International Law Enforcement Organizations

Mathieu Deflem
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Shannon McDonough

This is an online copy of a chapter in Comparative and International Policing, Justice, and Transnational Crime, edited by Sesha Kethineni. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2010. Also reprinted in the second edition, 2014 (pp. 79-101). Available as pdf file

See the updated and revision version published in 2021.

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu, and Shannon McDonough. 2010. “International Law Enforcement Organizations.” Pp. 127-148 in Comparative and International Policing, Justice, and Transnational Crime, edited by Sesha Kethineni. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press.

The police function, primarily organized in law enforcement agencies at the local and national level, reveals a variety of characteristics in different jurisdictions. As discussed in the previous chapter, there are important variations in policing practices and organizational styles in different nations. However, the practice and function of policing has become internationalized, which has brought about important mechanisms and structures, in general, and international police cooperation in particular. Although the internationalization of police work has accelerated tremendously since the 1980s, over the past decades, this chapter will show that the recent growth of international police activities has important historical antecedents. Moreover, contemporary dimensions of international policing vary in terms of functions and modalities. In particular, among the efforts to organize international police work are the international law enforcement organizations that exist to structure police cooperation on a broad, multilateral scale. This chapter will discuss two important examples of such organizations: Interpol and Europol.

The History of International Policing

A review of some of the key historical developments in international law enforcement and cooperation among industrialized nations reveals two important trends (Deflem 2002, 2007a, 2007b). First, early manifestations of international policing had a strong focus on the political objectives of the particular governments, but international policing gradually evolved toward a concentration on criminal objectives as police institutions achieved a certain level of autonomy. Second, the structure of international policing progressed from exclusively unilaterally enacted transnational activities and temporary and limited forms of cooperation to the development of more permanent and structured organizations with wide multilateral participation.

The origins of international policing date back to at least the nineteenth century amidst the expanding development formation of large national states, especially in Europe states . In the United States, international police activities were historically restricted to regional issues, such as immigration and the changing borders of the United States. By contrast, Europe experienced greater development of international police practices because of the multitude of countries existing in close proximity to one another as well as the general political conditions of the time. International policing activities in Europe during the nineteenth century initially emerged to suppress political threats to established autocratic regimes. These activities were mostly conducted unilaterally through the employment of agents abroad, either secretively or as representatives in foreign embassies. Bilateral and multilateral cooperation occurred only on a limited and temporary basis in specific investigations.

The first effort to organize international police cooperation on a more permanent basis took place in 1851 with the formation of the Police Union of German States. Consisting of police from seven German-speaking nations that shared similar political objectives, the Police Union engaged in the gathering of political intelligence and created systems of information exchange on suspect political groups (e.g., democrats, anarchists, and socialists) to thwart the threat they were thought to pose to the participating members’ governments. Because the Union was organized around political rather than criminal enforcement objectives, the organization gradually declined as the governments of its member agencies began to diverge politically. The Union was dissolved in 1866 when war broke out between its two primary members, Prussia and Austria. This failure to create a more enduring international police organization illustrates the inherent limitations of policing for political objectives and shows the importance of securing the autonomy of police agencies with exclusively criminal objectives.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, police institutions became subject to bureaucratization through the gradual development of professional systems of knowledge about crime, including its increasing international dimensions, and the attainment of expertise about the proper means of policing. This process of bureaucratization was manifested by a growing emphasis on criminal enforcement tasks rather than the political objectives of national governments. In response to the political disorder produced by anarchism, however, national governments’ political demands remained in force until nearly the end of the nineteenth century, which impeded attempts to establish more permanent forms of international police cooperation. For example, amidst increasing violence directed against autocratic regimes in Europe in the final decade of the nineteenth century, the Italian government arranged for an international conference in Rome to organize the fight against anarchism. From November 24 to December 21, 1898, fifty-four delegates from twenty-one European nations attended “The International Conference of Rome for the Social Defense Against Anarchists,” which was focused on suppressing the anarchist movement. The conference encouraged police to keep watch over anarchists through establishing specialized surveillance agencies in each country along with systems of information exchange. Yet, although the conference was organized around explicitly political objectives, police officials established only practical standards of cooperation and law enforcement, e.g., adopting a shared method of criminal identification and a procedure for extraditing persons involved in assassination attempts of a sovereign or head of state. In March 1904, the Russian government revived the anti-anarchist program at a follow-up meeting in St. Petersburg where a “Secret Protocol for the International War on Anarchism” was drafted. The Rome and St. Petersburg conferences, however, failed to produce any long-term forms of international police cooperation because of their political foundations and the ideological divisions of the participating countries. In particular, these conferences failed to create a central anti-anarchist intelligence bureau that would allow for more efficient information exchange between nations.

