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Actes de colloque/Conference Proceedings

Jean-Paul Brodeur on High and Low Policing

Peter K. Manning
Traduction(s) :
Haute et basse police selon Jean-Paul Brodeur [fr]


Cet article se divise en trois parties. La première partie procède à une lecture détaillée de « High policing and low policing… », l’article en anglais le plus influent de Jean-Paul Brodeur qui formula en 1983 les concepts de haute et de basse police. Cette discussion tient compte de la version plus détaillée de ce cadre théorique qui est contenue dans The Policing Web, son dernier livre. La deuxième partie examine la prescience de l’article sur la haute et la basse police, qui anticipa les développements actuels dont le rythme s’est accéléré depuis les attentats du 11 septembre. La troisième partie se penche sur l’importance d’inclure la haute police dans une théorie émergente du policing.

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1Thinking about and remembering Jean-Paul’s work requires perhaps imagination and re-imagination. He walked a bit ahead of us, beckoning us always forward, plucking words as he walked, smiling a bit, and perhaps resting his feet from time to time. He is with us still, ahead of us somehow as always. Jean-Paul once pointed out of the window of his office to the great University Tower and said proudly “I sat up there thinking about Leibniz.” Perhaps he did; but he was doubtless also thinking about Flaubert, Balzac, Baudelaire, and Mordecai Richler. He possessed a long vision: I recall that Jean-Paul once replied to my question at an ASC meeting about whether community policing was altering policing. He mused, “I believe, as Mao answered when asked about the impact of the French Revolution, ‘It is too soon to know.’

2The world in which Jean-Paul walked and lived was multi-faceted and rich in complex multifaceted detail. Educated as a philosopher, he transformed himself into a polymath, a bilingual sociologist-criminologist of erudition and grace. As Carlo Morselli noted in his brief obituary, Jean-Paul was an early and frequent francophone participant in the ASC (where I first met him some years ago). He could run a commission; work a room; reform penal processes; do a little dance; summarize 95 papers at the end of a conference –usually with greater lucidity than presenters had- and entertain us with a grand gourmet dinner. He did what he accomplished with enthusiasm, élan vital, and patience. Jean-Paul excelled as a social scientist exploring the contradictions and cover-ups characterizing post-modern democratic societies. He communicated easily and with charm in several languages; sponsored young scholars; connected once culturally-bound networks, and broadened intellectual horizons. The enduring influence of his work is seen in the research of his many students and colleagues in North America, France, Germany, and elsewhere. He made his mark.

3Something should be said about his perspective and method. His training as a logician introduced him to the relevance of anomalies, contradictions, and irregularities. They fascinated him. Jean-Paul was an acute observer who noted matters somehow out of place; deviations from the rule or norm; in short, one might call him an “anomalies-processor.” His was an active, inquisitive manner seeking the oddity, a matter that requires definition and inclusiveness. Perhaps this perspective inspired him to think of policing as a puzzle or a web that included more than the crime control functions of the uniformed public police.   

4Consider his impressive oeuvre. A Google search establishes that JPB was most cited in the English speaking community of scholars for his work on policing, especially his elaboration and tessellation of the inherited policing paradigm which included challenges to the conventional Peel model. His 57 page vitae, probably an understatement of his actual accomplishments, lists some 5 books, 39 chapters, over 100 articles, abundant essay-reviews and some 9 significant reports, commissions and commentaries. In this brief reflection, I begin in the style of Jean-Paul who often wrote, “… this paper has three (or four…) parts.” The first part is a close reading of “High Policing and Low policing…” (1983) (HLP). This discussion takes into account the refined version of this argument seen in The Policing Web. The second part is an assessment of the prescience of the HLP paper. It foretold contemporaneous developments. The third part is a reflection on the importance of including high policing in an emergent theory of policing.

