POLICING IN CENTRAL AND EASTERN EUROPE: Comparing Firsthand Knowledge with Experience from the West,
© 1996 College of Police and Security Studies, Slovenia


Arianit Koci
The social and political transformations happening in central and eastern Europe have further enhanced the debate on comparative policing theories. The academic debate has been more or less confined to the theoretical approach, whereas the practitioners have been going ahead with the exchange of experience and technical assistance on a purely pragmatic basis, i.e. the necessity to combat crime. This became a volatile political issue and many governments were too eager to prove that they could curbe and control this social phenomenon considered to be very dangerous to the newly fledged democracies they were striving to construct.

The societies of central and eastern Europe have passed the period of transition. In the realm of policing, the issue would appear not to be to curbe crime by whatever means, but instead to establish the democratic means of policing. This has been one of the prime issues during the second electoral campaigns in some countries, such as Albania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland and Russia, and will most likely be the same in Lithuania. Thus, the question whether policing in CEEC should be moulded according to western models or established as a `culturally sensitive' one has become as demanding as ever.

The primary objective of this paper is to outline the contributions of these approaches. I intend to examine the prerogatives, criteria and conclusions, as well as the contribution of other writers to each theory. The second objective will be to point out what the theories have in common and their overlaps. The reason for this distinction lies in the fact that the theories share many similar concepts and methodological analysis, but they differ in their emphasis, i. e. legitimacy or culture. In the third part of the paper I will analyse the impact of the theories on the attempts for transformational change in central and eastern Europe. The paper will conclude with the observation that despite the relative scarcity of research and publication in this area of policing studies, the theories developed provide a useful background for further progress in the field of comparative policing.


The social and political transformations occurring in central and eastern Europe have enhanced the debate on comparative policing theories. The prevailing question has been how these countries could develop a policing system which would take on board their social, cultural and political-specific characteristics and at the same time gain from the positive aspects of policing models found in west Europe and North America. Police in the new democracies of central and eastern Europe do not necessarily have to `do what the West did best', but could perhaps implement some of the successful policies into their own socio-political environment.

Questions regarding policing transformation are also the concern of practitioners. Whereas the academic debate has been more or less confined to the theoretical approach, practitioners have been proceeding with the exchange of experience and technical assistance on a purely pragmatic basis, i.e. the perceived necessity to combat crime. Crime became a volatile political issue in the `post socialist' countries, and many governments would seem to have been eager to show that they could curb and control this social phenomenon for the purpose of stability in the newly fledged democracies they were striving to construct.

Issues of policing change in European `post - socialist' countries appear to be developing around two well established approaches of comparative policing. The first could be called a `legitimation approach' as it employs the notions of legitimacy, structure and function to categorise policing systems into specific models. The prime representatives of this would seem to be Brewer, Gregory and Mawby. The second approach emphasises the cultural aspect of the community policed as being the primary basis in developing a policing model. It is therefore referred to here as a `culturalistic approach', developed it is suggested mainly by Bayley, Brogden and Shearing.

There is, however, a difference in the perceived priorities of police reform in central and eastern European countries and this has been raised in the works of Finszter (1994) and Vigh (1995). They argue that the backwardness of technology which the police inherited from the `socialist' regime has handicapped its capability of effectively fighting crime. Accordingly, `modernisation' of the force through the introduction of advanced technology would appear to be a legitimate means of police reform. However,`value-for-money' policing, is also accepted without too many reservations because it provides a financial accountability which these police forces so greatly need. Further, although the policing systems in central and eastern Europe may have common characteristics with the continental model of policing, their economic, cultural and socio-political conditions dictate different priorities of policy development which must be taken into consideration.

It is for these reasons that the study of policing in central and eastern European countries should not simply be about model transferance, but focus on the culturalistic approach of the changes occurring in these societies and in the police itself. The issue is not which system or model is better, but how to transform these policing services in the face of broader economic, social and political transformations.

