Enforcement of the law has required, in nearly all societies, a certain amount of secrecy, particularly in the investigation of crime and the identification of what are often considered conspiracies. The emergence of a uniformed, clearly recognizable police force is of much more recent origin than secret bodies formed by governments for their protection from internal and external attack. In its wider meaning, the term secret police embraces all those members of any police force that operate, often out of uniform, without giving warning to the suspected criminal. Some countries have laws limiting the role of such secret police to investigation only, giving the indicted offender the right to an open trial and complete access to the evidence.
Wherever these interrelated conditions are not fulfilled, a secret police in the narrower sense of the term either exists or is in process of developing. This secret police is a body officially or in fact endowed with authority superior to other law-enforcing agencies. It investigates, apprehends, and sometimes even judges the suspect in secrecy, and is often accountable only to the executive branch of the government. In extreme cases such a secret police force may even have its own courts and prisons, and its activities are kept secret not only from the mass of the population but also from the legislative, judiciary, and executive authorities of the state, except at the topmost level.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.