During the twentieth century, international policing continued to move away from political objectives toward a focus on the policing of crimes with international dimensions. The progress towards criminal enforcement activities was fostered by structural conditions that allowed police agencies to gain institutional autonomy from their respective governments, which enabled them to function as independent, professional institutions. Following the work of sociologist Max Weber (1922), it can be argued that this position of autonomy was achieved as a result of a bureaucratization process by which police institutions began to rely on a purposive-rational logic to find and use the most efficient means to achieve given objectives of criminal law enforcement (Deflem 2002). The trend towards autonomy was periodically interrupted by repoliticization attempts instigated by incidents of political disruption, e.g., World War I (1914-1918) and the Bolshevik Revolution (1917). However, police institutions became more resistant to such influences as they gained higher degrees of autonomy, which fostered the establishment of more permanent forms of international policing with multilateral participation. Furthermore, a variety of globalization trends accelerated attempts to organize police internationally because of the growing interdependence of societies and the increase in opportunities for crimes with global implications.

Among the earliest historical manifestations of the change toward criminal concerns in international police work was the focus on the suppression of the international trafficking of prostitutes, the so-called “White Sslave” trade. The first attempt to organize international police activities against the White Sslave trade was organized by France at a conference in Paris in 1902. This meeting eventually led to the “International Agreement for the Suppression of White Slave Traffic” in 1904, which was signed by twelve European nations and several other nations, including the United States. In addition, in 1910, the “International Convention for the Suppression of the White Slave Traffic” was signed by thirteen nations. These conventions, however, failed to take into account the bureaucratization of police institutions, nor did the participants consult with police officials; therefore, neither the conference nor the agreements had any significant impact on actual international police activities.

Other attempts to establish an international police organization likewise failed due to their exclusion of representatives from police agencies. For example, in Monaco in 1914, politicians and legal officials failed to establish an international police organization during the “First Congress of International Criminal Police,” because they excluded police officials and only focused on criminal police duties as a function of legal principles already abandoned by police institutions. World War I began soon after the meeting and the program did not recommence after the war had ended. Other efforts to set up an international police organization that did include police officials were relatively insignificant because they emphasized professional standards of police reform rather than international criminal policing objectives. Such attempts included the International Association of Chiefs of Police, formed in Washington, D.C., in 1901; police conferences in Buenos Aires in 1905 and 1920, and Sao Paolo in 1912; and the International Police Conference in New York in 1922.

The most successful effort to organize an international police organization was the International Criminal Police Commission (ICPC), which was established in 1923 in Vienna, and which is today widely known as Interpol (Deflem 2002). The ICPC was independently organized by police officials to facilitate cooperation in the policing of international crime, explicitly excluding political violations. To that end, the organization established a headquarters and various systems of information exchange. The ICPC became the most developed international law enforcement organization with multilateral membership, although the organization was initially a predominantly European organization. In the years leading up to World War II, the ICPC was taken over by the Nazi regime after the annexation of Austria in 1938. The Nazi-appointed president of the Viennese police was assigned to the ICPC presidency and, a few years later, the headquarters was relocated to Berlin. In 1946, the ICPC was revived at a police meeting in Brussels, Belgium, and renamed the International Criminal Police Organization, and the headquarters were relocated to France. As will be discussed in more detail below, today Interpol is the largest international law enforcement organization with member agencies representing 1876 nations.

Contemporary Dimensions of International Policing

The attainment of bureaucratic autonomy by police institutions has facilitated the development of more permanent forms of international cooperation based on systems of information exchange and a shared understanding of criminal enforcement goals. The apolitical nature of international police organizations allows for the cooperation of police from nations with different political and legal systems. At the same time, however, nationality remains a persistent element in international policing in terms of forms and objectives.

International law enforcement emerges within the context of important societal developments such as political and economic transformations (notably, the spread of capitalism and democratization), which affect the organization and practices of police institutions across nations (Deflem 2007b). These societal developments allow police institutions to engage in transnational operations involving foreign citizens within their own jurisdictions or through police work concerned with nationals or foreigners abroad. International policing can also involve various types of collaboration among police institutions of different nations, including temporary or permanent bilateral and multilateral arrangements, in the form of investigative enforcement tasks, the sharing of operational and organizational methods and techniques, or more permanent multilateral international police organizations.

Whatever the form, the nationality of police organizations is persistent, and is manifested in three ways (Deflem 2007a). First, police organizations prefer to conduct international policing unilaterally rather than through cooperation with foreign police. This is especially the case with police institutions (e.g., those in the United States) that have sufficient resources to operate alone. Second, arrangements of cooperation are most often made on a temporary basis, rather than through multilateral organizations, and occur in the context of specific investigations in which cooperation is necessary to accomplish criminal objectives. Third, police cooperation in the context of a permanent multilateral organization does not involve the formation of a supranational police force. Rather, police institutions of different nations engage in collaborative efforts with one another to attain their respective nationally or locally defined goals.

