Policing (Global)

Mathieu Deflem
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This is a copy of a publication in Encyclopedia of Globalization, edited by Roland Robertson and Jan Aart Scholte, pp. 970-973. New York: Routledge, 2007.
Also available in PDF format.

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 2007. "Policing." Pp. 970-973 in Encyclopedia of Globalization, edited by Roland Robertson and Jan Aart Scholte. New York: Routledge.

Policing refers to the function and institutions associated with the legitimate exercise or threat of force that is invoked to ensure compliance in matters of criminal law enforcement and order maintenance. The majority of police functions and practices pertain to local and regionally specific matters of crime and order. Yet, there are also a large number of globalization developments —broadly understood to refer to structures and processes that cross the boundaries of national borders— that have historically shaped and in the present era continue to affect the organization of policing. Under influence of various factors of criminal development and crime control, the globalization of policing has taken on a plurality of forms. Moreover, while the globalization of policing is presently unprecedented in scale, its historical antecedents can be traced back to at least the 19th-century formation of national states.

International Policing in History

Until the formation of large states, policing had been an entirely local concern, confined to relatively small towns, kingdoms, and principalities. As societies grew, policing functions were institutionalized in large bureaucratic organizations managed and legitimated in the context of national states. The growth of states during the 19th century, particularly on the European continent, also implied an internationalization of policing. An intimate counterpart to the military, police institutions were initially responsible for the enforcement of laws that were broadly defined to include criminal as well as political violations. The earliest international forms of policing concerned almost exclusively activities directed against the political opponents of established autocratic regimes. Among the examples in the first half of the 19th century were unilaterally planned international police activities, organized by the French, Hungarian-Austrian, and Russian governments, whereby agents would be secretly stationed abroad. Efforts to organize an international organization of policing were not successful until 1851, when the Police Union of German States was formed. Active until 1866, the Police Union was exclusively oriented at the suppression of the political opponents of conservative regimes. Although confined to seven German-speaking nations, this international police organization represented police institutions of sovereign nations in a permanent structure to exchange information through regularly held meetings and printed bulletins. Indicating the limits of police cooperation for political purposes, the Police Union could not successfully solicit the support of police from other nations in Europe, and the organization was eventually abolished as a result of war among Prussia and Austria, the Union’s two dominant members.

From the middle to the latter half of the 19th century, most international police activities were conducted unilaterally, typically by stationing agents abroad as attach├ęs to embassies, or they were limited to ad hoc cooperation for a specific inquiry and restricted in scope of international participation to bilateral or limited multilateral cooperation. At the same time, a trend could be observed towards the formation of an international police organization that would enable cooperation on a wide multilateral scale. Under influence of processes of bureaucratization, whereby police organizations began to conceive their activities on the basis of professional standards of crime control, the idea of international police cooperation was premised on the notion that police agencies were no longer representatives of political regimes but instead were expert institutions for the fight against crime as a social menace that affected all societies.

An attempt at re-politicization of policing occurred when the Italian government in 1898 organized a meeting at the intergovernmental level to suppress the anarchist movement. The meeting led to an international accord signed by 21 European countries, but the agreement was not very consequential because it failed to be ratified at the national level. However, police officials, who had met separately from the gathering of government representatives, could decide of practical matters of police cooperation, such as preferred methods of criminal identification and extradition procedures. The significance of the bureaucratization of policing, whereby police activities become defined independently from the political dictates of governments, was again revealed in the early 20th century when several international agreements were reached to suppress the international trade in prostitutes, referred to as the white slave traffic. While several such accords were reached between 1902 and 1910 at the intergovernmental level of states, these provisions lacked the participation of police and, consequently, remained inconsequential at the practical level of law enforcement.

The march towards the creation of an international police organization would become successful in the early part of the 20th century. While police institutions from the United States and other parts of the world had largely been insulated from such international developments, they too would soon join the growing globalization of policing. The one remaining critical disjuncture in this global order of policing would be the colonial police forces that were set up by Western powers in Africa, Asia, and other parts of the world. Ironically, the colonial past of many countries would lead them to have police forces that organizationally resembled those of many other nations, thereby more easily enabling international cooperation after decolonization.

