Building the national criminal intelligence system
14 Aug 2014|
Road to success?In its report from earlier this year, the National Commission of Audit recommended that the CrimTrac Agency, which collects data about crime, be merged with the nation’s leading criminal intelligence agency, the Australian Crime Commission. It’s a proposal that’s drawn considerable interest, so I’ve written a special report (released today) to examine the options.

There are two distinct—but not irreconcilable—views about the proposal. For one, there’s a desire to better use criminal information across all jurisdictions. That view sees an opportunity to use CrimTrac’s data more effectively and for more purposes by linking it with the national criminal intelligence agency.

On the other hand, there’s an equally strong desire to maintain CrimTrac’s functionality and to focus its investment fund on the needs of all police stakeholders, and not just those engaged in countering serious and organised crime. Reconciling those views will require detailed research about how a merged organisation would benefit all stakeholders—especially the frontline police and criminal intelligence operators in all the jurisdictions.

But does the merger proposal actually address the right question?

I argue that a better way to view the problem is to ask how the Commonwealth can play a role as a steward for the national criminal intelligence system. That perspective will show the Australian Government has two options—other than to do nothing.

The first option is to push straight to a merger of the ACC and CrimTrac. That’s a viable course, although it’ll need to be handled carefully to ensure all stakeholders support it. It’ll also require new investment and legislative changes.

The second is to approach the goal of an enhanced criminal intelligence system in a more indirect way. That would include a number of steps: consensus building fully to implement the recently agreed Australian Criminal Intelligence Model; agreement on ways to optimise existing information holdings; and investment to allow better use of criminal information for frontline police and intelligence users in all jurisdictions. Lastly, it would require agreement to make the most of the revenue-earning potential of criminal information. After all, this is an important resource in an economy that’s increasingly connected and looking for points of truth in online dealings. If that incremental approach is unsuccessful, the Commonwealth will have built an incontrovertible case for major structural changes in the national criminal intelligence system.

How this proposal is progressed depends largely on the attitude of the state and territory law-enforcement ministers and police commissioners. If they support the principle, a merger of the ACC and CrimTrac might proceed quickly if the new arrangements fix the information-sharing inconsistences and provide some start-up investment. The Commonwealth should also offer some guarantees about the future of the national criminal information-sharing enterprise to allay any concerns.

But if there’s a hint that the merger proposal would create unnecessary friction, the Commonwealth’s ministers and officials should spend their political capital on fixing impediments that make the current arrangements suboptimal. Putting CrimTrac on a legislative basis would be a good start if this course is chosen.

Importantly, the proposal presents an opportunity for the Australian Justice Minister to give the federal Cabinet a chance to consider the Commonwealth’s role in law enforcement more holistically. That would be especially timely, because the law enforcement sector is undergoing significant change and is facing real resource pressures.

David Connery is a senior analyst at ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user Jes.