"To be just, our law must be cruel."
- – Motto of the Adeptus Arbites
"There is no crueler tyranny than that which is perpetuated under the shield of law and in the name of justice."
- – Charles de Montesquieu
"I AM THE LAW!"
- – Judge Dredd
They are basically the FBI of the Imperium. But they aren't just any ol' cops, they are badass motherfuckers, think of a combo of RoboCop and Judge Dredd. They usually drag the criminal up to the judge who then ceremonially declares them guilty and being guilty means that you have committed a crime. And in the Imperium there is only one crime and it is HERESY!!!!!!! On some worlds though, they send criminals to Imperial Guard penal legions instead of executing them on the spot, thus they may receive the Emperor's benediction on the glorious field of battle. The Adeptus Arbites have slightly smaller balls of steel than guardsmen from strutting in full-body black Carapace Armor called Hydraphur Judge's Armour to deal with the rabble, they are on the other hand made of much more man sauce than SPESS MEHREENS and their sissy power armor.
The Adeptus Arbites have shown that social sciences, like the applied, have also been degraded in the 41st millennium while they help power Terra by using the remains of long dead criminologists to drive generators. Excessive brutality is not an effective way of combating crime as it builds resentment between law enforcement and the people they are there to protect from lawlessness. On the other hand, if the alternative is letting over-populated hives become horror fests of the worst sorts of crime, then it might be more cost-effective for the Arbites crack as many skulls as they like. Mind, they are still rife with crime, but it's mostly low-key stuff like drugs and
forbidden objects now those are really dangerous: xenos artefacts and the like are forbidden for a reason. Life is (literally to the Arbites) the Emperor's currency. Are you going to go on a serial killing and thereby waste the Emperor's currency? Not if you value your life.
It says something that the thing keeping violent crime at a minimum (when compared to the sheer size of Imperial cities) is the fact that, if you murder someone, then that someone can't die for the Emperor and you have therefore stolen from the Emperor himself. Which has rather severe consequences (you stole from the Emperor, you are screwed).
If you want to include the Adeptus Arbites in a story or game of Dark Heresy, I suggest you read/watch/play/whatever the following for inspiration:
- Judge Dredd (The comic)
- Judge Dredd (1995 Movie) for stories set in 40k 1st edition
- Dredd (2012 movie) for more modern Arbites
- RoboCop (The 1987 original, not the 2014 remake)
- Die Hard
- L.A. Noire and/or L.A. Confidential (For that "law enforcement being full of corrupt douchebags" vibe)
- Hot Fuzz
- Rainbow Six
It's important to note that NOT all Imperial lawmen are Adeptus Arbites (this point is stressed repeatedly in the Ciaphas Cain novels - many travellers call local civil police forces the Arbites due to varying titles). The Arbites are like the FBI and Interpol (but not Interpol because Interpol isn’t a police force and actually just enables cooperation between police forces) of the 40K universe, they take on the cases with interplanetary criminals or crimes against the Imperial laws instead just the local planetary laws. Some planets have only a single Arbites agent loosely overseeing all the planetary police. Local Law Enforcement are usually not keen on seeing Arbites enter the picture, usually because it means someone fucked up badly or shit is getting serious. Planets that are especially important will have the Adeptus Arbites as their entire police force, such as Terra or Hydraphur. Others will have the Arbites as the leadership of the police force. So feel free to write a story or play a game involving plain old police in spess and have the Arbites as an overseer/boss/meddling (and possibly corrupt) dickhead.
Just to make things more complicated, the Adeptus Mechanicus have equivalent police divisions ; the Astonoymia - the equivalent of a civil police force on forgeworlds and Mechanicus enclaves on Imperial worlds, and the Collegiate Extremis - the rough equivalent of the Adeptus Arbites. Jurisdiction friction gets complicated.
TL;DR: Arbites don't give a fuck about regular crime unless it threatens the wider Imperium, i.e. can lead to rebellions, incursions and Imperial Tithe being unpaid, or if it threatens one of their own (so long as they are of a high-ish rank). If a shoplifter robs a street stall in front of them the Arbites won't care unless the shoplifter is using a weapon that is potentially harmful to them. If an otherwise upstanding man stands in the way of an Administratum cargo truck for more than absolutely necessary, that's a power maul to the back and a shove to the side.
What is the Law?