The primary objective of this paper is to outline the contributions these approaches make to the current debate concerning policing change in European `post - socialist' countries. Secondly, it considers their similarities and overlaps. The approaches share many similar concepts and methodological analyses, but differ in their emphasis on legitimacy and culture as the main prerogatives of studying policing systems. Thirdly, the paper contains an analysis of the impact these approaches have had towards understanding transformational change in these countries. The paper concludes with an observation that despite the relative lack of research and publications in this area of comparative policing studies, the approaches outlined do provide a useful ground for further study in this field.


Issues of police legitimacy have been a focusing point of a considerable number of studies in the last twenty years. The question of how police acquire legitimacy is of fundamental importance to understanding its relationship with the state and society in general. Brewer et al. (1988) argues that the necessity for legitimation derives from the prevalence of conflict in society and the arbitrary nature of the state. He says that `the state derives its legitimacy from its representation as the embodiment of broadly-agreed values and the neutral and equal application of the rules governing acceptable political conduct' (Brewer et al., 1988:214). This Weberian notion also implies that the state is `the monopolisation of legitimate force in its territory. The police are the domestic specialists in the exercise of legitimate force' (Reiner, 1992:762). However, more often than not, the state behaves as a `dispassionate arbiter of conflict' and delegates `authority to institutions that mediate conflict, notably the police' (Brewer et al., 1988:214).

In its role as `mediator of conflict' in society police have to strike a very fine balance. Although its legitimacy derives from that of the state, the police have a duty to maintain this legitimation through providing a service to society. If it fails to do so, it also undermines the legitimacy of the state. It is from these premises that the legitimation approach starts its analysis of policing systems. A distinctive description of the approach is best summarised by Mawby when he says that:

`...we mean by the police an agency which can be distinguished in the terms of its legitimacy, its structure and its function. Legitimacy implies that the police are granted some degree of monopoly within society by those with power to so authorise,... Structure implies that the police is an organised force, with some degree of specialisation and with a code of practice within which legitimate use of force is specified. Finally, function implies that the role of the police is concentrated on the maintenance of law and order and the prevention and detection of offences' (Mawby, 1990:3).

Mawby specifies that legitimacy is `granted' to the police by `the elite within society, an occupying power or the community as a whole' (Mawby, 1990:3). The comprehensive nature and the validity of the terms used to depict the legitimising powers is outside the scope of this paper, and we can describe these forms of legitimacy respectively as legitimation from above, legitimation by force and legitimation from below. The term `elite within society' is not self- explanatory as it could imply a small group of decision-makers who in different countries are represented by different groups of people. However, the nature of policing could be described as malign or benign depending upon the extent to which the interests of the `elite group' are representative of the community as a whole.

Fosdick's (1969) analysis of the police systems in the Continent (Europe), provides a descriptive examination of the way in which police in France and Germany acquired legitimation from above, i.e. the state. According to him, by the beginning of the nineteenth century police in these countries covered the whole process of internal administration, but `after a long process of delimitation, police activity has come to be one of the phases of internal administration than the entire internal administration itself' (Fosdick, 1969: 24). Its legitimacy was granted on the basis of performing a service which was considered to be in the common interest of society. However, as the policing tasks were gradually narrowed to embrace mainly law and order and crime fighting duties, it became apparent that legitimation from above was not sufficient any more. Nevertheless, it retained the traditional concern of seeking legitimation of its activity from the guarantors that provided it. This kind of policing which was and still is arguably prevailing in West Europe is commonly referred to as continental policing. This policing model is legitimised and controlled by central government. It is centralised, armed and with a military structure, and in addition to crime its responsibilities include political and administrative functions (Fosdick, 1969).

In cases when legitimacy is provided by an occupying power, it can hardly claim the consent of the population it occupied. This method of policing was mainly used in the colonised areas of the British Empire. The police were highly coercive and militarised. When the legitimation of policing is provided by the community as a whole, it is referred to as policing by consent. This kind of policing is benign, proactive, decentralised and unarmed. The English police is often quoted as being the epitomy of policing by consent although this assertion has been under dispute in the last ten years (Bowden, 1978, Brewer, 1992, Mawby, 1990, 1995, Reiner, 1992).

