Mathieu Deflem
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This is a copy of an article in The Sage Dictionary of Policing, edited by Alison Wakefield and Jenny Fleming, pp. 179-181. London: Sage Publications, 2009.
Also available in PDF format.

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 2009. "Interpol." Pp. 179-181 in The Sage Dictionary of Policing, edited by Alison Wakefield and Jenny Fleming. London: Sage Publications.


Interpol is the acronym of the International Criminal Police Organization, an international non-governmental police organization that presently counts member agencies from 186 nations. Interpol primarily facilitates international co-operation among criminal law enforcement agencies from different parts of the world, and also co-operates with other organizations involved with combating international crime. To achieve its mission, Interpol operates a central headquarters, the General Secretariat located in Lyon, France, that is linked for information exchange with its member agencies via so-called National Central Bureaus. Since its formation in 1923, Interpol has continually expanded its membership, even in periods of international instability.

Formally, Interpol has three core functions. First, the organization oversees a system of international police communications among its members. Originally conducted by regular mail, since 2003 these communications have been electronically secured through an encrypted internet-based system called I-24/7 connecting the General Secretariat in Lyon with the National Central Bureaus. Second, Interpol provides its member agencies with operational data and databases containing information, such as names, fingerprints and DNA profiles, on international fugitives from justice as well as information on stolen property such as passports and works of art. Third, Interpol offers operational assistance, particularly in Interpol’s priority areas, which presently include public safety and terrorism, international fugitives from justice, drugs and organized crime, human trafficking, and financial and high-tech crime. In support of these operational services, Interpol organizes a Command and Coordination Centre that operates as the primary point of contact for any member agency that seeks immediate support. Other operational support can, at the request of a member agency, be provided by a Crisis Support Group, a Criminal Analysis Unit, and Incident Response Teams or Disaster Victim Identification Teams.

Distinctive Features

Interpol was established at an international meeting of police in Vienna in 1923 in order to facilitate international police co-operation in response to rising international crime following the end of the First World War. Then known as the International Criminal Police Commission, the organization was from the start not set up as a supranational police force sanctioned by an international governing body, but as a non-governmental collaborative network among the criminal law enforcement authorities of various nations, as remains the case today. To facilitate inter-agency collaboration, a central headquarters was established in Vienna, Austria, and various institutions of co-operation, such as a radio network, regular meetings, and printed publications, were organized to facilitate international police communications. By the late 1930s, police of the German Nazi regime gradually took control of the organization, and the headquarters were subsequently moved to Berlin where they were institutionally linked to the SS police structure. Absent any meaningful form of international co-operation during the Second World War, the organization was revived in 1946 at an international police meeting in Brussels, Belgium. The headquarters were then moved to France, where they have since been located, first in Paris and, since 1989, in Lyon. The formal name change to the International Criminal Police Organization, abbreviated as ICPO-Interpol or just Interpol, came about in 1956.

The formal goals of Interpol, as specified in its constitution, are ‘to ensure and promote mutual assistance [among] criminal police authorities within the limits of the laws’ of their respective nations and in the spirit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Interpol, undated). The functions of Interpol are restricted to the prevention and suppression of ordinary law crimes or violations of criminal law, at the exclusion of ‘activities of a political, military, religious or racial character’ (ibid.). Membership of the organization is assigned by Interpol’s Secretary General to national police agencies selected by the governmental authorities of their respective nations as their representatives. Presently, the four official languages of the organization are English, French, Spanish and Arabic.

The structure of Interpol consists of a General Assembly, an Executive Committee, a General Secretariat, and the National Central Bureaus. The General Assembly is Interpol’s main governing organ, which meets annually and comprises delegates appointed by each member agency. The Assembly takes all important decisions related to Interpol’s policies, resources, methods, finances, and activities. The Assembly also elects the 13-member Executive Committee, which comprises a President, three Vice-Presidents, and nine delegates covering the regions of Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe and the Middle-East and Northern Africa. Interpol’s President is elected by the General Assembly for a period of four years. The General Assembly and the Executive Committee together comprise Interpol’s governance bodies.

The General Secretariat is located in the Lyon headquarters and has six regional offices, in Argentina, the Ivory Coast, El Salvador, Kenya, Thailand, and Zimbabwe, in addition to a liaison office at the United Nations in New York. Since 1996, Interpol has had a formal agreement with the United Nations, granting each organization observer status in sessions of their respective general assemblies and enabling co-operation in various matters of the fight against international crime. Interpol has reached similar co-operation agreements with Europol (the European Police Office), the International Criminal Court, and other police and legal organizations.

The National Central Bureaus are maintained in the individual nations of the member agencies. The Bureaus function as the designated contact points for the General Secretariat, the regional offices, as well as the other member agencies for all official Interpol police communications concerning international investigations and the location and apprehension of fugitives. These communications are conducted on the basis of a specialized colour-coded notification system whereby each one of six possible colours represents a specific type of request. For example, a red notice is a request for the arrest of a wanted person in view of extradition, and a blue notice is a request to collect information about a person in relation to a crime. In 2005, an Interpol-United Nations Special Notice was added for requests concerning groups or individuals that are subject to actions formally sanctioned by the United Nations against Al Qaeda and the Taliban.


In terms of membership, Interpol is one of the world’s largest international organizations. The ability to attract a wide and in many ways diverse membership clearly counts among the organization’s most notable achievements. Yet, while Interpol has secured a measure of co-operation despite the political and other differences that exist among the nations of the world, the wide scope of the organization’s membership has ironically also hindered effective co-operation due to frequent mistrust between the police of different nations. As a result, police from the member countries often prefer to conduct international police work in a bilateral or otherwise limited form rather than rely on the multilateral structure of Interpol.

Interpol has been able to institute various means of communication among police that are driven by professional concerns of efficiency in police work, relatively unhindered by periods of international instability. Following the terrorist incidents of September 11, Interpol has technologically upgraded and expanded its facilities. Problematic is the fact that Interpol’sits ways of working may operate at the cost of considerations of accountability and formal legality. A constant concern for Interpol is finding a way to balance a quest for efficiency in police performance with due concern for democratic accountability – a dilemma shared by police organizations worldwide.

Associated Concepts: accountability, Europol, multi-agency policing, security networks, transnational policing.

Key Readings

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