The persistence of nationality in international policing activities is most evident in the case of U.S. agencies because they are heavily involved in unilateral transnational police work (Cottam and Marenin 1999; Deflem 2001, 2004a, 2005). In the context of international cooperation involving U.S. law enforcement organizations, there is a relative lack of cooperation due to the U.S. police’s lack of trust in foreign law enforcement agencies and suspicions of corruption and unprofessionalism. Police organizations in the United States, especially those at the federal level, are generally more heavily involved in international policing activities than police from any other nation, due mainly to concerns over the international drug trade, illegal immigration and border control, and international terrorism. The dominant role of the United States today—in stark contrast to the conditions of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—signifies an “Americanization” of international police activities (Nadelmann 1993). This Americanization can be observed in various aspects of foreign police organizations and activities, such as the adoption of policing methods and principles originally developed in the United States, the reliance on U.S. assistance in the formation of specialized drug units and the organization of police training and investigative work, and the influence of U.S. agencies on the legalization of certain police techniques in foreign countries. Reviewing the most prominent organizations involved in international policing, the dominance of the United States becomes evident in terms of the level of participation and assistance that U.S. police institutions bring to international policing. At the same time, however, there is still some development of autonomous international police organizations (e.g., Europol) that are directed toward specific local and regional concerns outside of U.S. interests.

Many law enforcement organizations are involved in international operations. At the international level, Interpol and Europol (the European Police Office) are among the most prominent international police organizations with permanent multilateral structures (see below). Among the many U.S. federal agencies involved in international policing activities, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) have the greatest international impact and presence (Deflem 2001, 2004a, 2005, 2007b). The FBI serves the investigative function of the Department of Justice and is responsible for the policing of federal crimes, e.g., terrorism and drug trafficking. The Bureau manages a system of legal attachés (or legats), employed in at least fifty-two countries, who participate in investigations and help foreign police forces make arrests. The FBI also oversees international training programs for foreign police at the FBI National Academy in Quantico, Virginia, and, in cooperation with the Diplomatic Security Service, at the International Law Enforcement Academy in Budapest, Hungary.

The DEA is the U.S. agency primarily responsible for policing the drug trade. Through the enforcement of U.S. drug laws, the DEA engages in many international activities at the borders and abroad, including regular communication with international organizations concerned with drug control. The DEA Operations Division includes an Office of International Operations, which organizes international missions, and a foreign liaison system, which is even more extensive than the FBI’s, with at least seventy-eight offices in fifty-eight countries. The U.S. law enforcement organization with the largest overseas presence is the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, which, amongst other things, is in charge of security at U.S. embassies around the world.

Although U.S. agencies prefer to work unilaterally or bilaterally in international police activities, the United States is represented in the multilateral organization Interpol through the National Central Bureau (NCB) in Washington, D.C. (Deflem 2001, 2005). Also known as Interpol Washington, the NCB is organized into five divisions: the Alien/Fugitive Enforcement Division, which deals with international fugitives; the Financial Fraud/Economic Crimes Division, which involves the policing of economic crimes; the Criminal Investigations Division, which oversees activities involving a variety of international crimes; the Drug Investigations Division, which deals with drug crimes; and the State Liaison Division, which maintains relations with various state and federal police agencies in the United States States.

Many U.S. federal agencies are involved in international policing activities (Deflem 2001). Besides the FBI and the DEA, tThey include U.S. the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (USBCIS), the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), the Secret Service, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), the Postal Inspection Service, the Criminal Division’s Office of International Affairs in the Justice Department, and the Bureau of Diplomatic Security. Besides these federal agencies, various local and state police forces, especially those located close to the borders, also have international policing duties.

The current era of globalization has produced an increase in international criminal activities, which have greatly expanded the scope of international policing. Moreover, advances in technology have shaped the nature and forms of international crime and its control. Thus, the internationalization of crime, along with the important organizational and technical developments of police agencies (i.e., bureaucratization and institutional autonomy), have facilitated international police activities and cooperation in the fight against international crime. In particular, growing concerns over border control, illegal immigration, drug trafficking, international money laundering, cybercrimes, and international terrorism have steadily affected the development of international police cooperation (Deflem 2001, 2007b; James 2005; McGillis 1997; Nadelmann 1993).

Border control has become a special focus of international policing activities with the rise of international crimes such as smuggling and illegal immigration. In the United States, the Citizenship and Immigration Services (formerly called the Immigration and Naturalization Service) and the Border Patrol within Customs and Border Protection enforce immigration laws through various prevention strategies and the apprehension of smugglers and illegal aliens. As border policing becomes increasingly redefined as a “militarized” national security issue (Dunn 1996), there has been an increase in the deployment of military forces at the U.S. border as well as an upgrade in the weaponry used by border patrol agents (e.g., semiautomatic guns). Likewise, ATF manages a division of agents that specialize in border control issues such as gun and liquor smuggling. The United States also cooperates bilaterally with Mexican and Canadian police agencies in the patrol of their respective borders and related law enforcement activities.

