|Institutionalisation of police forces has often been presented as a gradual process, linked with several mutations such as the emergence of specialised agents, the formalisation of the knowledge and procedures they use, the formation of careers and the shaping of a professional identity. In this paper I would like to discuss what I call the paradoxes of institutionalisation of police forces between 18th and 20th century in Europe, introducing some of the results of a recent historical conference held in Caen (France), entitled “Working as a policeman ».
Figuring institutionalisation as a gradual process towards our contemporary police forces and agencies first seems rather teleological (if we consider them as the ultimate model) and can prevent us to grasp other realities. First, some dramatic breakthroughs in the political order like the French Revolution, the defeat and the experience of foreign occupation during WW2, or the tyranny exerted by a Party-State deeply affected the ongoing pattern of institutionalisation by the promotion of new policemen and patterns of policing.
Institutionalisation also means the institutionalisation of professional training and the formalisation of policing knowledge. The spread of police schools through Europe from Western countries to the new Balkanic States between the end of the 19th century and the 1930’s is considered as a significant step towards police professionalisation and progress. But this pattern rather belongs to a specific momentum in the history of professional training and formation. One must also considers other ways of teaching and training, less obvious but common and real, involved in the early phase of the institutionalisation process too, brought by family or guilds (like the compagnie des commissaries du Châtelet in 18th century Paris, a corporation).
Institutionalisation also induces paradoxical phenomena, as a consequence of the autonomisation of police professions. Professionalisation goes along with the rise of specific social interests : the police develop their own social strategies, rarely coinciding either with the government political agenda or public needs. This can lead to compromises and practices against official policies (like the too good local implantation of French gendarmes in the 19th century, or recent gendarmes upheavals, public demonstrations and strikes during the 1980’s and 1990’s in France).
At last, the trend of institutionalisation can be seen as a permanent battlefield between different rival social groups, competing for power and prestige, trying to frame and impose their own definition of the “true policeman” and “true police work”.