The Canadian Review of Policing Research (2005)

ISSN: 1710 6915


James Sheptycki

James Sheptycki has a doctorate in criminology from the London School of Economics. He teaches in the Division of Social Sciences at York University, Toronto, and his current research concerns illicit guns and criminal networks. He can be reached at


In the year 2000, I published an edited collection entitled Issues in Transnational Policing.1 The intention of the book was to bring the processes of ‘transnationalization’ into focus for the benefit of scholars interested in policing. Transnationalization is used here to describe processes and practices that transgress national boundaries. Transnational policing concerns those forms of policing which take place across national boundaries. There is no form of policing which, in principle, cannot involve processes and practices that extend across national boundaries. Indeed, in a globalizing world, where the boundaries between the internal and external security of states are becoming increasingly blurred, it is now often the case that policing is tinged with a transnational aspect.

This short review explores a few themes from my work over the past five years. It proceeds under several headings. Firstly, it explores the theorization and conceptualization of transnational policing. Next, it critically assesses the concept of “transnational organized crime”, a concept which has lent much urgency to the discourse on transnational policing. After that, attention is turned to “policing with intelligence” or, as it has become fashionably known in some circles, “intelligence-led policing”. In the final section some attention is paid to the accountability issues that pertain to the transnationalization of policing.

Transnational Policing

What is transnational policing? In order to answer this, the scholar must draw on a variety of academic literatures: in criminology and police studies, to be sure, but also international law, international relations, political and social geography and the sociology of the global system. Other disciplines including anthropology and philosophy can also be drafted in to do some heavy theoretical lifting, but the reasons why such scholarly attention might be important are clearly visible to anyone who takes an interest in current criminological affairs. As I put it in the introduction to my book, Issues in Transnational Policing:

As the violent twentieth century drew to a close, crime panics and concerns about policing featured prominently in the media, as they had over the preceding decades. What had become different was that policing news was global news. It is not just that on any given day we are more likely to be exposed to images of baton-wielding riot police in far-off lands than we are to such images from close to home. Nor is it just because police-related scandals of one sort or another make good news copy the world over and, hence, course easily through the veins of the international news services and have assured television coverage in any and every jurisdiction. It is also that, in the present period, processes of social change, sometimes referred to as ‘globalisation’ are altering the way we live our lives in far-reaching ways. As established patterns of social and political life are rearranged, the way in which its ordering is achieved also changes.2

In this work policing has been conceptualized using an eightfold typology which distinguishes between high and low policing, policing of territory and of populations, and private and public institutional forms. Using these distinctions we arrive at the following table.

This depiction of the “policing field” is commensurate with what David Bayley and Clifford Shearing have described as the “multilateralization” of policing, but it has one significant difference in that it attempts to place those forms of policing associated with national security services and the interests of corporate capital firmly in the frame. Most of the literature on policing which considers its fragmentation have focused on the effects of neo-liberalism, have not made the processes of transnationalization central to the analysis, and have concentrated on “low policing”.3 This literature is illuminating, but it does not tell the full story. Analysts of multilateralized policing have rightly focused on issues of accountability and how to make such policing commensurate with ‘public good’ (about which more below), but they have tended not to grasp the nettle of the transnational security agenda, which focuses on the security threats arising from transnational organized crime and terrorism. As David Bayley noted in his report for the US National Department of Justice, Democratizing the Police Abroad; what to do and how to do it,4 the threat of transnational organized crime (TOC) was a significant driver behind efforts to internationalize US law enforcement during the 1990s. The trope of TOC provided significant impetus to efforts to transnationalize policing in Europe.5

My theorization of the changing morphology of policing institutions, elaborated most extensively in my book, In Search of Transnational Policing,6 attempted to highlight the effects of neo-liberalism and the marketization of security occurring in specific national jurisdictions, together with the rise of transnational governance of security issues. These two processes, one taking place as it were “below” the level of the nation-state, and the other “above” at the level of the transnational state system. While the former set of processes gained a good deal of attention in the academic literature on policing, relatively less attention has been paid to the effects of transnational criminological agenda setting. Up until the declaration of the world-wide war on terrorism by the Bush administration in early 2002, TOC was the principal conceptual device justifying the enhancement of transnational policing.