To prevent illegal immigration and smuggling, the main strategy of Border Patrol since the 1990s has been to increase the number and visibility of local and federal police agents stationed at the borders in an effort to deter aliens from attempting to enter the country illegally. Other activities include the search and identification of criminal and illegal aliens, the inspection of passengers aboard ships and airplanes entering the country, and the investigation of drug, liquor, and gun smuggling. To enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of these activities, border police rely on advanced technologies such as computerized fingerprint tracking systems.

Intimately related to border control and placed in the context of the United States’ “war on drugs,” international drug trafficking is another major focus of international policing. The drug trade was, in fact, the original driving force behind the increased participation of U.S. police agencies in international policing activities, the Americanization of policing abroad, and the continued dominance of U.S. police in international efforts (Deflem 2001, 2004a, 2007a). International police work targeting the drug trade involves a large number of U.S. agencies. The primary U.S. drug enforcement agency is the DEA, which handles violations of drug laws within the United States as well as at the nation’s borders and abroad in collaboration with other U.S. agencies and foreign police. Related to the enforcement of drug laws, the DEA participates in various forms of international cooperation, including functioning as a liaison in a number of international organizations involved in drug control and an international network of more than 500 DEA agents stationed abroad, mostly in notorious drug-producing nations, who collaborate with foreign police in drug investigations and training programs.

In addition to the DEA, the escalating emphasis on controlling the drug trade in the United States’ “war on drugs” has led to an increase in the international orientations of other U.S. agencies. For instance, the FBI includes drug trafficking among its federal crime enforcement responsibilities. Other U.S. agencies involved in international activities related to policing the drug trade include the Marshals Service, the Coast Guard, and the Border Patrol. Furthermore, all branches of the U.S. military have anti-drug units and there are joint military task forces aimed at fighting drug operations at the U.S.-Mexico border (Defenselink 1996). Multilateral cooperation occurs through the Drug Investigations Division of Interpol Washington, which coordinates investigations of drug-related international crimes.

International money laundering is related to drug trafficking and terrorism, which has increased along with a general rise in organized crime (Deflem and Irwin 2008). Money laundering is often used to conceal illegal income, including its sources and applications. The policing of international money laundering occurs in conjunction with international regimes aimed at suppressing money laundering through the implementation of policies and regulations at bilateral and multilateral levels between countries. These global regimes formally prohibit and criminalize money laundering, whereas police agencies enforce the respective laws and regulations. The hidden and technologically advanced nature of money laundering activities presents additional obstacles and therefore requires specialized means and police agencies to control them.

In the United States, the FBI and the DEA include specialized operations divisions against money laundering among their overall international policing activities. The Financial Crime Section of the FBI includes a Money Laundering Unit, which oversees activities aimed at disrupting and dismantling money laundering operations identified in relation to the FBI’s enforcement of white-collar crimes, organized crime, and drug and violent crimes. The FBI also maintains relationships with other police agencies at the local, state, and federal level and organizes special task forces aimed at domestic and international money laundering concerns. The DEA engages in similar activities focused on the money laundering activities and capabilities of major drug-trafficking organizations.

It is important to note that U.S. authorities perceive of the United States views money laundering as an international security threat and views some vulnerable foreign governments as incapable of avoiding the risk or temptation of allowing illegal monetary transactions in their countries. Therefore, U.S. law enforcement agencies also set up sting operations within these countries unilaterally, without the knowledge of the host country, or bilaterally, to thwart money-laundering activities. International cooperation also occurs at the multilateral level. For example, Interpol has facilitated the cooperation among member nations in identifying, tracing, and seizing the assets of money launderers through the exchange of information. Private organizations, such as financial institutions, also cooperate with law enforcement in the identification of money-laundering crimes.

Since the late twentieth century, international policing has shifted its focus towards more technologically advanced crimes (Deflem 2007a). Advancements in computer technology have brought about new opportunities for crimes involving the Internet and information technology, transcending national borders and affecting multiple national jurisdictions. The transnational nature of cybercrime requires international policing activities ranging from unilateral activities to the establishment of bilateral agreements and multilateral law enforcement regimes. Unilateral transnational police activities are sometimes necessary because the legal systems of nations do not always harmonize. Law enforcement agencies from different countries do cooperate to police cybercrimes, but collaborative efforts may be hindered when laws related to cybercrimes differ among the nations involved. Thus, international legal frameworks have been developed to facilitate cooperation among nations. For example, the Council of Europe’s Convention on Cyber-Crime serves to organize procedures of cooperation to aid in the policing of cybercrimes (Council of Europe 2001). Multilateral organizations (e.g., Interpol and Europol) also support collaborative efforts in the policing of cybercrimes. For instance, Interpol has instigated a number of activities related to cybercrime, including a system of working parties around the world that specialize in information technology crimes, to facilitate the sharing of information on computer security-related matters between member nations.