The study of a police system in terms of its legitimacy led to a review of the historical, political and sociological aspects of society which conditioned the emergence of police and shaped its functions. With the police being a `ubiquitous element of all political systems' (Bowden, 1978:210), its study intertwined the examination of social conflicts and political upheavals which necessitated the establishment of such an organisation. Alderson (1985) attributes the emergence of the state police in Germany during the eighteenth century to the political and social turmoil prevailing in the country as a result of the thirty years war. `Following the devastation of the Thirty Years War, the reforms of Frederick William of Prussia no doubt came to the people as a blessing. The yearning for order and security transcended notions of liberty and freedom' (Alderson, 1985:16). In post-revolutionary France of the nineteenth century, fear of coup d'état and other revolutionary upheavals made possible the emergence of a highly centralised police, which apart from public order and crime fighting duties had a clearly defined political character in safeguarding the regime (Stead, 1984).

There is less agreement among the academics about the reasons for the existence of a benign community policing in England. The debate on this topic has evolved round two main arguments. The first argument upholds the view that the existence of common law was the basis for the rise of a civilian force which would maintain law and order and seek its legitimation from the community it was serving (Fosdick (1969), Alderson (1985), Gregory (1985), Thomaneck (1985), Fowler (1979). The proponents of second argument do not deny the difference between the Roman Law operating in the Continent and the Common Law operating in England as being one of the reasons for the contrast between the policing employed in Europe and England. Nevertheless, they emphasise that it was the strong opposition to the adoption of a centralised and arbitrary system of policing which was responsible for the emergence of the decentralised and locally accountable forces in this country (Mawby, 1990; 1995; Bayley, 1977, Brewer et al., 1988).

I mentioned earlier that the methods and means of acquiring legitimation in policing decide its structure and functions. This implies that when there is a change in the social and political factors leading to a legitimacy deficit or a shift in the application of the methods for acquiring legitimation, this, in turn, is matched by the changes in structure and functions of police. The riots of 1980's and early 1990's in England are a case in point. They demonstrated the existence of a legitimacy deficit on the part of the state. This had a negative impact on the legitimation of police and sparked a radical change in police structure, for example, the emergence of Special Patrol Groups and other public order units. As a result of these riots, the methods and tactics of dealing with public disorder underwent a substantial revision, (King and Brearley, 1996) and these revisions were still felt by protesters to be politically motivated.

There is another aspect to the impact of legitimacy upon the structure and functions of police. This is related to the efforts of the state in upholding and protecting the shared values and norms of society by waging a fierce campaign against the perceived criminal activity which threaten the very fabric of society. The urge to protect society's security has always been considered as the main motivation for the developments of specialist law enforcement units in fighting drugs trafficking, terrorism, and organised crime. The extent to which the expertise gained in the fight against criminal activity is channelled towards every day policing has not been established yet. However, some of the consequences have been the increased centralisation of police forces, a high number of covert operations, and secrecy.


Whereas the legitimation approach conducts its analysis of policing systems by examining the impact of policing on the socio-political factors of society, the culturalistic approach focuses its attention on the observation that it is socio-political factors which influence police behaviour and activity. This assertion is supported by the fact that police forces differ from one another in terms of armament, the use of force, efficiency, criteria for recruitment and training, their status in society and the tasks they perform (Bayley, 1977). To the legitimation approach these characteristics are considered to be generic concepts which make up the structure and functions of policing. They are studied in their close correlation to legitimacy. Consequently, the notions of legitimacy, structure and functions of police are examined as socially determined concepts. As well as being shaped from social factors, these concepts exert a significant impact upon society.

What remains to be examined is whether the differences between the characteristics of several police forces, `are simply ingrained habits of a particular organisation or an inevitable result of operating within particular social milieu' (Bayley, 1977:219). This assertion has been implemental to the development of a number of studies which attribute conservatorism, corruption and heavy handedness to police subculture (Stead, 1983). Further attempts to examine the influence of social milieu towards police behaviour and activity have produced commendable works about the policing of US, Japan, Britain and Europe (the Continent). The differences in the patterns of policing between these countries have been attributed to the variations in their culture and history.