Transnational Organized Crime

In a number of articles and papers, I developed a substantive critique of the concept of TOC. This was undertaken largely in partnership with scholars interested in the organization of crime, rather than the organization of policing. The critical study of transnational organized crime has attracted quite a few scholars.7 My contribution to these debates focused on how the trope of transnational organized crime provided a plausible functional explanation for the need to further enhance transnational policing. It was a critique of this functional explanation. Although I articulated this critique in a number of articles and book chapters (see the references listed below), it is present in its most developed form in In Search of Transnational Policing.8 In essence, I argued that the official vision of TOC was a distillation of possible forms of transnational organized crime; a construction which emphasized certain types of illegal activity, especially drugs trafficking, and de-emphasised others, for example crimes against the environment. I argued also that, because policy makers had focused so exclusively on the notion of the “Mr. Bigs” of organized crime, the transnational police function had been systematically distorted. Not only have many types of organized enterprise crime been ignored, for example the smuggling of endangered species and the illegal dumping of toxic waste, disorganized transnational crime has also been ignored. Chapter Two of In Search of Transnational Policing provides a content analysis of police intelligence files to show that, at least in north-western Europe, forms of disorganized crime actually require more police resources than does organized enterprise crime.

The critique of TOC also served to highlight several other lacuna in the functional discourse about transnational organized crime and transnational policing, not least of which has been a failure to think about crime prevention and crime reduction. The effect of TOC discourse has been to reinforce the militarization of policing that many policing scholars (for example, Peter Kraska and Peter K. Manning) have observed. Indeed, I argue that TOC discourse has provided a range of transnational platforms of governance (for example, the G8, the OECD, and the UN) with tools to influence the development of national policing systems which are being progressively re-engineered around the “intelligence-led policing” paradigm.

Intelligence-led policing

It is now generally accepted in the scholarly literature that transformations in the institutions of policing have come about partly because of pressures from below (namely, the neo-liberal emphasis on marketization) and from above (namely, the rise in influence of transnational platforms of governance). A third set of pressures coursing within the police institutional complex have added to the mix. This has to do with the rise to prominence of intelligence-led policing (ILP), which is the technological effort to manage information about threats and risks in order to strategically manage the policing mission. Much of my work over the past five years has been devoted to the empirical investigation of how policing intelligence systems work.9 This work was undertaken primarily in the United Kingdom, with some comparative work being done in Canada, the Netherlands and Sweden. Lessons regarding the development of ILP are many and varied. One central concern is to advise caution in the interpretation of strategic criminal intelligence assessments which, due to the organizational pathologies of police intelligence systems, create the appearance of broad strategic analysis while simply recreating a picture of “the usual suspects”. With my colleague Jerry Ratcliffe, I have sought to argue that “the purpose of strategic intelligence analysis is to rise above the already established intelligence routines in order that new types of criminality are identified and priorities for the allocation of scare resources are set accordingly.”10 We argue that:

Existing routines of intelligence collection are determinative of future crime priorities because they habituate processes for the gathering and analysis of information that will highlight today’s crime problems at the possible expense of tomorrow’s. Moreover, existing intelligence routines are entrenched in a law enforcement apparatus that is both inefficient and ineffective, even while it is capable of producing statistics that attest to a modicum of efficiency and effectiveness. In a risk orientated society, the reliance on law enforcement agencies as the primary source of knowledge about organised crime will continue to be a significant barrier to progress. Strategic intelligence may lack validity due to institutional myopia. Specialist units focusing on individual crime phenomena will continue to advertise (often limited) success in a continued battle for scarce resources. If we are to break out of this cycle and produce a new strategic view, it will be necessary to break old habits. Unfortunately old habits die hard.11

Echoing the conclusions to my article in the Canadian Journal of Sociology entitled, “The Governance of Organised Crime in Canada”, it is possible to say that there can be little doubt that during the 1990s the great preponderance of police efforts regarding organized crime (transnational especially, but also within national jurisdictions) was focused on the “usual suspects”, which left wide scope for many other more or less organized criminal actors, especially those in positions of power and/or authority to carry on with impunity.