The most important development in international policing in the current era is the proliferation of terrorism. From the 1980s onwards and, especially in the aftermath of the events of September 11, 2001, international terrorism has been the central catalyst of increased international police cooperation and an expansion of policing powers across the world (Deflem 2004b, 2005, 2007a, 2007b). Various newly developed anti-terrorism agreements and laws have facilitated these developments. In the United States, for example, the USA PATRIOT Act (“Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism”) of 2001 extended the authority of police. Across the globe, similar anti-terrorism agreements and laws have been passed. The strengthening of the police function has also affected various jurisdictions of authority and, as a result, has intensified cooperation among police at local, state, federal, and international levels. Police cooperation has also been enhanced by a focus on the most efficient means to accomplish counterterrorism objectives. Furthermore, the increase in international police cooperation motivated by counterterrorism objectives has reinforced the centrality of U.S. police institutions in international police activities.

In the wake of increasing concerns over terrorism, police agencies have been afforded greater powers in terms of the means of policing, equipment, personnel, and budget, and have brought about a realignment of police agencies with military forces (Deflem 2004b). Terrorism has also been conceptualized in terms related to war and national security, leading to a militarization of the police function (Kraska 2001; Sievert 2003). For example, on November 13, 2001, U.S. President George W. Bush approved an order to allow military trials for foreign suspects of terrorism. Moreover, the reorganizations and realignments of police institutions that are presently justified in terms of the terrorism threat may lead to lasting structural readjustments long after the immediate repercussions of events such as 9/11 have faded.

The reorganization of policing across the world since 9/11 is reminiscent of past politicization attempts of police activities during periods of societal turmoil. However, in the present era, modern police institutions have attained an unprecedented level of bureaucratic autonomy, allowing police to remain resistant to politicization attempts and continuing to rely on professional standards of police technique and expertise. Modern-day police institutions may therefore continue to exhibit a high degree of autonomy in determining the means and objectives of counterterrorist police work even when facing political pressure to conform to the goals of their respective governments.

Interpol: The International Criminal Police Organization

Since its establishment as the International Criminal Police Commission in 1923, Interpol has steadily expanded its membership to become the most prominent international police organization (Deflem 2002, 2006a). Relying on a collaborative model of policing, the formal objectives of the organization are to facilitate and ensure cooperation between the police of different nations within the limits of their respective national laws while adhering to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Since the organization’s reformation after World War II, Interpol’s focus on criminal violations has explicitly excluded political, racial, and religious matters. Historically, however, Interpol has not always been invulnerable to political conditions. During the Cold War era, the Soviet control over Eastern European nations that were members of the organization led the FBI, which had joined the organization in 1938, to terminate its participation in 1950. U.S. participation in Interpol was thereafter secured on an informal basis by the Treasury Department. The United States has reestablished formal ties with Interpol, represented jointly by the Departments of Justice and the Treasury.

Originally founded in response to increasing concerns over the internationalization of crime due to rapid social change and technological progress, Interpol was created to serve as a communication network to facilitate law enforcement cooperation via a headquarters through which information could be exchanged among police agencies from different countries. Information exchange was further accomplished through printed publications, a radio and telegraph system, and regularly held meetings of police representatives. The headquarters in Vienna contained divisions specializing in the falsification of passports, checks and currencies, fingerprints and photographs, and other pertinent systems of knowledge. The emphasis on swift methods of information exchange has basically remained unaltered since the headquarters were moved to France (first to Paris and, in 1989, to Lyon), although the technical sophistication of these methods has advanced greatly. Since the 1970s and, especially, the 1980s, Interpol accelerated its activities. International terrorism has been a central driving force in this expansion. As early as 1984, Interpol decided on a resolution that encouraged its members to cooperate on terrorism matters, and by the late 1990s, Interpol viewed international terrorism as one of its primary concerns.

The structure of Interpol consists of a General Assembly, an Executive Committee, a General Secretariat, and National Central Bureaus. The General Assembly functions as the main governing component, which includes delegates, appointed by member agencies, who meet annually. The Assembly votes on all major decisions related to Interpol’s policies, resources, methods, finances, and activities. The Executive Committee, elected by the General Assembly, consists of a president, three vice presidents, and nine delegates representing Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa.

The General Secretariat is located at the Interpol headquarters in Lyons, France. Regional offices are located in Argentina, El Salvador, the Ivory Coast, Kenya, Thailand, and Zimbabwe, and there is a liaison office at the UN in New York. Since 1996, Interpol has formal agreements with the UN, and entertains similar agreements with Europol, the International Criminal Court, and other police and legal organizations, which provide it observer status in sessions of the UN General Assembly. Interpol’s secretary general oversees the General Secretariat and assigns membership in the organization to police agencies chosen by the governments of their respective nations to be participants in the organization.