High and Low Policing

5The HLP article is a fertile source from which his systematic policing studies grew. In writing this article, Jean-Paul drew on his experiences during 1979-81 as chief consultant to the Keable Inquiry. He proposed and defended carefully a way of looking, a new paradigm of policing. Let us set a stage. Published in Social Problems, it was at once a reflection upon public and police responses to dissent and putative threats to national security (Vietnam, civil rights, Front de Libération du Québec); an emerging field of police studies, and a comment on the then popular “labeling” or deviance and reaction perspective. The syllabi for police studies in democratic societies did not then include literature written in French, research on colonial policing, nor mention of the recent developments in political policing in Canada, France and the United States. Policing studies was informed by an unexamined assumption that policing in democratic societies was an expansion of the Peel model: crime-oriented, visible, restrained and at least legalistic in spirit. At this time, there were a handful of major research-based works, those of Banton, Wilson, Skolnick, Cain, Manning and Bittner. Bittner’s (1972) brilliant and innovative work was cited but generally misunderstood (Brodeur, 2007). There was indeed very little knowledge of secret or non-visible policing (Gary Marx’s articles were available; his book had not yet appeared) and almost nothing had been written on the intelligence services of democratic countries. Jean-Paul’s paper marked a turning point in systematic analytic thinking about policing.

  • 1  The term “high policing” was developed first by Brian Chapman (1970) and was used as tool to analy (...)

6Initially, he rejects two logical assertions: no policing is political or all policing is political. As a result of reflecting upon his experience with the Keable Inquiry and re-examination of a previous Royal Commissions on intelligence (The Mackenzie reports and two McDonald Reports), he argues that the passive/active distinction between modes of policing is meaningless and suggests that all policing, secret or visible, is about political ordering. Political policing is neither rare nor unknown “… it forms the pervasive core of a whole model of policing which I call ‘high policing.’” (508).1 There is complicity in sustaining the view that police deviance, known violations of the law, is rare, erstwhile and even unremarkable. The putative guardians of democracy, courts, politicians, victimized organizations and the press, he shows, do not really want to know about such matters. They turn a blind eye to every new first time. The idea that there are no police secrets is an illusion; observers know police are carrying out political policing routinely (510). From whom are they keeping secrets? When political policing emerges, it is seen as “deviance” rather than as an everyday core function (511). Policing does intelligence gathering poorly and in a haphazard fashion. Nevertheless, scholars then and now still know little about it or its workings. This remains true even as we have been saturated with media-panic about “terrorism” and national security. The state is a dramatic actor as are the police. They both work to dramatize themselves periodically as a “victim” of dissent, a victim in need of defense. Everyday dissent is transformed then by law and conventional police practices into something now called “crime.” This is a paradox or anomaly at least so far as the state apparatus resorts to informants, paid informants, and coerced marginal members of the dissenting groups for intelligence gathering. This is done in order to produce, amplify and sustain the known existence of such “crimes” (511). This aspect of high policing, the core of which is intelligence gathering, is part of a paradigm shared within and across all police units. This is not a function carried out exclusively by special units. If this is true, the distinction, traced to Sir Robert Peel’s idea that equates democratic policing with low policing is misleading. This formulation also overlooks, as The Policing Web shows, the multiplicity of types of policing and types of police organizations. Furthermore, Jean-Paul argues that the history of French policing makes clearer the tight and continuous link between high and low policing (512-13) in Western democracies. High policing, that is surveillance, tracking, and keeping secret files on everyday activity, is actually the paradigm for all political policing: “… it reaches out for potential threats in a systematic attempt to preserve the distribution of power in a given society” (513). It is politics in the name of policing, or more specifically policing as politics.

7High policing as defined in HLP has four features: it is absorbent; it is not uniquely bound to enforce the law (it may in fact violate laws with impunity); it uses crime control as a mode of manifold exploitation; it uses informants and secret agents to monitor citizens, gather information and to create anxiety and dis-ease. The police in North America were operating at that time, he claimed, in a high policing mode (514) and makes a far-sighted and accurate prediction: that denials of police and other governmental agencies are engaged in computerized data gathering are weak and false; and that it is happening and will increase geometrically. This point, made very clearly in the concluding paragraph of the paper is that the high vs. low distinction obscures more than it reveals. In fact, all policing has features of high policing and is “relentless and implies systematic continuity” (517).

