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What is a Police State?

By J.E. Holloway
Updated May 23, 2024
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A police state is any jurisdiction in which the government controls the day-to-day lives of its citizens by using coercive power. The police in a police state serve as a tool of social control, either instead of or in addition to serving as law enforcement officers. Political dissent might be deemed illegal in a police state, and the government might prevent its citizens from leaving. Historical examples of police states include authoritarian regimes such as Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and South Africa under apartheid. Modern authoritarian regimes such as Myanmar and North Korea in the early 21st century have been considered police states by some observers.

All states limit the individual liberties of their citizens to some extent. As a result, "police state" is often considered to be a loaded and contentious term. What one critic of the government might call a repressive measure, a supporter might call a necessary strategy to fight crime, terrorism or subversion.

Techniques of Coercion and Control

The techniques that are used by police states to enforce their rules vary. Common strategies include the use of secret police who infiltrate anti-government groups and report on them to the government. Electronic surveillance also is common. Telephones and the Internet typically are monitored, and video surveillance might be used to track public movement. This type of police state is often referred to as a surveillance state.

In some police states, religious police work alongside regular police. For example, some countries have had volunteer patrols whose members enforce their take on morality or religious customs. The punishment doled out by these volunteer forces is sometimes considered harsh by outside observers.

Degrees of Policing

Typically, a police state will be a dictatorship or other type of authoritarian regime. Even democratic or constitutional states, however, have sometimes used policing as a form of social control. Between 1956 and 1971, for instance, the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation conducted undercover operations against groups and people it considered subversive. Similarly, in the United Kingdom, opponents of video surveillance in public areas and increased police powers have claimed that these constitute police-state tactics. Critics of excessive government intervention in the lives of citizens, such as extensive health and safety regulations, have coined the term "nanny state" to describe this phenomenon.

Limited Freedom

Some non-governmental organizations publish rankings of countries based on issues such as freedom of the press and individual rights in those countries. Many of the lowest-ranked countries on these lists have all the qualities of a police state. Although it can sometimes be difficult to judge, therefore, most analysts feel comfortable identifying as police states those repressive regimes in which the machinery of the state is used to limit freedom and stifle dissent.

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Discussion Comments
By Feryll — On Dec 19, 2014

@mobilian33 - I agree with you if you are saying that the U.S. Government has misused its power on many occasions and has treated U.S. citizens unfairly in many instances, but I think putting the U.S. in the same category as Nazi Germany would be way off the mark.

Like someone said about pornography, I might not know how to define it, but I know it when I see it. The eye test tells me that Nazi Germany was a police state. The eye test tells me that the U.S. as it stands today is not a police state

By mobilian33 — On Dec 19, 2014

In the United States, our politicians like to point to other countries and label them as police states or as countries that don't respect the human rights and civil rights of citizens. Then we have organizations like the FBI and the CIA and they are doing many of the same things that the government organizations in other countries are doing.

The other countries are being called police states, but for some reason it's okay when the FBI spies on citizens with all of this new age technology. This is a perfect example of the pot calling the kettle black if I have ever heard it.

By Sporkasia — On Dec 18, 2014

I have always thought the term police state had little value as a universal description for what goes on in various countries, and reading this article has confirmed my original opinion. As the article points out, there are degrees of policing and what constitutes a police state.

When I think of police states the three, Nazi Germany, North Korea and South Africa during apartheid readily pop to mind along with a few others, but then you get to a point where you are splitting hairs, and one persons police state is another person's example of democracy at its best.

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