Keeping pace with modern day serious and organised crime: the challenge for law enforcement

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Keeping pace with modern day serious and organised crime: the challenge for law enforcement

Last week the National Crime Agency (NCA) published its annual assessment of serious and organised crime (SOC), accompanied this time with a number of stark facts and a call for £2.7 billion investment from the government. This bid for more money sits alongside a chorus of appeals across the law enforcement community for more funds and an end to a decade of austerity. But what does the latest NCA analysis reveal about the level and nature of SOC in this country and what kind of new investments are required to tackle it? 

Headline figures from the NCA report include a total of 181,000 serious and organised criminals operating from within the UK. Just over 37,000 of these are known to the police and are on a database that maps out organised crime groups (OCGs) nationally. These individuals make up just over 4,500 groups in total. The number of people on this database has remained relatively stable and there are in fact fewer groups than reported in 2017. The problems in using this as a SOC barometer are well-known to enforcement. In addition to the technical challenges in collecting robust data, it is confined to known ‘nominals’ that the police have selected for a response.  There is within the database uneven coverage across different law enforcement agencies and crime-types, and rising levels of cyber and financial crime have separated source (ie offender) from impact (ie victim or community), with much emanating from offenders overseas that are not counted.

The NCA stressed that the latest threat picture is real, not motivated to invoke public and political fear to lever more resources. So what’s changed? SOC is a problem with many faces and is seldom directly experienced by most people. As an aggregation of many different types of crime, it can appear abstract and one way to give it substance is to bring specific elements to the fore. In line with the latest government strategy, online child sexual abuse and exploitation (CSAE) has become a point of focus. The surge in the number of serious and organised crime offenders is due to the identification of 144,000 UK-based accounts engaging in child sex abuse images or networks on the dark web. It is not known how many people this represents so, unlike the former, it constitutes more a statistical estimate than a head-count. Added to this, however, is an 850% increase in the number of referrals of people accessing indecent images of children from industry since 2013 (detected on the open web). It is known that this new form of volume crime has placed a considerable strain on the NCA and police with over 20,000 such reports received by local police in 2017-18.

It would seem undeniable that the nature of SOC has seen significant change since the NCA was introduced in 2013. This is not only because of the changing nature of crime but also because of a police and law enforcement mission that is more centred on grappling with some of the most insidious and harmful crimes impacting on society, often with complex social, economic and technological causes at their root. Law enforcement agencies have been observed in the past to allow hidden crime to stay hidden for fear of being overwhelmed by demand. More of these serious crimes on the police radar signals a positive shift towards a focus on ‘lifting the stone’ to identify and tackle hidden crime. Whether it reflects more crime or better identification (likely both) may be relevant to our understanding of the problem, but not for practitioners for whom there is an imperative to respond regardless.

Improved identification and crime recording have led to similar rises in fraud as with CSAE, rising by 132 per cent since the introduction of Action Fraud, and modern slavery, with referrals rising by a third since 2017.  

In a context of rising demand and limited resource where should additional investment go?

New crimes call for new tactics and techniques from SOC policing that for many years focused mainly on drug markets. A key example is online CSAE which is being reported by industry in ever-increasing volumes but is a crime that defies conventional understanding; it is a serious, borderless crime that is proliferating but with no clear epicentre in terms of geography, markets, ‘OCGs’ or vulnerability. It is a very different problem to deal with but as visibility becomes clearer, expectations of law enforcement will get higher.

Proactivity is central to effective enforcement against SOC but this is resource-intensive and often calls for specialist skills and technology, for example in digital, financial and online investigation, and new crimes call for new methodologies. Currently, demand heavily outstrips supply of these resources.  Information only has value if it can be harnessed and investment in data analytics would bolster capabilities to take meaning from the information the police already collect; a clear example is reports of suspicious transactions from the private sector (SARs). These challenges cut across all layers of policing, from the NCA down to local police forces which deliver much of the response.

The scale of the resource-deficit is one consideration, but perhaps the more pertinent question is how more resources could be directed to maximum effect. The NCA is undoubtedly central to coordinating and delivering interventions, but the dispersed nature of SOC creates a diffusion of intervention-points across policing and across a wide range of organisations and sectors. It presents as a very wide target-board, with wholly different types of crime likely to be responsive to a different calibration of enforcement, protection and prevention, and at different levels (from international to local). A clear-sighted view of the gaps, opportunities and objectives is central to ensuring any investment is smart and impactful.