8The key point of this article amongst many, is that policing always functions with a political face and denies it publicly. This is in some sense a “back stage” “front stage” aspect of the police drama. These ideas have been woven into a number of Jean-Paul’s subsequent publications e.g., Trotsky and reform; Cops and Spooks; High policing post- 911; and several papers and a monograph on the topic of accountability. The topic of high policing also features as a central chapter of The Policing Web.

The High Policing Argument in The Policing Web

9Although the thrust of his theory of policing rests on the antinomy that the state casts itself as both victim and protector in carrying out its multiplex policing functions, and certainly, high policing is a theme in the developing argument in the book, the locus of continuity in the HLP argument is Chapter 7 in The Policing Web, “High and Low Policing.” The high/low distinction appears to be a functional division reflected in the organization of the book (225). That is, I believe he is arguing that high policing, and the denial that it takes place, are the center piece or core function around which other policing functions are arrayed.

10In The Policing Web, Brodeur initially sets aside the high policing carried out by state intelligence agencies and the policing during emergencies, and during declared state-protection activities. These are admitted as essential secretive functions. He lays out the nine features that constitute his current view of the high policing paradigm: protecting the political regime; assuming that the state is an intended victim; practicing absorbent policing (wide interest in information that is not restricted to constructing an actionable legal case); utilizing criminals in many capacities; relying heavily on informants; practicing extensive secrecy; utilizing deceit; conflating separate powers (judicial, legislative, executive) and embracing extra-legality (this is my paraphrase). He then discusses operational procedures, or how what is done ostensibly differentiates high from low policing. High policing has a constant mode of analysis; looks for preventive intelligence (not prosecution), uses disruption of activities and circumvents extant modes of accountability. The role of informants and the consequences of their use are elaborated in separate sections of the chapter. In a tour de force, Brodeur traces out new forms of surveillance and their consequences (247-251). The final section in the chapter includes a model that contrasts high and low policing and stipulates some of their interactions (figure 7.2, 252). In sum, this diagram shows that the criminal justice system encompasses traditional forms of “delinquency” through low policing, violence, visible actions, perpetration and interruption. It also monitors or polices knowledge-based delinquency by deception, covert action, conspiracy notions and circumvention of legal constraints. Terrorism and violent networks preoccupy both high and low policing. This diagram is a thought experiment that presents in microcosm the central argument of the book.


11Several important arguments are contained in the high policing narrative that began in 1983 and was elaborated in Jean Paul’s research until late 2010. There are several aspects of this theme in his work that continue to shape scholarship in policing. It precipitated a broadening of the field of police studies. While much published research reports variations on officially reported crime as the necessary grounding of all police work, scholars remain aware of the lurking and shadowy influence of high policing. HLP stimulated the development of systematic police studies that included comparative, historical and analytic works that were sensitive to the importance and functions of high policing. The work opened the later questions of policing and “human rights” taken up in the Patten Report, and the questions of governance and multiple nodes of policing activity explored by Shearing and colleagues. Certainly the argument of HLP, unlike that of most scholars and the vulgarities passing for knowledge in textbooks written in North American and the UK, is historical and comparative and challenges the accepted notion that policing is a stylized, visible work of preventing crime, reacting to citizen concerns, and investigating reported crimes. It is well-known and accepted that the actual web of policing includes more than the public police; it includes a variety of other organizations. High policing in democratic societies has been more visible in France and on the Continent than in North America, and certainly has not been reduced by commissions and boards of inquiry. It remains a powerful presence in the modern conflicted world. Brodeur also correctly notes in The Policing Web (223-224) that Hsi-Huey Liang (1992) sees the absence of high policing as one feature of democratic policing. However, Liang indicates the necessity of such alternative policing modes as ways to keep visible democratic policing accountable. Liang’s argued that such functions such as paramilitary activity, high policing and private policing competed with and permitted the public low-policing side to exist.

