Police in The Police State Research Paper

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“Police state” is a translation of the German word polizeistaat. The first citation of the term by the Oxford English Dictionary comes from the Times (London) of 1851: “Austria has become more of a police state than before.” The War Illustrated followed suit in 1939: “spies are everywhere; indeed, Germany is the modern exemplification of ‘the police state’ in action.” One way to understand the category of the police state is to frame it in terms of the question of the relationship between the “police” and the “state” (Neocleous 2000). Two, albeit, crude distinctions can be drawn; on the one hand, there are regimes in which the relationship is intimate to the point where the police institution is merely a handmaiden of the state and concerned almost exclusively with the task of executing regime orders; the aim is to protect the regime rather than serve citizens. On the other hand are regimes that claim to operate in such a way as to maintain a distance between the state and the police institution. These two types of regimes correspond, respectively, with non-liberal and liberal political cultures. In liberal political cultures, the police institution is seen as identical with civil society. For example, it has been argued that the source of legitimacy for the British police is a strong moral and emotional identification between the police and the British people: Thus, Reith (1956, p. 287) stressed what he considered to be “the historic tradition that the police are the public and that the public are the police.” This alleged independence of the police from the state is the converse of what happens in police states or totalitarian states.

This research paper summarizes three main issues: First, it examines what is known about the nature of police states. Second, how do police states emerge? Third, it discusses what the police do and how well they do it in the police state. For example, what is the nature of crime in the police state, and what are the technologies of crime control? How reliable is it to assess the effectiveness of the technologies used? Fourth, how do citizens respond to the police state? Were the actions of the police considered “legitimate,” or police states lie outside the consideration of legitimacy? Did citizens live in fear of the police or they expressed popular support for the police?

Problems Of Definition

The emergence of the modern state in Europe was associated with the birth of what has been termed the “well-ordered police state” in the sixteenth century. It is not that police states were unknown prior to this period. Indeed, some scholars make a distinction between the traditional police state and the modern police state, the latter referring to the well-ordered police state and the former describing the state prior to the era of the modern state.

Why are certain regimes classified as “police states”? Stated differently, what is the “police state”? Prima facie, the answer to both questions is straightforward, and many will easily cite examples of such regimes. However, a careful consideration of the literature leads to a more cautious appraisal of the concept, that one cannot simply make a binary categorization of regimes into police states and nonpolice states. Rather it is more useful to speak of a continuum of police statehood, with different regimes (both democratic and nondemocratic) positioned on different points of the continuum: totalitarian regimes at one extreme end of the continuum and (liberal) democratic regimes at the other end. One of the few attempts to engage conceptually with the idea of the police state is Brain Chapman (1970). He set out a number of criteria for measuring the applicability of the police state model.

The first is politicization. This is not to be equated with the idea that the police are political. All police forces, whether in totalitarian or liberal democracies, are political in the sense that they are created by the state and used by the state to maintain law and order. By politicization, Chapman is referring to police involvement in partisan politics and to a situation where police actions are dictated by partisan political considerations rather than the rule of law. Under such circumstances, the vicissitudes of police legitimacy are closely tied up with politics. Second is militarization of the police; rather than relying on the army for armed response where necessary, the police organization chooses to augment the capacity of its riot unit by providing it with armored vehicles and other equipments to enable it to operate independently of the army. This is a deeply problematic criterion, especially when Chapman argues that a state is on the road to becoming a police state if its police force weans itself from the control of the army and operates as an independent state institution (p. 119). There is no liberal democracy in which police operations are under the control or supervision of the army.

