Police And Politics Research Paper

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Sir Frederick Maitland pointed out in the late nineteenth century that the etymological relationship of the words police, policy, politic, polity, politics, and politicians is very close (Maitland 1885). All are derived from the Greek polis, roughly translated as city-state. The earlier English meanings of police reflected this common origin, since police could mean a constitution or a polity. In the eighteenth century, the word came to have a more specialized meaning as ‘the civil force to which it is entrusted the duty of maintaining public order, enforcing regulations for the prevention and punishment of breaches of the law, and detecting crime’ (OED). This purely civil meaning was broadened (1837) to include ‘any body of men, officially employed to keep order, enforce regulations, or maintain a political or ecclesiastical system.’ The wider definition covers gendarmeries under military discipline and security services charged with the protection of public authorities.

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The origins of the term have contemporary significance since unsuccessful attempts have been made, particularly in England, to divorce police from politics, and represent the police as nonpolitical guardians of society (Reiner 1992). The police and political authority are, however, intertwined—the police are executors of the decisions and the laws of duly constituted political authorities. In order to do so, they designated as having, in Max Weber’s celebrated formulation about the state, the monopoly of the legitimate use of force. As Bittner (1979) remarks, the police ‘are equipped, entitled and prepared to deal with every exigency in which force might have to be used.’ The legitimate use of force by the police has been confined to the territories of sovereign states. The reality of a police monopoly of legitimate force within these territories has been contested because other agencies, such as prison officers, use physical constraints (Brodeur 1983). Other arguments contend that the actual use of force weakens the authority of the police by pre-empting negotiated solutions to conflicts and provoking sometimes serious opposition to the police (Monjardet 1996). Nonetheless, the concept of police necessarily includes the availability of legitimate force.

1. Police Systems

The long neglected comparative history of the relations between the police and politics has been reinvigorated by major studies since the 1980s (Bayley 1985, Liang 1992, Emsley 1999). In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, professional police, paid by public funds, appeared. In the more developed parts of continental Europe, the purposes of the police were to secure the institutions of the state, enforce the law and the decisions of the ruler, and to protect propertied classes and property, both public and private, against criminals, calamities, and disturbances. In the English experience, except in London where the Metropolitan Police was established in 1829 by Act of Parliament, the modern police emerged from the office of constable, a medieval institution with equivalents elsewhere in Europe, who was charged with public tranquility at the local or parish level (Emsley 1996). In the United States, policing developed first at the local and state levels but, in the twentieth century, there was a proliferation of law enforcement agencies at the Federal level (Federal Bureau of Investigation, Drugs Enforcement Administration, Secret Service, etc.). However, the Federal agencies, in terms of numbers of police officers, constitute only a small proportion of the whole.

A distinction is made, sometimes too sharply, between an Anglo-American and a European ‘continental’ tradition of police–government relations (Mawby 1990). In general terms, hierarchically organized police forces controlled directly by a central government minister were characteristic of the most powerful continental European states. Mutual suspicion has often characterized police and politicians’ attitudes on either side of the Anglo-American/continental European divide. The centralized systems have been regarded in Britain and the United States as instruments, often improperly used, in the hands of unscrupulous politicians. Misuse of police forces by the Nazis and other oppressive regimes gives this view credibility. In addition, national police forces are regarded as unwieldy and inefficient organizations. In the opposing European tradition, there has often been frank disbelief that police activities in decentralized systems can be professionally efficient, properly coordinated, and democratically controlled. They are also regarded as vulnerable to the influence of private interests, and as having uneven quality. Although much attenuated, this mutual suspicion has not entirely disappeared.

Differences between police systems have diminished because of a mutual learning process and because of internationalizing influences. Tendencies are apparent towards centralization in the British and some federal systems and to decentralization among the centralized continental systems. In the 1990s the British set up the National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS) to counter the increasing national and international mobility and activity of criminals. Local security plans, local coordination of policing, and more municipal police forces have modified the system of uniform central control. There have been increasing international police contacts and cooperation, and increased commonality of police methods and techniques, which, in turn, have an impact on police organization. The ‘projection outwards’ of police systems to the rest of the world, first through the European colonial empires and then US world influence after World War II, has resulted in hybrid systems and, as in Japan, some ingenious adaptations to local circumstances. Police systems are now distributed along a spectrum of types of organization, rather than based on contrasting models (Marenin 1996, Bayley 1996).

A greater degree of consensus than in the past exists among politicians in the advanced industrial democracies about the proper role of the police. Many of the less economically advanced countries have received assistance particularly from the United States, Britain, and France in police training and methods; they have, as a consequence, attempted to integrate, with varying degrees of success, philosophies about police–political relations. The consensus among the elites of the rich world (now including most electorally important parties of the Left) is that police forces exist to protect the constitutionally public authorities, to uphold the law, and to protect liberties, rights, and property. Direct political interference in police operations is less and less acceptable. Left wing radicals, often influenced by Michel Foucault (Foucault 1995), dissent from this consensus and regard these beliefs as useful myths to uphold an obnoxious status quo.

