Beyond the myth of Interpol, the world's police organization

PHOTO: A logo at the newly completed Interpol Global Complex for Innovation building is seen during the inauguration opening ceremony in Singapore on April 13, 2015.PlayRoslan Rahman/AFP/Getty Images, FILE
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Like so much in law enforcement, the myth of Interpol has to be separated from the reality.

The “international police agency,” as the shorthand goes, is actually not a police department at all -- at least not like, say, the NYPD or the LAPD.

PHOTO: New York Police Department (NYPD) officers secure Times Square ahead of the New Years Eve celebrations in New York City, Dec. 31, 2017. Amr Alfiky/Reuters, FILE
New York Police Department (NYPD) officers secure Times Square ahead of the New Year's Eve celebrations in New York City, Dec. 31, 2017.

“There’s this public perception that Interpol is a bunch of highly trained investigators that travel the globe to track down international criminals,” said ABC News contributor John Cohen, a former acting undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

“What it actually is is a global organization established to do two things: to foster better cooperation between police agencies and to improve information sharing,” Cohen said.

The international agency made news this week when its president, Meng Hongwei, went missing. Interpol said in a statement that it requested clarification from officials in China -- where Hongwei is a senior Communist official and where he was visiting when he disappeared -- on his status.

PHOTO: Interpol President Meng Hongwei is pictured at an International Cybersecurity Congress in Moscow, July 6, 2018. Mikhail Metzel/TASS/ZUMAPRESS via Newscom
Interpol President Meng Hongwei is pictured at an International Cybersecurity Congress in Moscow, July 6, 2018.

The international agency has law enforcement officers on staff, but they have their official credentials from their home nations and are typically loaned out to Interpol, either on temporary assignments or on a long-term basis.

Officers sometimes investigate and handle typical police work around the world, but only when individual countries have invited Interpol in as a collaborator.

Unlike the NYPD or its British counterparts, Scotland Yard, Interpol is not allowed to simply send its officers to find criminals, conduct investigations or make arrests.

In other words, it’s complicated.

Interpol was formed in 1923 and is headquartered in Lyon, France. Its structure is similar, in many ways, to the United Nations.

PHOTO: A logo at the newly completed Interpol Global Complex for Innovation building is seen during the inauguration opening ceremony in Singapore on April 13, 2015. Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty Images, FILE
A logo at the newly completed Interpol Global Complex for Innovation building is seen during the inauguration opening ceremony in Singapore on April 13, 2015.

Its governing body is the General Assembly, led by a non-executive president -- that post is currently head by Hongwei. Interpol’s board of directors is an executive committee, made up of representatives from all the regions of the world.

The chief executive of the organization is a secretary general, currently Jurgen Stock of Germany. The organization has a staff of about 800 and an annual budget of roughly $130 million.

Viewed as a sleepy law-enforcement backwater for many years, Interpol updated its mission and capabilities dramatically after 9/11, as nations around the world feared the emerging threat posed by international terrorist organizations.

Interpol has also established real-time information sharing hubs throughout the world to help its member nations deal with crime and terrorist threats as they develop.

PHOTO: The entrance hall of Interpols headquarters in Lyon, France. Laurent Cipriani/AP
The entrance hall of Interpol's headquarters in Lyon, France.

It has been criticized in the past after its international arrest-warrant system was found to have been abused by countries looking to punish political opponents. The governing bylaws do not allow for its mechanisms to be used for political reasons.

“Interpol created a system for sharing of arrest warrants, sharing info about dangerous criminals, created technical platforms to allow countries to work together,” Cohen said. “But that same platform has been used by repressive regimes to stifle political dissent.”

Critics have also accused Interpol of being beholden to the nations who pay the lion’s share of its budget, even if those nations are not democratic.