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30 Soc. Probs. 507 (1982-1983)
High Policing and Low Policing: Remarks about the Policing of Political Activities

handle is hein.journals/socprob30 and id is 519 raw text is: SOCIAL PROBLEMS, Vol. 30, No. 5, June 1983
Universit6 de Montrdal
Policing political activities is.usually regarded as deviant police action. The deviance
approach focuses on police abuse, which is deemed to be secretive and to confuse
legitimate dissent with political delinquency, such as terrorism. I take Issue with the
deviance approach and attempt to replace it by distinguishing between high policing
and low policing models of police action. Political policing Is then seen as a core fea-
ture of high policing instead of merely being a suspicious peripheral aspect of the
police apparatus. I also argue that mainly through technological change, western
police forces are increasingly operating under the high policing model,
To write on the subject of policing political activities is from the outset difficult, because one
can bog down in problems of semantics. The very meaning of the phrase policing political ac-
tivities is fraught with ambiguities. The phrase can be narrowly interpreted to mean keeping
elected politicians honest; more broadly, it can refer to police interventions in the struggles tak-
ing place inside society over the possession and exercise of state power. Compounding this diffi-
culty, policing political activities is deemed to be not even a real topic in Canada and in the
United States; the target of such policing- political deviance-has no official status outside the
criminal law. Hence, many people claim that there are no political prisoners in North America.
Others, such as Platt and Cooper (1974), take an opposite stand and argue that notions such
as deviance or social reaction can only be understood as political processes. Any form of
policing thus becomes political.
To escape this all or nothing dichotomy, I first examine the implicit definitions of political
policing which are shared by Canadian and U.S. government inquiries into alleged police wrong-
doing: aggressive operations performed under the blanket mandate of protecting national se-
curity. Then I look at what I call the deviance approach to the policing of political activities
and, noting its shortcomings, I distinguish between low and high policing and apply the latter
to modern policing.
Several Congressional committees scrutinized the U.S. intelligence community in the wake of
the Watergate scandal of the early 1970s. The most thorough investigation was conducted by the
Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Activities, chaired by Idaho Senator Frank Church. The
committee's report (U.S. Congress: Senate, 1976) contained detailed accounts of domestic
operations performed against political dissenters by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI),
under its infamous Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO).
In Canada, investigations into the propriety of security service operations got off to a bad
start. In 1966, the federal government appointed Judge Dalton C. Wells to investigate charges
that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) had exerted undue pressure on the post office
to fire Victor Herbert Spencer on the alleged grounds that he had spied for the Soviet Union.
Spencer was found dead in his house a week before the inquiry was scheduled to begin. Later
in 1966, the government appointed a royal commission to examine the protection of national
security in Canada. It released an expurgated report (Canada, 1969).
* This is a revised and slightly expanded version of a paper presented at the 34th annual meeting of the
American Society of Criminology in Toronto, November 1982. Correspondence to: Ecole de Criminologie,
Universit6 de Montr6al, C.P. 6128, Succursale A, Montreal, Quebec H3C 3J7, Canada.

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