The accountability of transnational policing

The above concerns lead back to a classic theme in the scholarly literature on policing, which has to do with the accountability of policing. What is being suggested is that national policing systems and systems of transnational police co-operation have been re-engineered around an organized crime paradigm which is significantly out of synch with the needs of the social order, both within national jurisdictions and transnationally. The problem is that the official picture of TOC is given great credence and so state-based policing has been increasingly bent to this enforcement mission. An ever anxious public has sought to overcome feelings of a security deficit by recourse to private security providers. This brings us almost full circle, and we are back to a consideration of the “policing field” as depicted in Table 1.

One of the most prominent theorizations of policing accountability has made use of the nautical metaphor. G overnance has been likened to sailing a boat: during the heyday of 19 th century laissez-faire capitalism, the Night-Watchman State left the steering and the rowing of the boat to civil society; later the Keynesian State attempted to both row and steer; under conditions of global neo-liberalism a presumably happy balance could be struck whereby the rowing could be left to civil society while the New Regulatory State could concentrate on the steering. This view is most associated with the work of the criminologist, Clifford Shearing.

My view is that the pressures previously discussed that are occurring above, within and below make the application of the nautical metaphor problematic. It is possible to see that the pre-existing pieces of the machinery of order are being soldered together anew by these forces. Moreover, the fragments of this transnational policing machine are being assembled according to a pattern that reflects a Manichean battle between certain specified folk-devils and transnational police, and together these symbolically define the new world order. What is apparent is that a chaotic policing system is developing transnationally, which gains only rudimentary coherence because of the well known array of suitable enemies, chief among which are drug traffickers, human smugglers, bootleggers of cigarettes and alcohol, and terrorists. The latter category was less important during the 1990s than it has since become, and other less routine categories surface as matters for transnational police concern from time to time (child kidnapping, for example) but, regardless of what the target is said to be in any given moment, the informational chaos within this internally fragmented transnational policing machine, and the surreal symbolic politics that drive the further development of policing (transnational and otherwise), seem to go against the ideal of democratically accountable policing.

When it comes to crime control policy, politicians and voters alike demand increasing levels of security but every accomplishment seems only to increase the sense of insecurity. Why is this so? To use the nautical metaphor employed by theorists of neo-liberal governance, one answer is that there are too many hands on the tiller to steer the boat. Moreover, there are lots of boats and each boat has more that one tiller. Police agencies are steered by a complex array of citizen’s groups, police quasi-unions, civilian review boards, various departments of municipal, state-provincial, national and transnational governance, as well as private corporate interests and the mass media. All compete to set the direction and tone of social controlling, using the tools available to them. The result is that policing policy is in disarray.

Politicians promise zero tolerance, but in response to local citizen sentiment or financial pressures, middle managers in police organisations create, often through displacement, “zones of tolerance” for street-level drug dealing and prostitution. Citizen review processes intended to make policing accountable to civil society are said to hinder the operational freedom of police and hence their effectiveness. Ever doubtful about the effectiveness of public police, citizens purchase their own private security. Governments at every level advocate putting more police on patrol but, at the same time, re-organize and centralize policing systems around the intelligence-led policing paradigm that puts more and more officers behind desks analysing criminal intelligence. The news media amplify citizen fear of crime, even as it informs everyone that across many countries in the developed world at least, crime rates are down (with sometimes the subtle suggestion that police budgets should follow suit). All the while there are a host of private security providers with business plans of their own. Transnational policing efforts continue to fight the war on drugs, while paying scant attention to other social harms perpetrated by criminal entrepreneurs, such as gun smuggling and the transport and disposal of toxic waste. Chaos reigns, but not quite. To elaborate on the nautical metaphor, these many boats floating in the sea of (in)security lack purposeful steerage because there are too many hands on the tillers. But the winds of history are blowing these drifting boats and, all the signs are, that it is towards authoritarianism.


The author’s publications follow in reverse chronological order.

Sheptycki, James. 2004. “From Detection to Disruption: Intelligence and the Changing Logics of Police Crime Control in the United Kingdom”, with Martin Innes, University of Surrey, in the International Criminal Justice Review, vol. 14.

______________. 2004 . Review of the influence of strategic intelligence on organized crime policy and practice , London: 2004, 45 pp.

______________. 2004. “Organizational pathologies in police intelligence systems; some contributions to the lexicon of intelligence-led policing”, in The European Journal of Criminology, vol. 1, no. 3, 2004, pp. 307-332.