12Finally, consider an aspect of the impact of ideas that were nurtured in the 1983 piece. Events have confirmed dramatically the arguments he made concerning police intelligence gathering, analysis and storage:

  • Computers have become a part of both high and low policing and now are ensconced in several dedicated units in national police forces e.g., in England.

  • Vast databanks are kept by banks, corporations, and governmental agencies including the police. The extent of these can only be estimated and the effects still moot.

  • Surveillance and tracking, and other forms of “absorbent policing,” are more popular and acceptable in part due to the ripple effect of 911 and other well-known terrorist acts. Low policing versions of surveillance have emerged illustrated by the presence of CCTV in the UK and some large American cities e.g., Chicago.

  • Every Google search, every purchase with a credit card, each major purchase requiring a bank loan and every phone call on a mobile phone produces information about tastes, life style preferences, and income among other things. These lists in turn are bought, traded, exchanged, hacked into and routinely made available to the police upon request.

  • Crime mapping, used by the Nazis in Amsterdam to chart the locations of the homes of Jews (Scott, 1998:79), is now in general use by the police in North America. In Boston, mapping includes data on the homes of “gang members,” “sex offenders,” and places where shots have been fired. High crime areas of Boston are now monitored by audio, visual devices, officers in marked and unmarked vehicles, helicopters, special squads (gang, school, drugs, dynamic entry), detectives, as well as state, county, transit and parks police. These agencies produce intelligence as well as crime-related data. Data-gathering, harvesting, and surveillance are now being studied more closely by scholars and their consequences debated.

  • Community policing is political policing; in its various forms it may constitute a new kind of high policing. The details of this assertion were brilliantly contested by Brodeur in his penetrating review of the Ericson and Haggerty’s Policing the risk society (1997). He challenges the character of policing information and its uses, as well as the assertion of a vast, articulated and integrated set of data bases in police departments (See Manning, 2008). Personally, I do not think Jean-Paul considered “community policing” high policing as practiced, and felt the Ericson-Haggerty arguments were overstated and lacking empirical support.

  • High policing in colonial context and its residues in present policing are now being examined by scholars such as Georgina Sinclair (2011). The “residues” are found throughout the world: the consequences of French, Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and English rule.

  • 2  I argued in 1977 that policing is “neutral on behalf of the state”, emphasizing that in the final (...)

13Some complexities remain in the reception of the work on high policing (Greene, Forst, Lynch, 2010). The concept has not been fully accepted in the sense that Jean-Paul intended: as a function carried out by all democratic police all the time as a central or core function. North American scholars remain wedded to the idea that high policing is an exception, a periodic malfunction and a minor theme in what properly should be the study of an efficient, crime-focused, semi-accountable organization.2 Enforcing laws and managing crime is one of the responsibilities of the police; however, few other than Jean-Paul rejected the notion that policing is essentially crime-focused. Most of the literature on police deviance remains focused on corruption and deals with it conceptually as it was done prior to the publication of HLP. High policing of all sorts is still viewed by scholars, judges, and politicians as “corruption,” “deviance,” and or “scandal” and dealt with by illusion and impression management. For example, the Morris Tribunal in Ireland (Conway, 2010) was restricted to matters of evidence mishandling by the Garda (legalistic) in Donegal (a County of Ireland surrounded by Northern Ireland), although the reports discussed many other flaws and organizational maladies. Police corruption remains defined as a matter of “illegality” connected generally with personal gain rather than routine everyday policing.  Furthermore, efforts to create a web of accountability and auditing are weak and ineffectual e.g., in Northern Ireland, none of the organizations have access to secret operations carried out by MI5 (with some 300 officers seconded from the PSNI). As Dermot Walsh has argued (2009), the Garda have widened their secret operations on the basis of EEU policing conventions on cross border policing, drug law enforcement and illegal immigration. The rationale employed publically by these agencies is it is essential to “national security.” This draws down the curtain for everyone save the Minister of Justice and Equality. This curtain has also been used in the Morris investigation to obscure certain aspects of the Garda’s functions. In general, one can agree with Brodeur and Bittner (1972, 39) that accountability takes the form of “bureaucratically symbolized communication.” We really do not know what goes on when, how and why in this “black box” of high policing.