I AM THE LAW
The Arbites uphold Imperial Law, which is pretty broad. (It has to be, due to the varied nature of the Imperium and its myriad of different people at large.) It can however be very broadly summarized into two main points on a planetary level:
- Worship and remain loyal to the God-Emperor of Mankind
- Deliver the Imperial Tithe in a timely manner
Now, you might think: "that's it?", but the implementation of said points are often one hell of a pain in the behind to deal with and require frequent skull-busting. The first one consists mostly of smoking out and cracking down on Chaos cults, Genestealer infestations, separatists, xenoists and plain old power-hungry morons wanting to take over a world, system, or sector through violent and tithe disrupting upheaval; or any other joyous thing that could fuck up a planet from the inside. They don't explicitly handle heresy though; that's what the Sisters of Battle and Ordo Hereticus are for (although they do help when asked). The second point of Imperial Law generally revolves around making sure that everyone and everything that is supposed to get on a ship gets onto ships: soldiers and/or materiel supplied for tithes, psykers in Black Ships, etc. They also keep an eye on Rogue Traders/Merchantsmen when they come in port (you never know what one of those shady bastards has and/or wants in their hold) and hunt down smugglers.
On a more galactic scale, the Arbites ensure that new worlds get used to the routine and older, important worlds give what they should and don't get complacent. They tend to be a little harsh because the step after the law is broken is full-on rebellion. The Arbites also serve as proxies for the High Lords, adjudicating conflicts between the Administratum and the Planetary Governors and ensuring their loyalty.
BUT, if that was all they did there wouldn't be nearly enough opportunities for "I AM THE LAW" jackbooted curb-stomping. So on really, really, really important worlds (ie Terra, segmentum capitals, etc) the Arbites stop being the FBI and become the Mega-City One PD. This is where young, idealistic arbiters straight outta schola go to become the jaded motherfuckers the Arbites needs them to be. After a few years on the toughest beats in the galaxy, they are ready to be shipped off to far-flung worlds where they will often bear sole responsibility for ensuring that their planet's governor follows Imperial law, and that the local enforcers maintain order.
- The Grand Provost Marshal of the Adeptus Arbites: Nominal head of the entire organisation and one of the permanent seats amongst the High Lords of Terra. Yeah, keeping the Imperium as a whole in something within hailing distance of lawful is just that important.
- Luthir Goreman: Lord Marshal of the Adeptus Arbites in the Calixis Sector, Goreman is a former criminal who saw the light after being sent to assassinate a wandering preacher and was converted to the Imperial faith instead. He holds the common folk of the Imperium in utter disdain, seeing them as a bunch of lazy malcontents who require frequent application of brute force to keep them in line.
- Shira Calpurnia: The scion of a noble house of Ultramar who became an arbitrator and took postings all across the Ultima Segmentum before ending up on Hydraphur, where she had to maintain the law in the face of a bunch of noble families waging secret wars with each other. Despite being a noble, she's pretty down-to-earth and cares more about getting shit done than waiting on decorum. Notably, her family line includes a 1st Company Ultramarine Terminator.
In Tabletop 40k
Until the early 2000's the Adeptus Arbites featured a very small range of metal miniatures for 40k and Necromunda, and in these earlier editions they were typically (but infrequently) taken as allies by other Imperial armies. Arbites were well equipped with Hydraphur Judge's Armour and the ability to use different ammunition types for their shotguns, although they could take a decent variety of other weaponry as well. Unsurprisingly, Arbites filled approximately the same role of elite baseline-human infantry that Storm Troopers do currently. Although they are one of the last major Adeptus organizations that have yet to be given the full army treatment, it is uncertain when or if GW will ever grant them attention again. Thankfully you can convert Palanite Enforcers with a simple head swap, as third party heads are a dime a dozen.
- Dark Heresy and its second edition, which both have rules for playing as an arbitrator. The first edition even has a splatbook called Book of Judgement which is all about the Arbites.
- Codex - Adeptus Arbites - An 8th edition homebrew codex for Adeptus Arbites, complete with unique units, Precinct tactics, Strategems, and more!
- What Imperial propaganda portrays the Arbites like
- What they're actually like
- A 6th edition fan codex for Adeptus Arbites - As of 8th edition, these rules are no longer usable.
- Palanite Enforcers - A separate faction in the fluff, but in terms of models, they're basically trademark friendly Arbites.