Chapman’s third criterion is the Centralization of police services. It is hard to see how can be seen as a distinctive feature of the police state. For example, the structural configuration of a police force does not necessarily correspond to the character of the political culture in that country. Countries such as Belgium and Sweden have centralized police forces, yet they are scarcely the kind of countries we might describe as being totalitarian. A decentralized police institution does not guarantee against the emergence of localized despots, whether such despots are police officers acting on their own or under the dictates of local politicians. The Royal Commission on Police in Britain considered and rejected this approach to defining the police state. The Commission argued that the proper criterion for the police state should be “whether the police are answerable to the law,” and that in the police state, “the government acknowledges no accountability to a democratically elected parliament, and the citizen cannot rely on the courts to protect him” (1962, p. 45). But even this test of police statehood is not without difficulty. For example, it fails to differentiate between formal or procedural accountability and substantive accountability. Police states such as Nazi Germany had a parliament (the Reichstag) which, it was claimed, represented the will of the German public and passed laws to legitimate Nazi actions often in retrospect (The question of legality and its legitimacy will be considered in final part of this research paper).

Finally, Chapman discusses what he labels penetration. This, he asserts, entails an encroachment into the judicial domain, with the police obtaining powers of arrest, supervision, and detention, and a right to inflict penal sanctions outside the control of the normal judicial machinery. It is very hard to claim that this characterization is typical of totalitarian regimes and that such encroachment is alien in liberal democracies, even in the twenty-first century; police forces in all societies are vested with powers of arrest and detention, although the duration of detention before trial varies widely. Nor is it unknown in democratic societies for police to have powers to administer penal sanctions without recourse to the courts. Take the example of Britain: Criminal Justice Act 2003 effectively granted police officers the power of punishment. Specifically, the Act allows officers to issue cautions to certain categories of offenders, a legal provision that has been criticized for its procedural and substantive unfairness (Brownlee 2007).

While dictionary definitions should not drive criminological analysis, a look at the dictionary can often illuminate our grasp of certain concepts. According to the Oxford English Dictionary the meaning of a police state is “a totalitarian state run by means of a national police force, using repressive methods such as covert surveillance and arbitrary arrest and imprisonment to control the population.” Here again, the idea of a national or centralized police force is set out as a feature of totalitarianism, yet it is never entirely clear why centralization should be anathema to democratic governance. Even the notion of “repressive methods” is not without difficulties. Although a liberal democracy, the United Kingdom is considered to be one of the most closely surveilled countries in the world. For example, the City of London has 69 closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras per 1,000 population; Wandsworth, an area of 4.6 miles, has a total of 1,113 CCTV cameras which is far more than the CCTV cameras of police departments of Boston (USA), Johannesburg (South Africa), and Dublin City (Ireland) combined (BBC 2009). This level of surveillance was unparalleled by the experience of Nazi Germany or any other police state.

In the end, all regimes target certain sections of their populations (for example, migrants and suspected terrorists), and embark on elaborate surveillance against them. It may be a bold claim but it may not be delusional to suggest that it is not the fact of particular actions or modes of operation of particular regimes that ipso facto make those regimes totalitarian or police states; many liberal democracies share with totalitarian regimes the use of intensive covert surveillance, imprisonment as a means of control of some sections of their population, and encroach upon the powers of the judiciary. Far more important might be how these technologies are employed and what mechanisms exist for substantive democratic accountability. In other words, deploying the category of police state to label non-liberal states may not help to illuminate the difference between them and liberal states (Neocleous 2000). It is far more useful to pay attention to how the police in both liberal and non-liberal societies treat citizens during everyday encounters. As a dictum, claims to democratic governance “would hardly be allowed to go unchallenged if the police severely restricted public meetings and political demonstrations or resorted readily to physical force and intimation in order to prevent crime” (Bayley 1969, p. 11). Nor is it unreasonable to observe that even within democratic societies, the experiences and perceptions that some sections of society have of the police is akin to what citizens of police states experience. Put colloquially, one person’s democratic state might be another person’s police state.

Emergence Of Police States

The preceding comments about the conceptual challenges in making sense of the category of police state do not mean that such a category is without merit. It has been argued that concepts are the gateway to the empirical world of study for empirical science, and therefore, the effective functioning of concepts is a matter of decisive importance (Blumer 1954). However, one cannot hope to deploy concepts effectively without clarity in their meaning. That is not a task necessarily attempted here; the objective so far has been more modest, and it is to draw attention to the need for further work in order to understand more fully its analytical utility. Nonetheless, there are examples of states in recent history widely described as police states: Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Russia.