______________. 2004. “Tackling organized vehicle crime; the role of NCIS”, with Rick Brown, Ronald V. Clark, and Bernard Rix, Home Office Research Findings Paper No. 238, 2004, 6 pp.

______________. 2004. ‘The Accountability of Transnational Policing Institutions: The Strange Case of Interpol”, The Canadian Journal of Law and Society, vol. 19, no. 1, 2004, pp. 107-134.

______________. 2004. “Reflections on the relationship between transnational policing and organized crime”, in Punishment, Places and Perpetrators; developments in criminology and criminal justice research, Gerben Bruinsma, Henk Effers and Jan de Keijser (eds.), Devon: Willan Publishing, (2004), pp. 138-152.

_____________. 2004. “Setting the Strategic Agenda”, with Jerry Ratcliffe, Temple University, Philadelphia, in Strategic Thinking in Criminal Intelligence, Annadale, NSW: The Federation Press, 2004, pp. 194-210.

_____________. 2003. ‘The Governance of Organised Crime in Canada”, The Canadian Journal of Sociology, vol. 28, no. 3, 2003, pp. 489-517.

_____________. 2003. “Global law enforcement as a protection racket; some sceptical notes on transnational organised crime as an object of global governance”, in Transnational Organised Crime; perspectives on global security, A. Edwards and P. Gill (eds.), London: Routledge 2003, pp. 42-59.

_____________. 2003. “Against Transnational Organized Crime”, in Critical Reflections on Transnational Organized Crime, Money Laundering and Corruption, Margaret Beare (ed.) Toronto: Toronto University Press, 2003, pp. 120-144.

_____________. 2002. In Search of Transnational Policing, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002.

____________. 2002. “Criminal Justice System Reponses to Organised Crime in the UK’ in Organized Crime; a catalyst in the Europeanisation of National Police and Prosecution Agencies?, M. den Boer (ed.), Maastricht: European Institute of Public Administration, pp. 507-559, 2002.

____________. 2002. «Le problème de la responsabilité et de l’action policière sous tous ses aspects, pour une cartographie générale de la responsabilité en matiere de police à l’ére post-moderne»; Cultures et Conflits, no. 48, hiver 2002, pp. 81-108.

____________. 2002. “Accountability Across the Policing Field: Towards a General Cartography of Accountability for Post-Modern Policing”, Policing and Society Special Issue on Police Accountability in Europe, guest editor Monica den Boer, vol. 12, no. 4, 2002, pp. 323-338.

___________. 2001. “Patrolling the New European (In)security Field; organisational dilemmas and operational solutions for policing the internal borders of Europe”, European Journal of Crime, Criminal Law and Criminal Justice, vol. 10, no. 2, 2001, pp. 144-158.

__________. 2000. Issues in Transnational Policing, London: Routledge, 2000, 241 pages.

End Notes

1. James Sheptycki, Issues in Transnational Policing, London: Routledge, 2000.

2. Ibid p. xii.

3. See for example, Dennis Cooley’s excellent collection, Re-Imagining Policing in Canada, University of Toronto Press, 2005.

4. US Department of Justice, 2001.

5. See for example, my articles in the European Journal of Crime, Criminal Law and Criminal Justice, vol. 10, no. 2; den Boer’s book, Organized Crime: a catalyst in the Europeanisation of National Police and Prosecution Agencies, European Institute of Public Administration, 2002; and the book by Bruinsma et al, Punishment, Places and Perpetrators: developments in criminology and criminal justice research, Devon: Willan Publishing, 2004.

6. James Sheptycki, In Search of Transnational Policing, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002.

7. See Edwards and Gill, Transnational Organised Crime: perspectives on global security, Routledge, 2003; and Beare, Critical Reflections on Transnational Organized Crime, Money Laundering and Corruption, University of Toronto Press, 2003.

8. In Search of Transnational Policing, especially pages 114-130.

9. For example, United Kingdom, Home Office, Special Interest Paper No. 14; and articles in the European Journal of Criminology; the International Criminal Justice Review and the Canadian Journal of Sociology .

10. Jerry Ratcliffe and James Sheptycki, “Setting the Strategic Agenda”, in Strategic Thinking in Criminal Intelligence, Annadale, NSW: The Federation Press, 2004, p. 204.

11. Ibid p. 207.