INTERPOL: Extending Law Enforcement's Reach around the World

By Imhoff, John J.; Cutler, Stephen P. | The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, December 1998 | Go to article overview

INTERPOL: Extending Law Enforcement's Reach around the World

Imhoff, John J., Cutler, Stephen P., The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin

A police chief in a small midwestern town receives an anonymous note that an immigrant, a recent arrival to the community, allegedly has a long history of involvement in illegal drug abuse and is wanted in his native country for drug offenses. The chief wants to deal firmly with potential drug dealers but finds himself stymied in his ability to contact authorities overseas to research the allegations due to language barriers and time zone differences.

In another city, officers find a sizeable hoard of cash in a suspect's possession during the execution of a search warrant. The officers strongly suspect that the money constitutes proceeds from illegal drug transactions. The suspect, however, claims he legitimately earned the money during his rock band's tour of Europe. The courts initially seem sympathetic to the suspect's arguments, and the seizing officers become frustrated in their ability to disprove the suspect's story.

Parents from a European nation send their daughter to a school in the United States for advanced studies in the English language. She is hired by an unscrupulous employer who makes her work in a kitchen under dangerous conditions and do other undocumented menial field labor for extremely low wages.

How can the officers in these situations verify their suspicions? How do they determine the appropriate foreign agency or person to contact for information and then communicate their request to that person in the appropriate language? How can police officers accomplish routine humanitarian tasks when confronted by international borders?

The officers in each of these cases could take advantage of the International Criminal Police Organization, more commonly known as INTERPOL. Created nearly a century ago, INTERPOL enables law enforcement information to flow easily from officer to officer across borders, language barriers, time zones, and terrains in the basic service of justice.

INTERPOL's Mission

INTERPOL originated in 1914, when police professionals from 14 European countries gathered in Monte Carlo, Monaco, to discuss currency counterfeiting and other matters of mutual interest. Then, as now, criminal activity flowed easily across national borders while police officers found themselves limited by sovereignty, laws, absence of treaty relations, nationalistic pride, and a general lack of cooperation.

Founded on the recognition of, and respect for, national sovereignty, INTERPOL is not an international police force, has no police powers of its own, and does not have its own independent agents or officers. The organization facilitates the interaction and cooperation of police agencies in nations around the globe. Those agencies operate within their own national boundaries and remain bound by their own national laws and regulations. INTERPOL does not conduct investigations on its own authority or without a request for assistance from a recognized law enforcement authority of a member nation.

Now headquartered in Lyon, France, INTERPOL helps local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies coordinate their investigations with the world, rapidly obtain information, and seek the return of fugitives or stolen property. INTERPOL conducts these tasks within the framework of treaties and international laws but effectively accomplishes them in most cases because the member nations have agreed to the methodology established by INTERPOL.

The Communication System

INTERPOL connects its worldwide offices through a secure communication network that enables confidential and instantaneous handling of messages and leads for international criminal investigations. This network links the central office, known as the National Central Bureau (NCB) in each of the 177 INTERPOL member nations with each other as well as INTERPOL headquarters. This secure communication system carries text messages, as well as high-resolution images, such as counterfeit notes, photographs, or fingerprints. …

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