Another distinction between the two approaches has been the time span they embrace. The legitimation approach employs a dialectical method of analysis which allows for a continuing investigation of the interrelationship between the legitimacy, structure and function of police. The culturalistic approach, in turn, is metaphysical. It analyses a wider range of issues within a relatively limited time span. This does not necessarily imply a deficiency in the methodology of the approach. The study of a social behaviour towards a pattern of policing in two or more countries involves a profound review of the characteristics of this pattern. It involves the examination of armament, the police role, its recruitment and training criteria, accountability, its relationship to the criminal justice system, the use of force, issues of community policing, and the efficiency of practice. Each characteristic has been researched in terms of the cultural traits and history of the societies concerned. For example, on the issue of arming the police, Bayley (1977, 1994), P. J. Waddington (1988) and Jefferson (1990) provide evidence of the connection between a tradition of an unarmed population and disarmed police force. In Japan the police were armed during the Second World War and have been reluctant to retrieve their weapons since then, despite the fact that Japanese police officers hardly need to use them. In the United States, however, possessing an arm is recognised in the Constitution and it is very hard to realistically consider the possibility of having an unarmed police.

Very often the issues of the role of police, its accountability, efficiency, recruitment and training procedures have been associated with the public attitude towards the authorities. With regard to England and Germany, Fosdick observed that, 'beyond question the predominant public attitude in these countries is an instinctive acquiescence to authority, and to this extent, at least, the task of the police in maintaining order is lightened (Fosdick, 1969:4). In the United States and France, though, the power of authorities have frequently been questioned. This has not normally been the case with Japan where traditional and historical factors command a profound respect for the authorities - although this assertion has increasingly been challenged during the last twenty years.

The extensive analyses and studies on policing carried out by the culturalistic proponents have supplied ample empirical data and theoretical analyses to present some provocative conclusions. In his latest publication on the future of policing, Bayley begins his study with the bold assertion that police does not prevent or stop crime. It cannot engage in a full front attack on crime because it lacks the resources. The answer to these problems does not seem to be the increase of the number of police officers either (Bayley, 1994). The conclusions of Bayley thorough examination of 47 forces in five different developed countries, convey a bleak message of pessimism for the reformers of policing in central and eastern Europe. When both approaches of comparative policing argue that policing in western Europe, North America, Japan and Australia have failed to produce the expected results, the `post socialist' societies of Europe are again left out in the cold.


The socio-political changes in central and eastern Europe have been followed by transformational reforms. Transformations have taken place in the polity, which is reflected in the shift from monism to pluralism. Their economies are increasingly shifting from state control towards the free-market regulators. These societies are undergoing what constitutes `a state of revolution', namely: rapid change of norms and values and, at the socio-ideological level there is a restructuring of social stratification and ideological views as never seen before (Sztompka, 1993).

Political, social and cultural disintegration have additionally raised awareness domestically and internationally about the rise in crime and new routes for criminals and criminal activity `resulting from the newly permeable borders' Gregory, 1994;85). Gregory, for example, has argued that `Lawless regimes provide enhanced opportunities for criminals from both West and East, taking advantage of the minimally controlled borders for crime transit routes between the states' (Gregory, 1994:98). This activity, which now involves `drug trafficking, technological crimes, black marketeering' (Carter, 1992:62, quoted in Gregory, 1994:86), illegal trafficking of immigrants and nuclear substances, also poses a real danger to the stability of the fragile new democracy of these countries. Partly because of these factors the governments of the former socialist countries have embarked on what is usually referred to as the `police reform'. Gregory (1994:85) notes that police systems in central and eastern Europe were the `most powerful repressive agents of the state with the principal task of maintaining the rule of a particular elite by suppressing dissent'.

The fall of the Iron Curtain ended the reign of the communist system, but at the same time confirmed and institutionalised the economic gap existing between the west European democracies and the former communist countries in the continent. It also reinforced an inferiority complex of the latter which has been present for the most part of the 1980's. During the first stages of the transition, this inferiority complex became a political issue and was successfully used by the reformers as a powerful tool to push forward for the transformation of the system. The political slogan to `become like Europe', or `become part of Europe', which was the motto of the socio-political changes, carried the implication that if the central and eastern European countries wanted to progress, they had to dispense with everything which reminded them of their `failed past'. The ideological, economic and political differences existing between the capitalist west and the communist countries were considered by Marxist ideology to be an irreconcilable antagonistic contradiction (Marx and Engels, 1967). It was a contradiction between two systems, between two ways of understanding and explaining the world. According to this line of thought, with the collapse of communism, the logical alternative was to embrace the norms and values of the victorious system. In policing, this political trend was interpreted as a need to break away from every practice or policy of the past.