The National Central Bureaus are maintained by each of Interpol’s member agencies in their respective countries. They serve as contact points for communication between the regional offices of the General Secretariat and other member agencies concerning all official Interpol police communications about international crime investigations and the location and capture of fugitives. Communication occurs on the basis of a color-coded notification system with each of six colors representing a specific type of request. For example, a red notice is a request to arrest a fugitive under the process of extradition, whereas a blue notice is a request to gather information about an individual related to a crime. A green Interpol-UN Special Notice has most recently been added, and it concerns group or individual actions formally sanctioned by the UN against Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Interpol’s functions fall into three main categories. First, Interpol organizes a system of information exchange regarding international policing among its members. Communications were originally handled by mail, but since 2003 use an encrypted Internet-based system (I-24/7) that connects the General Secretariat with the National Central Bureaus. Second, Interpol functions as a source of operational data and databases, including names, fingerprints, and DNA profiles on international fugitives and information concerning stolen property, such as passports and works of art. Third, Interpol provides its member agencies with operational assistance with investigations in priority areas. For example, Interpol coordinates a Command and Coordination Center, which acts as the primary point of contact for member agencies seeking immediate assistance. Also, the Crisis Support Group, the Criminal Analysis Unit, and the Incident Response Teams, and Disaster Victim Identification Teams offer operational support at the request of a member agency.

Interpol emphasizes certain categories of international crime, rather than taking on tasks it is not equipped to handle. The organization prioritizes crimes involving terrorism and public security, drugs and organized crime, financial and high-tech crimes (e.g., money laundering and cybercrimes), fugitives, and the trafficking of human beings (Anderson 1997; Deflem 2006a; Interpol 2009). Since the 1970s, a primary concern of Interpol has been international terrorism, and various resolutions have been passed to combat terrorism and terrorist activities. Initially, Interpol passed a number of resolutions related to crimes involving terrorist activities, e.g., plane hijackings and holding hostages. In 1984, Interpol expanded its counterterrorism focus by in a resolution concerning “Violent Crime Commonly Referred to as Terrorism,” which encouraged member agencies to cooperate in the fight against terrorism within the context of their respective nations’ laws. The political motivations of terrorist incidents are to be delineated from the criminal elements, which, once identified, can be subjected to police investigations. In 1985, a Public Safety and Terrorism Subdirectorate was established to further facilitate cooperation in matters of international terrorism.

During the 1990s, Interpol accelerated its counterterrorism initiatives following an increase in terrorist attacks around the world. In 1998, at a General Assembly meeting in Cairo, Interpol announced its commitment to combat international terrorism through a “Declaration against Terrorism,” which emphasized the threat of terrorism to public security, democracy, and human rights. Interpol’s primary concern with international terrorism was reaffirmed in 1999 at a General Assembly meeting in Seoul, when a resolution was passed condemning the financing and support of terrorism. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, strengthened the focus on terrorism as well as Interpol’s infrastructure. Immediately following the attacks, on September 14, 2001, Secretary General Ronald Noble announced the formation of an 11 September Task Force in order to coordinate international criminal police intelligence regarding the attacks. Interpol also circulated fifty-five red notices for terrorists connected to the attacks and increased the circulation of blue notices to obtain information about the location of suspects, nineteen of which concerned the hijackers who committed the attacks.

A few weeks after September 11, at a General Assembly meeting in Budapest, Interpol passed a resolution regarding the attacks, which condemned the “murderous attacks perpetrated against the world’s citizens in the United States of America on 11 September 2001” as a “cold-blooded mass murder [and] a crime against humanity” (Interpol 2001). Interpol also prioritized the red notices for terrorists connected to the attacks to combat terrorism and organized crime more effectively.

A number of important aspects of Interpol’s organization changed following the September 11 attacks. Interpol strengthened its infrastructure through the establishment of the aforementioned I-24/7 communications system and a permanent General Secretariat Command and Coordination Center. Also set up was a Financial and High Tech Crimes Sub-Directorate, which specializes in money laundering. In April 2002, Interpol announced the formation of an Interpol Terrorism Watch List, which equips the police member agencies with direct access to information on fugitives and suspected terrorists.

As an international police organization, Interpol serves a unique yet limited function by maintaining an international network relying solely on the participation of member agencies rather than a supranational police force. Obstacles to cooperation can occur because of the sensitive nature of some relevant information and the fact that not all police agencies are equipped with the necessary infrastructure, personnel, and/or finances needed for international communications. Furthermore, the ideological diversity of Interpol’s member agencies may engender feelings of distrust and suspicion. The primary goal of efficiency and the focus on international crime in the absence of a formal legal system may also lead to problems of democratic accountability. However, the main advantage of Interpol is its broad multilateral reach, which maintains communications between countries that otherwise would be unavailable. The emphasis on methods of information exchange reflects a shared concern among Interpol’s member agencies regarding efficiency in international police work unhindered by international politics. Thus, Interpol can ensure cooperation in international criminal matters between the police of countries with differing political ideologies and legal standards.

