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.
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.