Attempts continue to be made to examine the reforms that are taking place in the policing of these countries. Despite their merits, the studies have been parochial and superficial. At their best, when depicting the grim state that the police forces are in, they are descriptive. Policing in central and eastern European countries has rightly been classified as continental policing. Fogel, (1994) has provided a useful contribution in this area with his study tour of the main countries of this geographical area. His work includes a descriptive examination of almost all these countries except the Baltic Republics. The political and ideological tutelage imposed by the Soviet Union has left a distinctive mark on their policing system which were modelled according to the Russian militia i.e., a highly centralised national police force whose legitimacy derived from the Party in power and whose structure and function were determined by the ideology ruling the country. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that there did not exist any differences between the police forces in the separate countries of the region. Whereas ideology provided the legitimacy, the national and historical factors of each country affected aspects of the structure and the function of policing.

The reforms would appear to support the assertion that when there is a change in the circumstances and factors that legitimise policing, this change is reflected in the structure and function of policing. The socio-political changes in central and eastern Europe directly affected the legitimacy of the police forces. Once the ideological, political and moral support broke down as a result of the radical transformations, the police felt very vulnerable and incompetent to exercise its duties. The new system demanded different methods and tactics of policing which the existing police appeared to be uncomfortable with. A wave of `lustration- sacrificial purification' (Fogel, 1994), reconstruction and mobilisation swept through the organisation.

In the first two years after the political changes, the number of police officers leaving the service rose sharply. The number of new police officers joining the force increased. In Albania, for example, the number of police officers since 1992 has increased three times. The same happened in Lithuania. The tendency was more moderate in Poland and Hungary, but the number of police officers have increased since the changes there too. The personnel reform was followed by the policy reform, manifested in the new police acts. The primary concern of the new legislation was to depoliticise the force. From being a tool of the ideology in power, the police had to face the new reality of having to be or at least appearing to be impartial and upholding the law (Gregory, 1994).

After the political transformation, the police acquired a new legitimation which was reflected in its structure and function. The first instinct was `to do what the West has done' (Brogden & Shearing, 1994). Several attempts were made to acquire the best experience, but soon the policy makers realised that they had to take on board their own national traditions and characteristics. Besides, the `western model' did not seem necessarily to be ideal. The west European countries appeared to have higher crime rates than their eastern counterparts and the latter were told that this was the price they had to pay for freedom. This caused a feeling of resentment and frustration on the part of the public and it very soon became a contentious political issue. If democracy meant more crimes and insecurity then all the efforts and aspirations for a better future would have been in vain.

In Hungary, during 1990, there were 50% more crimes reported than in the previous year. In 1991 the figure increased by another 30% (Matei, 1994). In Albania, the overall number of reported crimes in 1992 increased by 160% compared to 1983 (Shajko & Shkembi, 1994). Whereas in the former Democratic Republic of Germany, after the unification, the statistics show a staggering 400% increase in reported crimes (Buchholz, 1995). Clearly, the public were deeply concerned with the situation. If one in three is a victim of crime in Hungary, the people have the right to question the real meaning of freedom. Does it mean freedom to be robbed and victimised? (Vigh, 1995). One of the solutions of this equation was found in the increase in the number of police officers and in adopting a more aggressive approach, both proactive and reactive, in tackling crime. The police and the public had to become used to the idea that freedom of the citizens also implied freedom of the criminals. If crime was not curbed, democracy was in danger. If harsh methods and tactics were used in fighting crime, then democracy and human rights were in danger too. Although research carried out in six of the most developed countries showed that the relative increase the number of police officers does not affect the number of reported crimes (Bayley, 1994), more police officers on the street offered a false sense of security and proved to be a political manoeuvre which the new governments could not afford to neglect.

