.
  • ------. Policing World Society: Historical Foundations of International Police Cooperation. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
  • ------. “International Police Cooperation in Northern America: A Review of Practices, Strategies, and Goals in the United States, Mexico, and Canada.” In International Police Cooperation: A World Perspective, edited by Daniel J. Koenig and Dilip K. Das. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2001. 71-98.
  • ------, and Lindsay C. Maybin. “Interpol and the Policing of International Terrorism: Developments and Dynamics since September 11.” In Terrorism: Research, Readings, & Realities. Edited by Lynne L. Snowden and Bradley C. Whitsel. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2005. 175-191.
  • Liang, Hsi-Heuy. The Rise of the Modern Police and the European State System. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
  • Marenin, Otwin, ed. Policing Change, Changing Police: International Perspectives. New York: Garland Press, 1996.
  • Nadelmann, Ethan A. Cops Across Borders: The Internationalization of U.S. Criminal Law Enforcement. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993.
  • McDonald, William F., ed. Crime and Law Enforcement in the Global Village. Cincinnati, OH: Anderson Publishing, 1997.

See related writings on international police cooperation.