14Jean-Paul was perhaps best positioned of his generation to do an analysis of the nature of secrecy in a democratic agency as a result of his work on the Keable inquiry. Unfortunately, I must observe that we have made no advance in promoting and publishing studies of high policing agencies (Mulqueen, 2009). There are no systematic studies of on-going high policing locally or nationally, and notably, none that are based on close ethnographic observation (See Greene, Forst, Lynch, 2011). Even the rather interesting U.S. Report of the 911 Commission was cloaked in bureaucratic problems and solutions couched within the formal modes: reform by bureaucratic specialization and differentiation. There are few studies of riot police on the continent; intelligence agencies in North America, the U.K., and Canada; or the CIA, DIA, and FBI, the security functions of the London Metropolitan Police; the PSNI and the Garda. We lack scholarly studies of major military or federal law enforcement agencies. There is a scattering of books by journalists and ex-members of these agencies, and a remarkable book, based on recently released records of the secret police of the former East Germany (Glaeser, 2011). Most of the work done on surveillance and tracking, monitoring and the reflexivity of technology are highly speculative, based on media or internet-derived reporting. We now know something about the architecture of secret policing, how it is built, but little about its actual functioning: how it is done, by whom, and why. The fact of agency secrecy, legally and by tradition or convention well protected, is well known. Nevertheless, the futile study of “accountability,” “corruption” and “police deviance” remains alive and well. There can be no accountability when the organization is shielded for its high policing functions and where the most important support, financially and politically lies with the central government of the day. The true and durable nature of high policing is unstudied.

“High and Low…” and an emergent theory of policing

15Jean-Paul set a high standard for shaping a theory of policing and articulated important questions in this regard. The 1983 paper contained the core of Jean-Paul’s theory of policing, including the discordant themes and contrasts between the visible, legal, public face of policing and the secret, powerful, unacknowledged, hidden, quasi-legal face. Jean-Paul’s theory of policing aims to be inclusive, comparative/historical and to include antinomies or self-contradictory arguments (The Policing Web, 3-15). This includes the role of high policing in which the state as protector defines itself as a victim, or in effect works against its own claims to protect and preserve the rights of its citizens (Loader, Walker, 2007). Further, the state can be the citizen’s most powerful enemy.

16In general, I found the arguments of The Policing Web convincing, sound and well documented. Two modest points might be made about Brodeur’s theorizing:

171) He expanded the idea of the police mandate, a concept derived from the work of E.C. Hughes. Jean-Paul’s argument suggests the ambiguity of the recognized mandate which overlooks or ignores the necessary “dirty work” (Hughes, 1971, 343-347) of the police. He focuses on the carrying out of specific functions that are denied to others. The mandate question can be linked to broader questions as well. The open-ended aspect of the mandate- which might be called operating with the exigency clause and the capacity to operate by exception- is critical. This means in practice the capacity to exclude from consideration that which is generally accepted by tradition or convention. This unstated aspect of the mandate is the source of expanding powers and is a powerful and original contribution to theorizing policing. I believe this is implicit in Jean-Paul’s argument. The exclusionary element covers the use of fatal force when used within the ambit of the occupation and in a non-trivial fashion. But proceeding by exception (Manning, 2010, 44), the mandate also conveniently includes secret dealings, including torture, that are connoted by the conception of high policing.