2. Police Accountability

The elite consensus leaves intact the longstanding problems of how the police ought to be controlled and made accountable. These problems raise the most politically sensitive question concerning the police— ‘who guards the guardians?’—a question first asked in imperial Rome by Juvenal (Satires 6 1), to which there is no universally accepted answer. In recent years, public concern has been voiced about police malpractice, corruption, violence, and intrusion into privacy. The contemporary policy dilemma is how to preserve a degree of professional autonomy for the police, essential for operational efficiency, while making police forces accountable to elected authorities, accountable before the law, and professionally accountable for their competence (Walker 1998, Wilson 2000).

In liberal democratic systems, the principle of accountability to the law and judicial authorities is uncontroversial but the methods of implementing the principle vary between countries and within countries. The police, in general, are subject to the ordinary law but this has been found to provide inadequate redress for complaints about police malpractice. The result is special arrangements for investigating such complaints (Goldsmith 1991). These arrangements are always the focus of political controversy and allegations are often made that the police have operated above or outside the law (Skolnick and Fyfe 1993). The police usually have considerable operational discretion but there are wide variations in the extent to which they are directly controlled by the political authorities.

Systems of political accountability vary along two dimensions—the extent of decentralization and the closeness of control of the police by elected officials. In the continental European systems, direct hierarchical accountability to a minister who is, in turn, answerable to parliament seems to guarantee the clearest lines of democratic accountability. However, these systems tend to generate three kinds of police–political scandals. These are: allegations of improper instructions given to the police to further political or personal interests of a minister; the political covering up of improper actions by police officers, to avoid embarrassment to the government; and improper police actions encouraged by the government, such as a tough law and order policy.

In decentralized and federal systems, political accountability for different police forces is dispersed. In federations, federal, state, and local authorities control different police forces. Improper behavior by police officers or relations between politicians and the police does not, in these systems, tarnish the whole of the police institution. Police malpractice such as institutionalized racism, corruption, and excessive use of force can, however, become endemic locally. In a constabulary system like that in England where the Chief Constables have a high degree of professional independence, democratic accountability may be indirect (and ineffective) through nominated police committees. The greatest difficulties of accountability arise in societies with deep ethnic, social, or religious divisions such as Northern Ireland, Israel, and South Africa, as well as countries with large immigrant minorities with characteristics clearly distinguishable from the host society (Brogden and Shearing 1993, Brewer et al. 1988). In these circumstances, the police inevitably are regarded by the powerless as oppressive instruments of the dominant group.

3. New Issues

Certain policing issues, broadly connected with political accountability, emerged on the political agenda in the last third of the twentieth century, in the highly industrialized democracies. The women’s movement has had considerable influence over the investigation and prosecution of certain forms of crime—rape, violence against women, and pedophilia. The movement has also accelerated the number of women police officers in all highly industrialized democracies. The great political importance accorded to drug abuse, expressed by Presidents Nixon and Reagan’s ‘war on drugs’ and their European emulators, has resulted in considerable diversion of resources into the pursuit of drug traffickers and drug abusers, the development of new and controversial investigatory techniques (controlled delivery, money tracking, intrusive electronic surveillance), and international law agreements.

The introduction of ‘value for money’ financial accounting throughout government has raised new questions about police effectiveness. It has proven politically embarrassing for police agencies, as increased expenditures are rarely reflected in improved clear up rates for crime. The determination to control public expenditure has also created pressures to develop nonstate forms of policing, which had precedents in the period before the establishment of professional police forces. Modern forms were a prominent feature of United States policing since the nineteenth century; such was the fame of the private security firm, Pinkertons, that some Europeans thought it was an official American police department. But private security firms have now become a controversial feature of policing internationally. The political left has been particularly critical of this development because it seems to provide an increased level of protection for the rich, but right wing supporters of national police forces are also very reserved about it (Johnston 1992).

4. Transnationalization Of Policing

Developments in the international system must now be taken into account in the politics of policing because the police function is no longer completely constrained by the doctrine of territorial sovereignty. The establishment of international jurisdictions is changing, and has the potential to change radically the basis of police accountability. Protection of human rights has become a major priority of ‘the international community.’ International judicial protection for these rights is emerging and this erodes state sovereignty. France, for example, was condemned in 1999 by the European Court of Human Rights for torture following the brutal treatment in a police station of a Dutch citizen of African origin.

‘Globalization’ has led to increased concern about international crime in areas such as terrorism, drug trafficking, money laundering, international fraud, traffic in human beings, and disposal of high value stolen goods. International legal instruments have been negotiated, such as the 1989 Vienna Convention on drug trafficking which has direct effects on domestic law enforcement and criminal investigation techniques, such as ‘controlled delivery.’ Also, a certain transnationalization of police has occurred. This commenced as early as 1923 with the setting up of the International Criminal Police Commission, the predecessor of Interpol (Anderson 1989). US Federal law enforcement agencies have posted police officials abroad since the World War II—by the 1980s, the US Department of Drug Administration had over 60 offices in 40 countries (Nadelmann 1993). In Europe, Europol and the Schengen System (the compensatory measures of police and judicial cooperation for the abolition of border controls within the European Union) have gone much further in involving international regional institutions in police cooperation (Anderson et al. 1996). Transnationalization, together with the impact of the information technology revolution, undermines the traditional hierarchies of control (including political control) of the police. Policing is becoming a more knowledge-based, networking activity. In due course, this will transform all aspects of the relationship between police and politics.


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