Under what conditions do police states emerge? It is difficult to answer this question without the risk of context less generalizations. The coming to power of Stalin and Hitler occurred under completely different conditions. Russian was a relatively backward country, with a weak economy and history of despotic rule. Germany, on the other hand, was a well-developed economy; it had a highly educated population with reasonably strong institutions and a burgeoning democracy. Indeed, as discussed below, Hitler came to power through elections. It is important to expatiate on the Germany situation further, because it demonstrates that economic development and education do not necessarily suppress the emergence of totalitarian rule (Fukuyama 1992).

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, Germany had embarked upon its first experiment with democratic governance, and the experiment had gone spectacularly wrong. Parliament was toothless, unable to check executive power. The rights of workers were not fully recognized and industrialists had mounted strong opposition against moves toward unionized labor, arguing that unionized labor was an impediment to economic growth. Nor could it restrain encroachment upon the civil liberties of some sections of the population, in particular Catholics and Jews, both of which were considered “enemies of the Reich” (Evans 2005). At the same time, extremist political parties were increasingly gaining prominence. These parties tapped into the anxieties and resentment of ethnic Germans who felt increasingly disillusioned by the major economic and social transformation in German society at the time. In many Western societies today, migrants and asylum seekers are easy targets for such anxieties (Bauman 2004). In Germany, Jews were the target; they were seen as the source of all societal problems. Extremist politicians argued for their civil liberties and economic activities to be restricted. Mainstream political parties capitulated. Finally, defeat in the First World War brought economic burdens, and there was also increased violence. The judiciary was a tainted institution, widely perceived as partisan in favor of reactionary elements.

It was within this context that Nazis came to power under the leadership of Adolf Hitler “who possessed one great gift: the ability to move crowds with his rhetoric” (Evans 2005, p. 7). The first electoral success for the Nazis was in September 1930 and July 1932, largely with support from the middle classes which had felt threatened by the election promises of the Communists to restrain capitalism. After various political maneuvers in parliament, Hitler was appointed the head of a new government in 1933. In the initial stages of the development of the police state, there is often a struggle for power and the focus of the regime is to liquidate all forms of organized resistance, both open and secret. Nazi Germany was not an exception. It established an extensive surveillance system that tracked down, arrested, and punished people opposed to it. So effective was this pursuit that the regime succeeded in crushing completely all forms of organized opposition. The Nazis banned all political parties, transforming Germany from a fledging multi-democratic state into a one-party state under the leadership of Hitler. In 1934, a nationwide plebiscite approved a law that made Hitler the Leader and Reich Chancellor; his authority was “total and all-embracing.. .and subject to no checks or controls” (Evans 2005, p. 44).

One of the features of the police state is the dominance of the police in domestic politics. The military tends to occupy peripheral positions. There are at least two interrelated reasons for this state of affairs. First, regimes in police states tend not to have confidence in the military to make the necessary cognitive shift from its raison d’eˆtre of dealing with external threats to that of considering its own people as if they were foreign combatants. Second, police states aspire eventually to establish a world government (Arendt 1968). Consequently, they tend to approach the victims of their foreign aggressive adventures as though they were rebels, and therefore prefer to govern them with the police rather than the military.

The Police State And Crime Control

To understand the effectiveness of the mechanisms of crime control, it is prudent to first consider what law and crime mean under the police state. A key feature of law in democratic societies is that it brings a certain degree of certainty and predictability into aspects of relationships among citizens. The law is also applied prospectively, thereby allowing those subject to power to know in advance when they will be subject to coercion and thus avoiding needless interference in their lives. The opposite is true of police states; unpredictability and uncertainty were the main features of the law both in Germany under Hitler and Russia under Stalin. The law and procedures for its application are always in “continuous flux.”

