Police (and Transnational History)

Mathieu Deflem
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This is a copy of a publication in The Palgrave Dictionary of Transnational History, edited by Akira Iriye and Pierre-Yves Saunier. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. 

Also available as PDF file.

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 2009. “Police.” Pp. 837-839 in The Palgrave Dictionary of Transnational History, edited by Akira Iriye and Pierre-Yves Saunier. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

The history of the international dimensions of policing dates back to at least the 19th-century formation of nation-states. The forms in which international policing takes place are multiple and have, over the course of history, proliferated under the influence of important cultural and structural developments related to modernity.

Among the first forms of international policing were intelligence efforts organized by autocratic regimes oriented to political opponents operating from abroad. During the earlier part of the 19th century, French and Austrian efforts stood out for their comprehensive scope to form Europewide police intelligence networks. The French police extended its functions to protect the security of the state to other regions of Europe by influencing police reforms abroad through adoption of French practices or by coerced importation as part of French occupation. During the period of Restoration after 1815, attempts to create a European police network were made under the direction of Metternich, the powerful statesman of the Austrian Empire, whose strong role in forging international relations also included efforts to control revolutionary unrest through censorship and espionage.

The suppression of the revolutions taking place across Europe in 1848 served as a catalyst for international policing activities in a number of ways. As political regimes sought to strengthen their rule, police institutions in many European nations were strengthened and reinforced and de facto harmonized in terms of strategies and goals. Police institutions of powerful European regimes also stationed agents abroad to be involved in covert intelligence-gathering activities. Moreover, international cooperation efforts were initiated among European police agencies. Cooperation took on the form of shared information exchange by establishing contacts between police officials or by means of the distribution of printed bulletins with information on wanted suspects. International police cooperation would also be endeavoured on a broader multilateral scale. Although most of these attempts failed because of concerns over sovereignty, some were consequential, albeit it on a limited scale.

In 1851, an international police organization was set up, when Prussian and Austrian authorities rallied the support of five other German-language territories to form the Police Union of German States. Active until the Seven-Weeks War of 1866, the Police Union explicitly functioned to track down political opponents by means of increasing information exchange through police meetings, the distribution of printed bulletins, and by stationing agents abroad. The Police Union worked without any formally specified legal arrangement and operated covertly. The Union could not attract the participation of police from non-German language countries in Europe, and because of its political dependency, it disbanded as soon as war broke out between its two dominant members.

During the latter half of the 19th century, there was an increasing need among police to establish an international organization with broad participation. However, in order to accomplish this goal successfully, police organizations would have to abandon their political position as an extension of state power. This development towards a position of autonomy took place under the influence of a process of bureaucratization.

Bureaucratization involves the adoption of principles of technical efficiency in terms of professionally defined enforcement objectives. Because police institutions were granted special powers by their respective national governments to police political opponents, they ironically could claim and gain a position of professional independence as expert institutions in the fight against criminality. On the basis of a professional ideal of crime expertise, police institutions across nations (in the industrialized West) could subsequently cooperate internationally to foster a shared understanding on the development and control of crime. Thus, police bureaucracies relied on their position of independence from politics to articulate joint programmes in the fight against crime, in general, and international crime, in particular.

In consequence of increasing bureaucratization, efforts to formalize international police cooperation were sharply on the rise during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Initially, most of these efforts failed, because they tended to remain phrased in legal-political rather than police-professional terms. For instance, attempts to forge international police cooperation against the so-called White Slave trade failed because they were launched as part of a series of international legal agreements between nation states (reached in Paris in 1904 and 1910) that enjoyed no independent input from police. The First Congress of International Criminal Police, which was held in Monaco in 1914, likewise failed because of an exclusive attention on legal matters and a lack of participation by police professionals.

Following the interruption of World War 1, important initiatives to establish an international police organization were taken in the United States and in Europe. In the United States, the New York City Police directed the formation of an International Police Conference in 1922. Though set up by police and justified in terms of the suppression of international crime, the conference failed to garner much international support. In the absence of any realistic concerns over international crime at this point in time on the North American continent, the conference was oriented to the professionalization of US police rather than the fight against international crime. In Europe, however, the close proximity of multiple nation-states was in the years after World War 1 readily recognized as being of special concern for the internationalization of criminal activities, especially in view of the continued development of technological means of transportation and communication. Thus, in 1923, an international meeting of police in Vienna led to the formation of the International Criminal Police Commission, the organization better known today as Interpol. The Commission was not only successful in garnering participation of police from a multitude of nations and in steadily expanding its membership, but it also set up various systems of international information exchange, among them, most importantly, a central headquarters in Vienna through which information could be routed to the various member agencies.

World War 2 provided the next unavoidable obstacle in the development of international policing. As the headquarters of the International Criminal Police Commission were located in Vienna, they were rapidly placed under Nazi control following the annexation of Austria. The headquarters were subsequently moved to Berlin where they were aligned with the Nazi police. In 1946, an international police meeting in Brussels led to the refounding of the international police organization as the International Criminal Police Organization, with headquarters in Paris (which have since been relocated to Lyon, France). Despite its non-governmental status as an international police organization, Interpol was during the Cold War occasionally challenged for its political role, especially in being used for the suppression of political opponents by the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe. Because of such difficulties, the organization lost the support of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which, under direction of J. Edgar Hoover, had risen to world fame and which had begun to create its own international system.

The rise of the FBI as a powerful police organization with a strong international programme indicates a shift in international police work during the second half of the 20th century towards the American continent. Under a general process of Americanization, the trend for international work was driven by the strong role of US police agencies, especially with respect to the objectives of international police work. Thus, the international war on drugs rose to the foreground of concern during the latter half of the 20th century.

More broadly, the process of Americanization in international police work indicates one of three important ways in which there is a persistence of nationality in international policing. First, police agencies will prefer to work unilaterally to fulfil their international missions, most typically by placing agents abroad through a system of legal attach├ęs at foreign embassies. Second, national persistence is revealed by the fact that international police cooperation will typically be limited in function or scope, initiated for a specific purpose or coordinated on a limited international scale, involving as few partners as possible. Third, even when multilateral cooperation initiatives are established among police, such as in the case of Interpol and, more recently, the European Police Office or Europol, such cooperation is collaborative in nature, bringing police agencies of various nations together within an organization without the formation of a supranational force. Instead, international police organizations operate as facilitative communications networks among the police of various nations.

No contemporary discussion on international policing would be complete without contemplation of the impact of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Since 9/11, terrorism has moved centre stage in international police work. Importantly, while terrorism is also a prime mover in international political and legal affairs, international police organizations have taken up terrorism as a criminal enforcement objective on the basis of acquired professional policing criteria. A central question concerning the nature and course of international policing in the near future is how professional standards of counterterrorist policing will harmonize or clash with the conception of terrorism as an ideologically volatile and politically divisive problem.

  • Deflem M. 2002. Policing world society: historical foundations of international police cooperation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Liang H.-H. 1992. The rise of the modern police and the European state system from Metternich to the Second World War. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Nadelmann E. A. 1993. Cops across borders: the internationalization of US criminal law enforcement. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.

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