Among the earliest efforts to set up a global police organization was the International Association of Chiefs of Police, created in Washington, DC, in 1901. Originating from an effort to increase the standards of law enforcement in the United States, the Association had little international support and was mostly a professional group. Similarly with little consequence were certain Latin-American efforts to promote international police cooperation. At an international meeting in Montevideo in 1901, the idea was raised to establish intercontinental identification offices. This initiative led to the signing in 1905 of an International Police Convention by police of 5 Latin-American states. In Europe, the first 20th-century effort to set up an international police organization also failed. In April 1914, the First Congress of International Criminal Police in Monaco attracted 300 representatives from 24 countries. Though explicitly oriented at criminal (not political) violations, the attendants at the Congress did not include any police officials. World War I broke out soon after the meeting, but even after the cessation of hostilities had ended, this initiative was not resumed. As is typically the case during periods of intense social disturbance, the war temporarily reshaped international policing to involve activities intimately related to the condition of international conflict, such as the suppression of espionage.

The end of World War I brought about two important attempts to set up an international police organization. In New York, the International Police Conference was established in 1922. Despite its name, the organization was a predominantly American organization that mostly concerned itself with fostering professional police relations. By the 1930s, the Conference ceased to exist. Far more successful than the International Police Conference was the International Criminal Police Commission (ICPC) which was established in Vienna, Austria, in 1923, and which exists until today under its new name, adopted in 1950s, of the International Criminal Police Organization, better known as Interpol. The ICPC was set up independently by police officials to organize cooperation in matters of international crime. Explicitly excluding political violations, various international police structures were set up to exchange information swiftly among the member agencies, including international communication systems, regularly held meetings, and a central headquarters through which information could be routed to all members. World War II had drastic effects on international police cooperation, in no small part because the ICPC headquarters were located in Vienna, Austria. The German annexation of Austria in 1938 led to the Nazi take-over of the ICPC headquarters and its subsequent move to Berlin. Yet, shortly after the war, in 1946, the international police organization was quickly revived and the headquarters were moved to France, where they reside until today. At present, Interpol consists of police agencies from 182 nations.

Policing and Globalization

Considering the forms that the globalization of policing can take, it is important to consider that police institutions are legitimated within the context of national states. As a result, there is a persistence of nationality in international policing in at least three ways. First, police institutions prefer to engage unilaterally in international activities without cooperation from police of other nations. Considering the investment that is needed to instigate such activities successfully, the police institutions of powerful nations are at a marked advantage in this respect. The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Drug Enforcement Administration are prototypical examples. Each of these agencies have several hundred agents permanently stationed abroad in dozens of countries. Second, whenever possible, police cooperation will be restricted to a particular criminal investigation and limited in terms of the number of participating institutions. Bilateral cooperation among police therefore outweighs participation in multilateral organizations. Third, nationally defined objectives also remain paramount when police institutions participate in larger cooperative operations and organizations. Cooperation is only enacted when it is conceived of as having a purpose related to nationally or locally defined enforcement objectives. The persistence of nationality in cooperation is additionally revealed from the fact that regional international police organizations have been created. An example is the formation of the European Police Office (Europol) which was agreed upon in the Treaty on European Union in 1992. Fully operational since 1999, Europol focuses on all forms of serious international crime, including terrorism, that involve at least two member states of the European Union.

Among the conditions that shape the globalization of policing are developments in crime as well as its control. In matters of crime, the increasing interdependence of societies has brought about increasing opportunities to engage in criminal conduct with international implications. As technologies of transportation have evolved, so have the opportunities for criminal activities to spread across national borders and evade jurisdictionally confined enforcement. Changes in criminal developments bring about important fluctuations in the globalization of policing. Whereas international policing during the first half of the 20th century mostly focused on fugitives from justice who had committed violent and property crimes, later periods saw the emphasis shift towards the policing of drugs crimes and the control of illegal immigration. The fight against drug trafficking was arguably the leading motivator in international policing efforts from the 1970s onwards. In the context of drug trafficking, the dominant role of U.S. police agencies brought about an ‘Americanization’ of policing methods across many parts of the world, as the police of other nations adopted principles of investigation that had originally been developed in the United States.

