Talking to the chiefs: Andrew Colvin (part 1)

A revolution is needed in how the Australian Federal Police fights crime as increasingly tech-savvy criminals and terrorists outstrip the skills of law enforcement agencies, says the force’s commissioner, Andrew Colvin.

‘The environment is changing around us and we’re not adapting quickly enough’, Commissioner Colvin tells The Strategist before making a landmark speech to ASPI.

‘The pace of change in the criminal space is such that the time is long gone where we can allow changes in our policing culture to be evolutionary. We must now think in terms of revolution’, he says.

‘It’s like the frog in hot water. The water’s getting hotter and hotter around Commonwealth policing and we were doing our best to keep up and stay afloat.’

Detailing his push to change policing culture in the 6,500-strong AFP, Colvin says: ‘It’s about transforming to become the organisation we need to become and putting an accelerator onto that.’

There must be a much broader national conversation about policing in the public and in government, he says. There’s more crime now than police can deal with. ‘When you’re talking about cybercrimes affecting people directly, crimes against children, or major drug importations and we’re not able to deal with it all because demand’s too high, then we’ve got to think about doing our job differently.’

Colvin says that terrorism was a game-changer for him because it demonstrated that police could have a great impact by disrupting, dismantling and taking action early. ‘Clearly you can’t wait for a crime to be committed in the terrorism space, but it’s the same with organised crime and transnational crimes. If we can remove the facilitator, then we can have a much bigger impact on organised crime. By removing the profits, I’ll hurt criminals a lot more.’

The future, he says, is not just officers doing police work but an array of multi-discipline teams working together—the Tax Office taking action against a crime syndicate or AUSTRAC shutting down an account rather than waiting for money or drugs to be smuggled in to take out a bikie gang.

Colvin says police have for too long been treating technology as the enemy rather than embracing it. ‘Let’s treat the internet as an advantage for ourselves. We’ve been saying forever that crime is more complex, so why train my officers the way I was trained 28 years ago? I need to train them differently, to make them think differently. I probably need a lawyer sitting next to my fraud and corruption investigators as much as I need another police officer and an accountant sitting alongside them.’

Skills are more important than numbers, Colvin says. ‘The AFP doesn’t need to have just police. There need to be enough to do the police work but with different skill sets and capabilities behind them. ‘We’re turning the model on its head and shifting to a much more capability-based structure. We need a revolution in the type of workforce we have, but first and foremost it’s about how we see ourselves and how we think about problems. That’s a revolution because police are very conservative. We draw comfort from doing things the way we’ve always done them. I’m asking us to think differently about that. If a 2 kilogram seizure means I can disrupt a major organised crime syndicate, then that’s better than a 500 kilogram seizure where I get two students who are the first people to put their hands on the drugs.’

Australians are among the world’s earliest adopters of modern technologies and Colvin says criminals are at the front end of that curve and they’re using it before the police. ‘We realise how big an issue encrypted phones and encrypted over the top applications are when we find we’re going dark on many of our investigations because criminals are using encrypted platforms. As we’re thinking how we’ll catch up, they’re moving on to the next encrypted platform. We all know now there’s the internet and an internet that sits underneath the internet. Criminals were in there using it. We found out about it by following the trail of criminal conduct and landing at a point that was like a dead end until we realised that there’s another whole world under the internet. But we’re now playing catch-up in the dark web.’

He has smart people who are learning very fast—but they’re learning it rather than it being a natural extension of what they do. Now, the AFP is competing for the skills of young people who live and breathe technology and who can follow the chains.

This challenges the AFP’s notions of where it recruits from. ‘We have to accept that some people we want to bring into the organisation, I’m not going to say they have criminal pasts, but they probably played around on the internet in ways that we would ordinarily in policing have said, “We can’t hire you”.  We need to test that and assess if they are still fit for policing. Probably, many of them will be.’

These digital natives might not be police officers. ‘They may not need a badge and a gun. Traditional police officers will still have to do those bits.’ Ideally, staff will have more mobility and be able to move between functions to refresh, retrain and explore different ways of doing business.

‘At the moment, because of our hierarchy, you join the organisation through the same process I went through 28 years ago and you’re largely then asked to do things the way they’ve always been done. A lot of the people we’re recruiting want opportunities to experiment, to do it differently, find better ways to do things.

‘I’ve got to build the culture that allows that and break the culture that stymies it. We are finding resistance to it because I think our culture is one of trying to do things the way they’ve always been done rather than the way we need to do it differently. My younger generation of police officers are very willing to change and have a thirst for it, but people like myself who’ve been in the organisation a long time and my colleagues probably find it difficult to wrap our heads around doing things differently because it involves risk.’