A police state describes a state where its government institutions exercise an extreme level of control over civil society and liberties. There is typically little or no distinction between the law and the exercise of political power by the executive, and the deployment of internal security and police forces play a heightened role in governance. A police state is a characteristic of authoritarian, totalitarian or illiberal regimes (contrary to a liberal democratic regime). Such governments are typically one-party states, but police-state-level control may emerge in multi-party systems as well.
Originally, a police state was a state regulated by a civil administration, but since the beginning of the 20th century it has "taken on an emotional and derogatory meaning" by describing an undesirable state of living characterized by the overbearing presence of civil authorities. The inhabitants of a police state may experience restrictions on their mobility, or on their freedom to express or communicate political or other views, which are subject to police monitoring or enforcement. Political control may be exerted by means of a secret police force that operates outside the boundaries normally imposed by a constitutional state. Robert von Mohl, who first introduced the rule of law to German jurisprudence, contrasted the Rechtsstaat ("legal" or "constitutional" state) with the anti-aristocratic Polizeistaat ("police state").
The Oxford English Dictionary traces the phrase "police state" back to 1851, when it was used in reference to the use of a national police force to maintain order in the Austrian Empire. The German term Polizeistaat came into English usage in the 1930s with reference to totalitarian governments that had begun to emerge in Europe.
Because there are different political perspectives as to what an appropriate balance is between individual freedom and national security, there are no objective standards defining a police state. This concept can be viewed as a balance or scale. Along this spectrum, any law that has the effect of removing liberty is seen as moving towards a police state while any law that limits government oversight of the populace is seen as moving towards a free state.
Early forms of police states can be found in ancient China. During the rule King Li of Zhou in the 9th century BC, there was strict censorship, extensive state surveillance, and frequent executions of those who were perceived to be speaking against the regime. During this reign of terror, ordinary people did not dare to speak to each other on the street, and only made eye contacts with friends as a greeting, hence known as '道路以目'. Subsequently, during the short-lived Qin Dynasty, the police state became far more wide-reaching than its predecessors. In addition to strict censorship and the burning of all political and philosophical books, the state implemented strict control over its population by using collective executions and by disarming the population. Residents were grouped into units of 10 households, with weapons were strictly prohibited, and only one kitchen knife was allowed for 10 households. Spying and snitching was in common place, and failure to report any anti-regime activities was treated the same as if the person participated in it. If one person committed any crime against the regime, all 10 households would be executed.
Some have characterised the rule of King Henry VIII during the Tudor period as a police state. The Oprichnina established by Tsar Ivan IV within the Russian Tsardom in 1565 functioned as a predecessor to the modern police state, featuring persecutions and autocratic rule.
Nazi Germany emerged from an originally democratic government, yet gradually exerted more and more repressive controls over its people in the lead-up to World War II. In addition to the SS and the Gestapo, the Nazi police state used the judiciary to assert control over the population from the 1930s until the end of the war in 1945.
During the period of apartheid, South Africa maintained police-state attributes such as banning people and organizations, arresting political prisoners, maintaining segregated living communities and restricting movement and access.
Augusto Pinochet's Chile operated as a police state, exhibiting "repression of public liberties, the elimination of political exchange, limiting freedom of speech, abolishing the right to strike, freezing wages".
The Republic of Cuba under President (and later right-wing dictator) Fulgencio Batista was an authoritarian police state until his overthrow during the Cuban Revolution in 1959 with the rise to power of Fidel Castro and foundation of a Marxist-Leninist republic.
The region of modern-day North Korea is claimed to have elements of a police state, from the Juche-style Silla kingdom, to the imposition of a fascist police state by the Japanese, to the totalitarian police state imposed and maintained by the Kim family. Paris-based Reporters Without Borders has ranked North Korea last or second last in their test of press freedom since the Press Freedom Index's introduction,[when?] stating that the ruling Kim family control all of the media.
Since the 2013 Egyptian coup d'état, the military government of Egypt is said to have taken several steps to crack down on freedom of religion and expression with the intention of decreasing religious extremism, leading to accusations that it has effectively become a "Revolutionary Police State".
Hong Kong is perceived to have implemented the tools of a police state after passing the National Security legislation in 2020, following repeated attempts by People's Republic of China to erode the rule of law in the former British colony.
Fictional police states have featured in media ranging from novels to films to video games. George Orwell's novel 1984 was described by The Encyclopedia of Police Science as "the definitive fictional treatment of a police state, which has also influenced contemporary usage of the term".
Orwell's novel describes Britain under the totalitarian Oceanian regime that continuously invokes (and helps to cause) a perpetual war. This perpetual war is used as a pretext for subjecting the people to mass surveillance and invasive police searches. The novel has been described as "the definitive fictional treatment of a police state, which has also influenced contemporary usage of the term".
Oprichnina was originally a band of faithful servants organized by Ivan IV into a police force; they were used by the tsar to crush not only all boyars (Russian nobility) under suspicion, but also the Russian princes [...]. Oprichnina enabled the tsars to build the first police state in modem history.
[Ivan IV] established a political security force to run the Oprichina[sic], whose task was to spy on his enemies and destroy them; hence Ivan may be regarded as the inventor of the police state.