In Nazi Germany, two states existed contemporaneously: the normative state and the prerogative state (Fraenkel 1941). The former was the formal institutions that existed prior to Hitler coming to power, and were bounded by long-standing rules, laws, and procedures. The Prerogative state was an extralegal institutional arrangement that derived its legitimacy from Hitler. Although initially characterized by conflict and sometimes accommodation, the relationship between the two eventually became one of subjugation; the spirit of the prerogative state permeated the normative state as it abandoned its legal procedures and gave approval to hitherto illegal state actions. Hitler’s word was law, and the legally correct procedure was as he deemed it. At any rate, the courts of the normative state were dominated by Nazi sympathizers; the Nazis disregarded the law, including laws enacted by themselves if this suited their convenience. Within this context is to be expected shifting definitions of crime and their punishments.

Criminologists have long recognized that crimes are social constructions and that there is a great deal of variation between societies in perceptions of crime seriousness. Thus, the kind of behavior, utterance, or dissent that would be tolerated in liberal democratic societies is viewed as criminal in police states. For example, under the Malicious Gossip Law of 1934 in Nazi Germany, it was an offense to make “spiteful or provocative statements” in public against the governing party, to criticize its policies, or complain about suppression of freedoms and civil liberties. Whether the offense was for malicious gossip or not, the social identity of the offender was always an important consideration in determining the swiftness of police response and the severity of sentences by the courts. Thus, Jews, for instance, were punished more severely for criminal offenses that were otherwise overlooked or attracted very lenient sentences if committed by non-Jews.

Once the police state has been established, there is a shift from dealing with the “suspect” to dealing with the “objective enemy” (Arendt 1968). The objective enemy is unlike the suspect in many ways. Suspects are people whose previous and present deeds and “dangerous thoughts” give reason for the state to be suspicious about what they might do. They are people who oppose and desire to overthrow the government, or are believed to have committed crimes. The objective enemy, on the other hand, is the product of government policy irrespective of the orientations of those so defined. The objective enemy is seen as a “carrier of tendencies” considered a threat to the state. The government never runs out of objective enemies because new ones are easily found depending on the circumstances (Arendt 1968). For example, the Nazi regime had well-developed plans for the extermination of the Polish people when the extermination of Jews was near completion (Arendt 1968). This was to involve, among other things, attempts to impose regulations strikingly similar to what had been done before implementing “the final solution”: for example, change of names and the death penalty for racially undesirable marriages, such as those between Germans and Poles (Evans 2005).

The secret police constitute the main channel through which orders of the government are transmitted. In addition to the change from dealing with suspects to attending to objective enemies is a corresponding change from suspected offense to possible crime:

… every thought that deviates from the officially prescribed and permanently changing line is already suspect, no matter in which field of human activity it occurs. Simply because of their capacity to think, human beings are suspects by definition, and this suspicion cannot be diverted by exemplary behavior, for the human capacity to think is also a capacity to change one’s mind. Since, moreover, it is impossible ever to know beyond doubt another man’s heart … suspicion can no longer be allayed if neither a community of values nor the predictabilities of self-interest exist as social realities. (Arendt 1968, p. 430)

The result of this is to create a system of ubiquitous spying, infusing hitherto healthy social relationships with mutual suspicion. Each person feels under constant surveillance; what was once methods employed exclusively for dealing with the population is now the methods that ordinary citizens employ to deal with their neighbors in everyday encounters. As discussed later, however, scholars differ on whether fear, terror, and intimidation were as pervasive as it is often portrayed in popular accounts, or it was the case that citizens freely consented to the decisions and directives of the police.

In the initial years of the establishment of the police state, the focus is primarily upon eliminating all sources of organized opposition. Concern with suspects of possible crimes assumes prominence when the regime is fully established. As the police state enters its last and fully totalitarian stage, it abandons the category of objective enemy and possible crime. The new category of “undesirables” replaces them. Here victims are chosen at random and officially declared unfit to live. In the well-documented case of the Nazis, undesirables included the mentally ill and persons with certain kinds of diseases. This introduction of arbitrariness means that the police state becomes far more efficient in suppressing freedoms; both the innocent and the guilty share the fate of being undesirable. But more importantly, this change in the concept of crime and criminals comes with new methods for law enforcement. Consistent with their task of executing executive orders, it is the responsibility of the police to ensure criminals are punished and undesirables disappear, often without a trace.

