Public criminal threat assessments are about persuasive communication
15 Jul 2015|

The Australian Crime Commission (ACC) report Organised Crime in Australia 2015 is derived from criminal intelligence, but it’s more useful to understand it as persuasive communication.

In my recent post, I highlighted a similar report from the UK’s National Crime Agency, and made the comment that their prioritisation matrix was an innovation that the ACC might consider adopting in the future. This isn’t suggested as a way to shape or set priorities for all law enforcement agencies; rather, its value would be in communicating the ACC’s work to both the public and political leaders without access to criminal intelligence products.

The ACC has published Organised Crime in Australia regularly since 2008. It does so to ‘inform the Australian community of the current and emerging organised crime threats that may directly or indirectly impact on our nation’, according to the foreword by CEO Chris Dawson. He makes no claim linking this publication to broader criminal intelligence work or any other agency’s priorities. Indeed, this document doesn’t task national law enforcement bodies—such decisions are made on a jurisdiction-by-jurisdiction basis.

Instead, the unclassified Organised Crime in Australia report is about convincing Australians that dealing with organised crime is in the interests of the whole community. That makes it a persuasive document in my view: it’s not partisan, but it’s meant to convince others to do something.

To achieve this, the ACC’s document explains the threats in some detail, but doesn’t draw distinctions among them. I think that additional value could be added by explaining the relative harm of each, and giving the public a broad idea about how the ACC will assign its resources to these crime types.

The ACC has a prioritisation process, which is led by its board and is featured in its strategic framework. The ACC also produce other key intelligence documents, namely the Organised Crime Threat Assessment and National Criminal Target Report. These documents would reflect the ACC’s priorities, but they’re classified.

We can also see the ACC’s priorities reflected in Board determinations, like the special operations for child sex offences, emerging drug threats and criminal wealth.

Publishing an unclassified, high-level version of the priorities in Organised Crime in Australia would promote the ACC’s stated outcome of ‘[reducing] serious and organised crime threats of most harm to Australians and the national interest’ by explaining which particular crimes generate the most harm. This could focus public attention on those crime types in a readily accessible way.

Explaining priorities could also help explain why some crime types receive additional attention over others. For instance, why was it necessary for the Australian government to establish and then extend the National Anti-Gangs Squad, task forces on serious financial crime taskforce and welfare fraud, a multidisciplinary taskforce to develop a national strategy towards the drug Ice, or use the ACC in counter-terrorism? Is it because these areas are causing more harm to Australia and Australians than others? Prioritisation could help the public to understand at least part of the reasoning behind these decisions.

In general too, prioritisation is important because the ACC is a small agency.  With the agency set to get smaller if budget estimates hold, choices will be needed about which criminal activities and criminals are to be pursued over others.

Of course, priorities can’t completely bind how agencies deal with crime. For one, organised criminal groups can operate in more than one illicit market, meaning that their activities can span more than one priority. And based on the approach made famous when tax law was used to disrupt Chicago’s mobs, you’d expect law enforcement to prosecute groups using whatever evidence was available, regardless of the stated priority.

Also, priorities can change rapidly. As mentioned above, the Australian government—in cooperation with the states and territories—established or extended numerous taskforces this year and last. A good explanation of why those measures were taken would help the public understand more about how law enforcement operates. Priorities can help that.

Australia today faces a wide variety of criminal threats that create significant harm for national interests, including for government, business and the community. Their harmful effects occur at many levels and they collectively impose a significant burden on Australia – the ACC says $15Bn at the moment, but that figure’s under review and sure to increase.

Still, no one is talking about ‘militarising’ serious and organised crime. It’s clearly a broad-based challenge. Meeting it requires the integration of health, education, welfare, financial, administrative and law enforcement instruments. And if others help, such as what the ADF does in niche roles like border surveillance and intelligence, then that’s OK too.

While there are other ways to explain how we should meet the challenge of organised crime, the current approach utilises a threat perspective. The current Organised Crime in Australia product is good but a clearer explanation of the ACC’s priorities would add greater value to public discussions.