This dichotomy has been hanging over the issues of policing reform like the sword of Damocles. The policy makers have been feeling their way out of it rather than planning any outcome. The academics, on the other hand, have not been in a better position. Despite being plagued by lack of funding, they have produced commendable works. The topics they focus upon are a clear indication of the priorities of their societies. They have to come to terms with a radical transformation of the system and place their experience into a perspective which often tends to be a western perspective. This is recognised by Shelley (1995) as comprising another approach on the studies of police reforms in `post -socialist' countries. Vigh (1995), for example, in his analysis of the of social changes emphasises the impact of the developments in science and technology. This and the `increasing inter-relationship between countries' is `significantly transforming the nature of crime and police' (Vigh, 1995:2). Salgo, on the other hand, speaks of police as an enterprise, a firm. `If it is true, its product is security. If security exists as a product in society, a market must be found for this product. If the market can be found, there must be clients,... These clients are the citizens' (Salgo, 1995). This consumerist, value-for-money policing, which has often been the field of emotional debate in the West and has been considered as a desperate attempt to erode traditional policing, is readily embraced as progressive policing in Hungary.

The issues of modernisation of technology and value for money policing, are considered to be indispensable in acquiring legitimacy for the newly adopted system and there is a strong argument to support it. Before worrying about the hazards of modernisation, the societies of post-communist countries have to be modernised through technology and free market policies. In policing reforms this was interpreted as a need for technical and professional assistance from the West and value for money policies. First and foremost, the police had to be financially accountable. Due to the impoverished economic situation, the `post - socialist' societies could not afford the luxury of worrying about the fading of traditional policing at a time when all efforts were being made to accelerate its demise anyway. It is clear that the priorities of policing reform in central and eastern European countries are different from those of their western neighbours. The only solution would appear to be the creation of a culturally sensitive policing model. Thus, the effect of policing on society will be of mutual benefit to both.


So far the examination of the comparative approaches of legitimation and culturalism has suggested that they are intertwined in a co-operating correlation. The legitimation approach, by constructing its analyses of policing systems through the concepts of legitimacy, structure and function, focuses its attention on the relationship between police, state and society. Police is a state institution which, by seeking legitimacy for its actions, affects the legitimacy of the state as a whole. Accordingly, policing models differ from each other by the degree of dependency of the legitimation of police towards that of the state. The culturalist approach adds another dimension to the correlation. It maintains that the legitimacy, structure and function of policing is also affected by the cultural peculiarities of the societies policed. This has lead to the introduction of cultural analysis on two levels. First, studies on policing would comprise an analysis of the mutual impact of policing and the social milieu. Secondly, policing itself constitutes a sub-culture which has considerable influence in moulding the policies and behaviour of individuals involved in it. In this way both approaches, as part of one theory, complement each other in an attempt to conduct as comprehensive an analyses of policing as possible.

Both approaches would prove useful in the study of policing changes in Central and Eastern Europe. The analysis of the relationship between the police and the state, and in turn, between the police and the community, would help to understand the processes of legitimation and structural transformations in these countries. On the other hand, the examination of the cultural and sub-cultural characteristics which define policing patterns and play an important role in its reforms, would help to comprehend the mutual correlation that exists between the police and the social milieu. In this way, the legitimation and culturalistic approaches provide ample empirical data and theoretical analyses that would serve as a foundation on which to build a culturally sensitive policing system.

It would appear that the success of policing reforms in central and eastern Europe does not depend exclusively on the selective application of a `Western experience'. The application of technology and the emphasis on financial accountability of police activity, are only two aspects which have been endorsed by the policy makers and the academics in the `post-socialist' societies. The social, economic and cultural peculiarities in these countries have given rise to different priorities which in turn are directing policing reforms towards the establishment of a `culturally sensitive model'. To this extent, policing reforms in central and eastern Europe are potentially at a clear advantage. They could benefit from the positive experience of policing in the democratically developed countries and simultaneously avoid the mistakes made by their Western counterparts.

Table of Contents | Organizational Changes in Slovenian Police in the Period Between 1989 and 1996

The HTML conversion of this chapter was supported by the
National Institute of Justice/
National Criminal Justice Reference Service
Washington, D.C.