Europol: The European Police Office

The formation of the European Police Office (Europol) was brought about to promote cooperation among police agencies in the European Union (EU) when policing serious international crimes (Deflem 2006b). Europol facilitates cooperation between EU member nations through a headquarters that employs some 600 personnel, more than 100 of which are Europol Liaison Officers from various police and security agencies, including the national police, customs, and immigration services from EU member states. Europol was formally established in 1992, but, as discussed above, the organization has roots dating back to the earlier efforts to organize international policing in the nineteenth century onwards. Since the 1970s, efforts to control terrorism accelerated international policing activities within Europe and led to the formation of the “Terrorism, Radicalism, Extremism, and International Violence” group (TREVI) by European police officials in order to facilitate the exchange of information and cooperation on international crimes related to terrorism. On February 7, 1992, in Maastricht, The Netherlands, the formation of Europol was officially outlined in the Treaty on the European Union (also known as the “Maastricht Treaty”) (Europol Convention 1995; Lavranos 2003; Occhipinti 2003; Winer 2004). The Treaty specified the establishment of a European Police Office, which framed Europol’s governance structure and defined its function as supporting cooperation among police agencies in the EU. Initially, operations began on a limited basis in The Hague through the Europol Drugs Unit, which focused on international drug crimes. Other forms of international crime were gradually addressed as well. A Europol Convention was formally organized in Brussels on July 18, 1995, which activated Europol on October 1, 1998. The organization was ratified by all the EU member states, and became fully operational on July 1, 1999.

The Europol Convention of 1995 specified that Europol’s function was to enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of cooperation among police agencies from EU countries in the prevention and control of international organized crime without the formation of a supranational police force (Europol Convention 1995). Europol’s mission is restricted to criminal activities involving two or more member nations of the EU, especially those committed by criminal organizations. More specifically, Europol’s activities concern the investigation of international crimes, e.g., the illegal trafficking of drugs, human beings, and vehicles; child pornography; the forgery of money; money laundering; cybercrimes; organized robbery; swindling and fraud, corruption; environmental crime; and terrorism.

Europol provides its member agencies with various systems of international policing. First, Europol facilitates communications between the Europol Liaison Officers, who represent the national police of the member states at the Europol headquarters in The Hague. Each EU nation designates a particular police agency to function as the Europol National Unit, which acts as the contact point for Europol communications. Second, Europol provides operational analyses to assist international police activities, and draws up strategic reports (e.g., threat assessments), and crime analyses utilizing information collected by the police of member states or generated by Europol headquarters. Third, Europol offers technical support for police investigations initiated by the police of EU member states. Finally, Europol manages the Europol Computer System, which is used for analyzing data on people’s behavior and movements. The Europol Computer system is supplemented by the EU Customs Information System, which affords customs agencies the ability to exchange information on smuggling, and the Identification File of Customs Investigations, which contains information on individuals involved in criminal investigations.

The structure of Europol includes a governing body, called the Directorate, consisting of a director and three deputy directors, who are all appointed by the EU Council of Ministers for Justice and Home Affairs. Tthe director serves a five-year term, which is renewable once for four years, whereas the deputy directors serve a four-year term, which is also renewable once. The EU Council approves Europol’s budget and acts as a regulatory body, and forwards an annual report about Europol’s activities to the European Parliament. The Europol Management Board, made up of one representative from each member state, supervises day-to-day operations and meets at least twice a year to discuss the activities and future direction of the organization. Europol’s operations are also overseen by a Joint Supervisory Body, which consists of appointed representatives of the national supervisory bodies in the EU member states, to ensure that the rights of individuals are not violated by Europol’s handling of data and information exchange.

Europol primarily differs from Interpol in terms of its political and legal framework because it is formally sanctioned and organized within EU governmental structures. Yet, although Europol is formally mandated by the EU and overseen by its regulatory bodies, Europol maintains a level of bureaucratic autonomy similar to other international police organizations through the coordination of activities of the National Units. Europol’s operations are primarily guided by a concern for efficiency in the control of crime and police cooperation, which is implemented through a number of measures. Europol depends on the expertise and participation of existing police institutions from EU member states to staff Europol headquarters and the Europol National Units with qualified personnel. This ensures that Europol personnel are police officials who are familiar with a highly professionalized and independent European police culture. Efficiency of operations is also achieved by emphasizing the importance of effective and speedy communication among participating police agencies. Europol also promotes efficiency through managing agreements with non-EU nations, such as the United States, to facilitate cooperation with a broader range of police organizations. For instance, Europol has a liaison office in the United States to maintain relations with U.S. law enforcement agencies.

