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Australia’s law enforcement wins a battle but is losing the war

By John Coyne

Last week, the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and the Australian Border Force (ABF) jointly celebrated one of their greatest operational successes. In cooperation with US authorities and the Victorian police, they seized a record 1.7 tonnes of illicit drugs bound for our streets. While the bust was an operational success, any arguments that it will make Australia safer are tenuous.

Most law enforcement agencies in western liberal democracies measure their success in terms of arrests, seizures, and successful prosecutions. This is for good reason too: these measures resonate with politicians and the community. It’s likely that this resonance is a key historical driver for why, more often than not, these kinds of operational results serve as key performance measures for their organisations.

But their acceptance is not all about these external drivers. These kinds of arrests and seizures have deep connections with law enforcement culture.

My personal experience has been that police covet the big bust. When I ask police officers, and their leaders, what success looks like they often talk with pride of their arrests, seizures, and prosecutions.

In contrast to arrests and seizures, the AFP and ABF strategic vision is to make a safer Australia. Unfortunately, reports like the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission’s (ACIC) 2017 report ‘Organised Crime in Australia’ seem to suggest that these kinds of operational events aren’t translating into a strategic success.

The report argues that despite all of law enforcement’s operational successes, the cost of organised crime continues to rapidly rise in Australia.

In the past, I have made similar observations regarding illicit drug supply reduction measures – for example in herehere and here – arguing that law enforcement efforts haven’t reduced the availability or purity of drugs, nor the level of crime associated with drug addiction.

Existing quantitative performance measures have been established upon the old policing paradigms of response policing and enforcement activity. Often, effective crime prevention and disruption either have a neutral or negative impact on organisational performance measurements for law enforcement organisations.

Understandably then, law enforcement agencies struggle to develop meaningful strategic performance measures that evidence improved safety. This in turn impacts on the quality of our law enforcement strategies.

There is, of course, a counter-argument that law enforcement is but one lever in the broader national justice strategy. It might be that other elements of our strategy, like drug demand reduction, aren’t pulling their weight.

But even if this were correct there’s still not a clear picture of what success looks like nor of how law enforcement operational activities link with broader policy initiatives.

Over the last two decades, successive police and law enforcement leaders have engaged with policing management methodologies – for example, community policingproblem-orientated policing, and intelligence-led policing – and new public management trends in search of new strategies.

Strangely, much of the contemporary policing literature has focused decision-making at tactical and operational levels rather than strategic ones. While these trends have produced solid results in terms of both efficiency and effectiveness, the development of a consistent and measurable understanding of law enforcement success has been evasive.

Australia’s law enforcement agencies have stumbled into a war of attrition against organised crime that they have little chance of winning. Even with the efficient and effective deployment of its finite resources, this attrition strategy ill equips law enforcement strategists to deal with the amorphous and entrepreneurial adversaries it faces. Law enforcement innovation, whether technical or otherwise, is unlikely to result in significant change either – at best it’ll help us keep pace.

While this is a rather bleak perspective, it isn’t a story of hopelessness nor an effort to decry enforcement and response activities. Instead, it’s a rally cry for a rethink of what law enforcement success looks like in order to reset our strategy.

Playwright George Bernard Shore once argued that ‘progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything’. With a Federal election in Australia’s near future, there are opportunities for 2019 and 2020 to be a period where Australia’s Federal Government looks to work with Home Affairs to define success in law enforcement.

Before we consider what ‘safer’ looks like in Australia, we need to understand the current level of criminal harm. While the ACIC Organised Crime in Australia 2017 report provides a snapshot of serious and organised crime in Australia, further detail of the strategic implications of these nefarious activities is needed. This harm statement would need to clearly articulate the scope of harms and their effects.

A national serious and organised crime harm statement could be used by government to highlight the tangible and intangible harms or effects of serious and organised crime on Australia, its people, and its interests.

With this, government could then articulate a clear statement of its definition of success to Australia’s federal law enforcement agencies, and in doing so promote the development of new strategies and innovation all the while maintaining the statutory independence of our law enforcement agencies.

Originally published by: Policy Forum on 13 Feb 2019