From the late 20th-century onwards and with extreme vigor since the events of September 11, 2001, international terrorism and technologically advanced crimes, such as cyber crimes and international money laundering schemes, have become the leading focus in international policing. Besides variations in criminal developments, the organization of policing is itself also subject to globalization pressures, especially in the realm of technology. Advances in technological systems of communication, transportation, and criminal identification, in particular, have influenced the globalization of policing directly. Border-crossing technologies such as radio, telegraph, and the internet, automobiles, and air traffic, and the internationally exchangeable data from fingerprint and DNA analyses have directly contributed to the globalization of policing. Furthermore, economic trends have influenced an ever-increasing globalization of the private policing industry, which has largely followed the logic of the capitalist market to offer security as a world-wide available commodity. The global spread of private policing has also led to new partnerships with public police forces, especially in the areas of technologically advanced and money-related crimes.

Policing will always remain a primarily local concern, because the dimensions of most crimes do not extend beyond the boundaries of local communities in towns, cities, and states. At the same time, however, it is clear that the extent to which policing is globalized has never been greater than it is today. In view of the high degree of interpenetration of societies and institutions across national boundaries it is also more than likely that the globalization of policing may continue to gain in importance as the 21st century unfolds. Besides shifts in the development of international crimes, particularly deserving of attention in future research will be analysis of how the dynamics of police globalization will harmonize or conflict with similar globalization trends in the worlds of politics, economy, and culture. In particular, the current pre-occupation with international terrorism may bring about important reconfigurations between police institutions and their respective governments. While police institutions have presently attained an unprecedented high degree of professional expertise in matters of crime control, including counter-terrorism, they are now also again subject to pressures to harmonize their work with the specifically political objectives of governments that conceive of international crime and terrorism as concerns of national security. A critical dynamic of police globalization in the near future, therefore, will be to estimate how any attempts to re-politicize police institutions will play out against the bureaucratic resistance those institutions can offer.

See also: borders; crime; criminal law; money laundering; rationalization

  • Anderson, Malcolm. Policing the World: Interpol and the Politics of International Police Cooperation. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989.
  • Andreas, Peter. Border Games: Policing the US-Mexico Divide. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000.
  • Deflem, Mathieu. “Law Enforcement in British Colonial Africa: A Comparative Analysis of Imperial Policing in Nyasaland, the Gold Coast, and Kenya.” Police Studies 17 (1994):45-68.
  • Deflem, Mathieu. Policing World Society: Historical Foundations of International Police Cooperation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
  • Deflem, Mathieu. “Technology and the Internationalization of Policing: A Comparative-Historical Perspective.” Justice Quarterly 19 (2002):453-475, 2002.
  • Deflem, Mathieu. “The Boundaries of International Cooperation: Problems and Prospects of U.S.-Mexican Police Relations.” Pp. 93-122 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.
  • Deflem, Mathieu. “Social Control and the Policing of Terrorism: Foundations for a Sociology of Counter-Terrorism.” The American Sociologist 35 (2004):75-92.
  • Deflem, Mathieu, and Lindsay C. Maybin. “Interpol and the Policing of International Terrorism: Developments and Dynamics since September 11.” Pp. 175-191 in Terrorism: Research, Readings, & Realities, edited by Lynne L. Snowden and Bradley C. Whitsel. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2005.
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  • Koenig, Daniel J. and Dilip K. Das, Editors. International Police Cooperation: A World Perspective. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2001.
  • Liang, Hsi-Heuy. The Rise of the Modern Police and the European State System, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
  • Marenin, Otwin, Editor. Policing Change, Changing Police: International Perspectives. New York: Garland Press, 1996.
  • McDonald, William F., Editor. Crime and Law Enforcement in the Global Village. Cincinnati, OH: Anderson Publishing, 1997.
  • Nadelmann, Ethan A. Cops Across Borders: The Internationalization of U.S. Criminal Law Enforcement. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993.

See my related papers on the history of international policing.