Similar to Interpol, international terrorism is currently one of Europol’s main concerns. The Europol Convention of 1995 already listed terrorism as one of the central justifications for establishing a European police organization. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, further accelerated international police cooperation aimed at terrorism and led to a prioritization of counterterrorism among Europol’s activities (Deflem 2006b; Den Boer and Monar 2002; Fijnaut 2004; Lavranos 2003). Immediately following the attacks, Europol set up a Europol Operational Centre to enable a twenty-four-hour-a-day information exchange. In November 2001, a new Counterterrorism Task Force became fully operational at the Europol headquarters. The Task Force functions as a specialized counterterrorism unit, consisting of terrorism experts and liaison officers from various police and intelligence agencies of EU member states. In 2002, the Task Force was incorporated into Europol’s Serious Crime Department, but it became a separate entity again after the terrorist bombings in Madrid on March 11, 2004. The Task Force accumulates and analyzes information and intelligence related to terrorism, performs operational and strategic analyses, and produces a terrorism threat assessment, including targets, modus operandi, and security consequences (Europol 2006). Since its formation, the Task Force has produced several threat assessments pertaining to existing counterterrorism security measures in the EU and the presence of terrorist groups in Europe, including information on the financing of terrorism and the formation of an Arabic-to-English translation system.

In addition to the Counter-Terrorism Task Force, Europol has established other programs to combat terrorism. A Counter-Terrorism Program functions to coordinate all Europol counterterrorism activities, such as information gathering and threat assessments. The Counter-Proliferation Program handles all forms of illicit trafficking, including nuclear materials, arms, and explosives. The Networking Program coordinates communication among the experts of these programs and other international organizations and police in non-EU member states. The Preparedness Program organizes multilateral counterterrorism investigative teams for terrorist incidents in the EU. Finally, the Training and Education Program supports the terrorist intelligence and investigative programs by providing training to relevant personnel in the EU.

Europol’s counterterrorist efforts focus on terrorist groups insofar as they are active in or otherwise relevant to Europe. Thus, Europol maintains a regional focus in international policing, concentrating on concerns specific to the EU. The political decision-making process within the EU framework does not always ensure smooth police cooperation through Europol. Instead, political-ideological conflicts among EU member nations still occasionally hamper cooperation and restrict the organization’s structure and capabilities, for instance in passing and implementing legislation (Deflem 2006b).


The world of international policing varies in terms of practices and structures. International police work has been transformed from a preoccupation with political violations to a focus on international crimes. Moreover, unilaterally enacted transnational activities and bilateral cooperative networks have been gradually supplemented with multilateral international law-enforcement organizations. The recent past has witnessed a general expansion of international policing in the wake of global concerns surrounding border controls, illegal immigration, the drug trade, money laundering, crimes relying on advanced border-transcending technologies, and terrorism. Despite the growth of international police initiatives, the persistence of nationality is revealed in that police agencies prefer to work unilaterally, engage in relatively small and temporary bilateral cooperation, or participate in large multilateral organizations only on the basis of a collaborative model from which they seek to benefit in terms of nationally delineated enforcement concerns. The persistence of nationality of police participating in international activities is most advantageous to agencies from powerful nations. Thus it is no surprise that the strong global presence of U.S. law enforcement has brought about an Americanization of international police work.

Interpol and Europol are two of the most prominent international law-enforcement organizations. Interpol has steadily developed since its formation in 1923 to become the largest international police organization, with a membership drawn from 1876 nations. The organization relies on a collaborative model of cooperation to facilitate technologically advanced systems of information exchange and communication among its member agencies. Since the events of September 11, 2001, international terrorism has become a key concern for Interpol. In the EU, Europol has also expanded its activities in the wake of concerns over global security and the proliferation of serious crimes affecting EU member nations. Although Europol’s function and organization are subject to political control from the EU leadership, the organization relies, like Interpol and other international police organizations, on police professionals drawn from highly bureaucratized agencies that claim expertise and institutional independence.
The current era of globalization, which affects all aspects of life, can be expected to continue to necessitate international police activities. Despite the proliferation of international police work, however, it should be noted that the police function within larger jurisdictions also is organized at smaller, regional levels, such as in the subordinate sovereignties that will be discussed in the next chapter.

Web Resources

1. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF):
2. Bureau of Diplomatic Security:
3. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA):
4. European Police Office (Europol):
5. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI):
6. International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol):
7. International Law Enforcement Academy, Budapest:
8. U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (USBCIS):
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services:
9. U.S. Coast Guard:
10. U.S. Customs and Border Protection:
11. U.S. Marshals Service:
12. U.S. Postal Inspection Service:
13. U.S. Secret Service:

Discussion Questions

1. What are the most important conditions that have historically influenced the internationalization of law enforcement?
2. How do contemporary developments in international police work affect law enforcement efforts at the local and national level among different nations?
3. What needs to happen if Interpol is to be more effective in fulfilling its mission?
4. How would you defend the view that Europol is like a European FBI?
5. Given contemporary concerns over a variety of international crime issues, how should international law enforcement organizations be developed in the coming decades?

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See related writings on international policing.