The only trace victims leave behind are the memories of those who knew them; a challenging task for the secret police is to ensure that even this trace will disappear with the victims. The Russian secret police, for instance, employed elaborate network analysis of families, friends, and acquaintances of suspects with the aim to eliminating those believed to possess “dangerous memories” of the disappeared. Hannah Arendt has captured this well:

In totalitarian countries all places of detention ruled by the police are made to be veritable holes of oblivion into which people stumble by accident and without leaving behind them such ordinary traces of former existence as a body and a grave. Compared with this newest invention for doing away with people, the old-fashioned method of murder, political or criminal, is inefficient indeed. The murderer leaves behind him a corpse, and although he tries to efface the traces of his own identity, he has no power to erase the identity of his victim from the memory of the surviving world. The operation of the secret police, on the contrary, miraculously sees to it that the victim never existed at all. (Arendt 1968, pp. 434–435)

In common with their counterparts in democratic societies, the lifeblood of police work in the police state is information from the public. Two decades of empirical analyses of police legitimacy have shown that cooperation with police forces rests mainly on the perceived legitimacy of the police (Tyler 1990). Police states and their secret police forces were fully aware of this role of legitimacy in securing the flow of intelligence, and they devoted much energy and resources cultivating legitimacy among their publics. In Nazi Germany, the Gestapo relied upon the assistance of the German public, and there is strong evidence to show that many Germans responded positively, denouncing their neighbors, colleagues, and relatives to the secret police. The police in the police state also rely heavily on extensive networks of informers, both impressed and voluntary informers (Chapman 1970). The use of informers is not exclusive to police states; it is a technique that is also widely used by law enforcement agencies in democratic societies (Natapoff 2009). But informers are not always reliable sources of intelligence. The police therefore seek to operate their own sources of intelligence gathering by infiltrating areas of social and political life. Again, the strategy of infiltration is as much a practice of police states as it is of democratic states.

The police in Nazi Germany were effective in destroying initial opposition to the regime and subsequently perceived enemies and undesirables such as Jews and social outsiders. Levels of petty criminality were however comparable to those that pertain in democratic societies. Johnson (2011) has shown that a large proportion of Germans committed crimes on a frequent basis, without much fear of being detected and punished. The reason for that situation was not ineffectiveness by the police; on the contrary, it was because the police prioritize other crimes over petty street-level offenses.

Citizens And The Police State

How do citizens react to police states? This question divides historians of Germany under Hitler and Russia under Stalin, the two quintessential cases of police state in the twentieth century. There are two broad schools of thought.

One school of thought holds that citizens consented voluntarily to the police state. Some studies have produced evidence to show that the Gestapo, for example, was a much smaller organization than it was often thought. Hitler was “so immensely popular among most Germans that intimidation and terror were rarely needed to enforce loyalty” (Johnson and Reuband 2005, p. 329). Gellately (1990) cites election results in support of a view that the Nazi regime was popular among the German people. The coercion the regime applied was aimed at only a small proportion of minorities but that was even done with the approval of the majority of the population. Apart from election results, the other reason for the claim that citizens did not experience the police state as an “all knowing, all powerful, and omniscient” is the size of the secret police. The ratio of secret police to citizens is estimated at 1 per 10,000 residents in the cities of the Third Reich, and usually with extremely limited presence in rural areas (Johnson 2011). The secret police, it is said, were after all not always well resourced, and therefore could not be said to have relied systematically on terror and coercion to induce citizen compliance. As further evidence, scholars argue that the reaction of the ordinary population was that of voluntary supply of information through denunciation of neighbors (Johnson 2011).

A second school of thought contends that police organizations of police states were omnipresent and omnipotent, and that they employed arbitrary powers, repressive tactics, and unimaginable brutality against citizens. Consequently, citizens lived in fear and terror, mindful of the potentially ruthless repercussions from the police. Elections, it is argued, lacked integrity and therefore a poor measure of popular attitudes toward the police state. Far from being a society of “self-policing,” terror was widespread. The Nazis regularly publicized executions, court proceedings, and sentences. The aim of the publicity was to deter potential offenders from underestimating the risk of being caught and punished (Evans 2005).