182) There is some latitude in a notional “fuzzy definition” of policing. I believe that the central feature of Brodeur’s explication of the policing puzzle or web is his definition of policing (The Policing Web, 139): police are agents authorized to use diverse means prohibited to the rest of policed society in order to uphold a particular kind of sociopolitical order. While less precise than the Bittnerian notion that the core skill of the police is the capacity to use force skillfully, Bittner’s definition “… allows us to take into account crucial differences between the functions and behavior of the various components of the police web (139).” This, Jean-Paul argues, is “… a stepping stone from which it will be possible to identify the specific extralegal means used by different policing agents” (139). Thus, we have the definition of the police as a general kind of agency, policing as a web of distinctive functions, and the identified key feature of policing which is not violence or coercion, but that which is prohibited to others in the policed society. As “An interview with Bittner” (Brodeur, 2007) elucidated, it is not the use of force that is the core of policing, but the threat and credibility of the threat, its potential as well as the measured use of violence when it is applied. The point is really quite Weberian- power and any other meaningful action works only when there is a high probability that the request will be validated. This working notion Brodeur calls “presumptive compliance” (The Policing Web, 110). In the end, Brodeur’s challenge to Bittner is very subtle but persuasive. In general, in post-modern societies, there is less need for direct violence, while new forms of communication, tracking and monitoring are more important. The threat or use of coercive force recedes in operational salience. There is one final irony: although policing less and less rests on the direct application of force, the media and the police command have seized the rhetoric of controlling risk and contingencies such that people firmly do believe in the reality of the “thin blue line” thesis, and recognize it as a significant feature of the mandate. I think these ideas are at the edges of the idea of a policing web, and can be developed in further research.

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Bittner, E. 1972. The Functions of the Police in Modern Society: A Review of Background Factors, Current Practices, and Possible Role Models. Washington, D.C.: National Institute of Mental Health.

Brodeur, J. P. 1983. "High Policing and Low Policing: Remarks about the Policing of Political Activities." Social Problems 30:507-520.

Brodeur, J. P. 2007. "An encounter with Egon Bittner." Crime, Law and Social Change 48:105-132.

Brodeur, J.P. 2010. The Policing Web: Oxford University Press.

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Chapman, B. 1970. Police state. London: Pall Mall.

Conway, Vicky. 2010. The Blue Wall of Silence: The Morris Tribunal and Police Accountability in Ireland: Irish Academic Press.

Ericson, R. V. and K. D. Haggerty. 1997. Policing the Risk Society. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Forst, B., J.R. Greene, and J.P. Lynch. 2011. Criminologists on Terrorism and Homeland Security: Cambridge University Press.

Glaeser, A. 2011. Political epistemics: The secret police, the opposition, and the end of East German socialism: University of Chicago Press.

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Liang, H. H. 1992. The Rise of Modern Police and the European State System from Metternich to the Second World War. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Loader, I. and N. Walker. 2007. Civilizing Security. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Manning, PK. 2008. The technology of policing: crime mapping, information technology, and the rationality of crime control. New York: New York University Press.

Manning, P. K. 1977. Police Work: The Social Organization of Policing, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Manning, P. K. 2010. Democractic Policing in a Changing World. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.

Mulqueen, M. 2009. "Securing the State with Soldier Spies: evaluating the Risks of using Military Personnel to gather Surveillance Evidence in Ireland." Irish Studies in International Affairs 20:121-141.

Scott, J. C. 1998. Seeing like a state. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Sinclair, G. 2011. Globalising British Policing. Farnham, U.K.: Ashgate.

Walsh, Dermot P. J. 2009. "Tightening the noose of central government control over policing in Ireland: innovations in the Garda Síochána Act 2005." Northern Ireland Legal Quarterly 60:163-180.

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1  The term “high policing” was developed first by Brian Chapman (1970) and was used as tool to analyze European modes of ensuring state security by secret means. The analysis in The policing web (see below) goes far beyond the historical outline provided by Chapman.

2  I argued in 1977 that policing is “neutral on behalf of the state”, emphasizing that in the final analysis, even local police would owe allegiance to the state if its security were threatened. Maureen Cain (1979), like Jean-Paul, had argued that policing was essentially about political ordering.

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Peter K. Manning, « Jean-Paul Brodeur on High and Low Policing »Champ pénal/Penal field [En ligne], Vol. IX | 2012, mis en ligne le 11 mai 2012, consulté le 17 janvier 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Peter K. Manning

School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Northeastern University.

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