Ben Bowling is a Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the Dickson Poon School of Law, King’s College London. He has acted as a specialist advisor to the UK Government, the European Commission and the United Nations, and is a founding member of the Stopwatch research and action group for fair and accountable policing. His All Souls Seminar focused on his forthcoming chapter in the 5th edition of ‘The Politics of the Police’ (a preview of which is available here), global policing in practice, and the issue of democratic accountability.

A recording of this talk is available here.

Professor Bowling began by giving some context to his chapter. The first edition of ‘The Politics of the Police’ was published in 1985. It represented a first attempt at a policing textbook in Britain, bringing together all academic writing on the police up to that point—a feat which is no longer possible, given how much the field has grown. Each successive edition of the book has attempted to reflect societal changes. The 2nd edition (1992) reflected a more relaxed political climate, and the 3rd (2000) edition examined major transformations in policing and the study of policing, emphasising the concept of policing as crime control. The 4th edition (2010) had to be adapted to its significantly changed social and economic context. There were, however, some weaknesses. The issues of privatisation and militarisation in policing were neglected, as were the detective function and high policing (undercover and intelligence work). There was further neglect of the historical influence of colonial policing and the emergence of transnational policing. These are the gaps that the forthcoming edition aims to fill.

Professor Bowling then moved on to the chapter in question. The core argument of the book is that policing is the aspect of social control that is directed at identifying and rectifying conflict and is achieved through surveillance and use of legitimate force. He points out the paradox demonstrated in the use of these coercive methods as they represent a morally dubious means by which to achieve peace. This paradox is resolved by the representation of the police as reflecting the will of the people. The second issue is that ‘not all that is policing lies with the police’ as there exists sources of order and safety outside of police control, including political economy, society, and culture. Policing in a just society, therefore, should be focused on informal social control and minimising interventions, so that when intervention does occur, it is fair, effective, and legitimate.

It is important to move beyond the domestic context in order to understand the political consequences of globalisation. The sources of crime in 1985 were understood to be domestic, gearing policy discussions to the local and national levels; today, the agenda is much more transnational, including issues such as organised crime, terrorism, and missing persons overseas. This development of regional and global crime means simply that criminality is no longer constrained by state borders, so law enforcement also needs to stretch beyond local boundaries. While Professor Bowling agreed there is some logic to this argument, the reality is more nuanced: transnational policing is not new. Colonialism spread the European form of policing across the globe. Indeed, one of Professor Bowling’s other research interests is the policing of the Caribbean, which developed initially from British occupation—providing an early example of a transnational policing network.

The parochial governance of the nineteenth century was focused on maintaining the social order of the nation state within the international state system. This began to change through the globalisation of politics after the second world war—key examples include the founding of institutions such as the United Nations, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. There was also a growth in regional organisations, such as the European Union, and non-state actors including NGOs, multinational corporations, and international banks.

While many equate policing with crime control, another important aspect is public order, such as the management of post-conflict situations or natural disasters; the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami created the largest international policing operation in history, involving 700 officers from 30 countries, identifying and repatriating more than 3,000 bodies. Here, the importance of International Liaison Officers becomes clear.

Professor Bowling’s chapter examines transformations in policing at all socio-spatial levels: international, regional, subregional, and national. He first discussed the globalisation of local policing. A pertinent example is the 2018 Skripal affair, as part of which Wiltshire police investigated the Novichok poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal, a matter of both national and international security. They relied on support from the metropolitan police’s anti-terrorism unit, the intelligence services, and the military in an operation which included detective work in both the UK and Russia. Other crimes are inherently transnational, such as drug smuggling and human trafficking, and require a transnational mindset to manage.

Professor Bowling then turned to the issue of a national police force in the UK. Since the 1990s, regional crime squads were increasingly built into a national network, which eventually became the National Crime Agency (NCA). Nationalisation is justified on the basis of local units lacking the capacity to deal with serious incidents alone, as demonstrated by the Skripal case. Central hubs are also required to respond to requests for information regarding suspects wanted overseas—a key function of the NCA. National policing has therefore become a crucial link with international policing.

There are a number of regional policing agencies; indeed, every region of the world has a pan-continental policing organisation. They store information, strategise responses, and have shared tactical capacity, databases, and training programmes. The European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation (EUROPOL) represents the most advanced and ambitious attempt at international policing cooperation, consisting of intelligence capacities and a variety of specialist units. Although sometimes described as the ‘European FBI’, it has no enforcement powers, instead relying on the cooperation of member states’ police forces.

The International Criminal Police Organisation (INTERPOL) represents arguably the only global policing brand. INTERPOL, in its current form, was revived in Paris in 1946. Its structure reflects that of an intergovernmental organisation, however, as it was founded by police chiefs (and therefore below state level), it could be considered a transnational policing network. Crucially, INTERPOL has autonomy from its constituent states and policing organisations. Policing is seen as disconnected from politics, responding to a necessary, technical matter, allowing for a more efficient response. Alongside this, the United Nations Police (UNPOL) consists of around 13,000 Police Officers from over 90 countries deployed on 18 missions across the globe; it has ambitious development plans to coordinate with INTERPOL to ‘develop a global policing doctrine’.

Crucial in this global framework are Overseas Liaison Officers. The role emerged in the USA, and now exists worldwide. They have been described as ‘police diplomats’, working out of embassies and directing information internationally. They are the first point of contact for visiting officers and represent the ‘oil and glue’ of transnational policing. However, their reliance on horizontal trust-based relationships arguably creates an unaccountable elite, representing a new form of governance.

In theory, the police only have coercive powers in their own jurisdiction; however, in practice, there have been attempts by police to arrest outside their jurisdiction, particularly in terror-related cases. Notable is the case of Khalid El-Masri, a German citizen, who was abducted by the Macedonian police on behalf of the CIA and tortured at a black site in a case of mistaken identity. The American courts refused to hear his case; however, he was awarded compensation by the European Court of Human Rights, which condemned the actions of both Macedonia and the CIA. Clearly, policing is no longer embedded in the sovereign nation state, and therefore new conceptions of accountability are required; this is covered in another chapter of the book.

Professor Bowling concluded that globalisation is reshaping the politics of the police, as they move from an integral machinery of government to an international concern. His talk examined the transnational shaping of policing activity across socio-spatial levels. While the work of the police is still, for the most part, local public interaction, behind this is a far-reaching change in the nature of police work as the global begins to reach deep into local communities. These conclusions raise in turn further questions, such as those regarding international environmental or corporate crime, how the changing role of the police affects their service duty, or how we ensure efficiency, accountability, and fairness in global policing. Most importantly, how can we be sure state coercive powers are deployed for the public good?

Questions to Professor Bowling focused on issues of privatisation in global policing and the role of multinational corporations in global surveillance—both of which are covered in other chapters of the book). He also provided some suggestions for future research, which included theoretical work on accountability and the role of NGOs, cyber pluralisation, and international comparative work.


Post by Toni Brunton-Douglas

Current MSc Criminology and Criminal Justice Student