It is fair to say that police states thrived upon a mixture of coercion and terror, and popular support both from within the security forces and the general population. There is no evidence throughout history to show that any regime relied exclusively on its ability to physically intimidate its subjects or citizens into obedience, not even the most “unjust and blood-minded dictatorship” (Fukuyama 1992, p. 16). The Nazis, for instance, “did not just seek to batter the population into passive, sullen acquiescence. They also wanted to rouse it into positive, enthusiastic endorsement of their ideals and their policies, to change people’s minds and spirits and to create a new German culture that would reflect their values alone” (Evans 2005, p. 118). The question that rises is whether one can speak of legitimacy under totalitarian regimes. It is a question that recalls a long-standing debate among scholars. Social scientists approach legitimacy (that is, recognition of the moral rightness of power) within the particular historical societies rather than universally. They are fully aware that what makes power legitimate in one society may differ from others, and that the conditions for legitimacy in one may be repudiated by another. This approach does not require the social scientist to make any judgment about the appropriateness or otherwise of the social order she investigates. A clear implication of this line of thought is that it is possible for a researcher to conclude that a police organization is legitimate in the empirical sense (that is, it finds wide moral acceptance among citizens) and yet for that researcher to believe that that organization is deeply unjust or even “evil.”

It is on this conclusion that moral philosophers and some political scientists depart from Max Weber. For them, legitimacy relates to whether by some objective standards of ethical evaluation, a claim to legitimacy can be recognized as valid. The contention is that one cannot simply reduce legitimacy to a matter of fact, the fact that citizens hold a certain belief about a regime. On the contrary, the concept should signify a normative evaluation of the correctness of the procedures, the justification for decisions, and the fairness with which regimes treat their subjects (Grafstein 1981). The full implication of this approach is that there is a need to connect analysis of legitimacy to theories about justice (Bottoms and Tankebe 2012). That is a discussion beyond the scope this research paper. The point to note here, however, is that a focus on the public actions or behavior of citizens as the measure of their reactions to a regime, especially one that exercises unrestrained power, is unlikely to tell the whole story about power relations; indeed, it is likely to lead to the erroneous conclusion that “subordinate groups endorse the terms of their subordination and are willing, even enthusiastic, partners in that subordination” (Scott 1990, p. 4). What is known so far about the reactions of citizens to police states offers no assurance against this error.


It is commonplace to read from newspapers, and even from scholarly work, that some democratic societies are on a pathway to becoming police states. Such claims often arise from evidence that those states have undertaken certain measures to facilitate a greater surveillance of the population or a section of that population (e.g., the US Patriot Act and the UK CONTEST strategy for counterterrorism) and other forms of intrusion into private liberties of citizens. By any account, these are poor indicators of the police state; no state, democratic and totalitarian, can hope to respond effectively to threats in the modern world without some level of surveillance of (some) its population.

The absence of conceptual clarity regarding the category of police state suggests that the greatest immediate need in assessing the utility of that category has to start with attempts to clarify its meaning. It appears that criminology can contribute toward that endeavor from two interrelated standpoints. First is to return to Edwin Sutherland’s well-known definition of criminology as the study of “the processes of law-making, of law-breaking, and of reacting to the breaking of laws” (Sutherland 1939, p. 1). At the heart of this triumvirate is the question of power, and how it is exercised. A second and related issue is for criminology to engage with the political science literature with the aim of procuring a proper understanding of democracy. That literature suggests that democratic societies are characterized by a universalistic ideological claim about human equality, that all human beings are of equal worth and therefore entitled to equal respect and treatment. Consequently, any exercise of power must do so with respect for the principles of individual liberty and equality. Democratic societies attempt to achieve this through mechanisms of democratic accountability of the police, including external oversight of police institutions that is independent of government. How effectively such oversight works is open to debate. What is true is that democracies differ from police states on this check on police power, and it is here that the search for conceptual clarity should begin.


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