Serious and organised crime research priorities 2019-2021

EMPAC aims to push its work on serious organised crime (SOC), aligned to the Home Office’s 2019-2021 strategic aim to increase capacity and capability through research, which is led by Mike Warren, the Director of Home Office Analysis and Insight.

EMPAC is already busy around various aspects of SOC, such as the work of Dr Afzal Ashraf, Assistant Professor Andy Newton and Jim Holyoak, all of whom are looking at differing aspects of intelligence development. Dr Ashraf’s expertise, for example, at the University of Nottingham, comes via his research background in counter terrorism (specifically concerning Al Qaeda’s ideology). Afzal spent over 30 years in the UK Armed Forces as a senior officer, serving as a Counter Insurgency and Political specialist. His expertise in deterrence, disruption, coercion and influence, taken from military intelligence applications, offers great opportunities for combating UK SOC.

Professor Newton, at the University of Leicester, is now exploring intelligence processes around combating violence, particularly involving the use of weapons. Andy is able to draw on new ESRC Impact Accelerator funding to help drive insight for East Midlands policing and beyond. Jim Holyoak, a former senior Leicestershire Police officer, and now a Senior Lecturer at De Montfort University, is specifically delving into the SOC within rural crime, an area which can often be overlooked or missed. Jim’s work aligns to the NPCC national portfolio on Rural Crime to help make the overlaps between ‘rural’ and SOC to support a more whole-system approach.

And although our three colleagues listed here are only a small representation of our regional activity, there is much more to be done going forward. The Home Office research priorities (published in November 2018 as Research Report 105), articulates the imperative for the UK to work together on this pressing domestic national security threat. The Home Office estimate the cost of SOC  to the UK as £37 billion annually. The National Crime Agency (NCA) National Strategic Assessment (2018) identifies:-

  • the non-geographical focus of many threats
  • criminal use of encryption and the dark web as enablers
  • the overlaps between the threat areas
  • the impact of technology
  • a rapidly changing picture

We know UK SOC transcends borders and there is a strong appetite now to encourage closer working between law enforcement and academic research to help get ahead of this complex and pervasive threat. The Home Office offers us a direction on how to best work together, which is summarised next – and it is within that direction that EMPAC seeks to help play its part for the forces and EM region, in the national interest.

So what’s the plan?

The Home Office organises the most important areas for research into four thematic parts (although they are keen also to ensure we do not forget such themes can often overlap – so we need to be guarded against silo research and silo thinking!):-

  1. Understanding the threat. SOC keeps changing and evolving, so we need to keep up or get ahead in our research and intelligence amidst that changing landscape.
  2. Criminal markets. the supply and demand of of illegal goods and services underpins SOC. We more we understand these ‘business’ models the better we can stop them.
  3. Vulnerabilities. Organised Crime Groups (OCGs) exploit the vulnerabilities of society. The better we understand vulnerability the more we can better respond.
  4. What works. The stronger our evidence-base for prevention, disruption and investigating SOC will best service the public. To do this though we must ensure we keep up-to-date and prioritise the key issues.

What are the UK priorities?

The Home Office, through the SOC strategy, defines SOC as “individuals planning, coordinating and committing serious offences, whether individually, in groups and /or part of transnational networks”. The main aspects of UK SOC are listed as:-

  • Illegal firearms
  • Fraud and financial crime
  • Money laundering
  • Child sexual exploitation and abuse
  • Organised immigration crime
  • Modern slavery
  • Human trafficking
  • Organised acquisitive crime
  • Cyber crime
  • Illegal drugs

Questions and more questions!

The Home Office are then helpfully driving the pursuance of research by articulating examples of key research questions. For example, if we take that first theme of ‘understanding the threat‘. this should prompt us to be asking such as:-

  • How do OCGs operate?
  • How is technology used by organised criminals?
  • What is the harm from SOC? Where is the greatest threat?
  • What is the scale of SOC?
  • What is the threat from economic crime?
  • How ill the threat evolve in the next 10 years?
  • How ill technology change the threat picture?

If we take the second theme, ‘criminal markets‘ we should be asking ourselves:-

  • What social factors facilitate SOC markets
  • What are the best points for intervention?
  • How do we best intervene, at the international, national, regional or local level?
  • Which roles are most effective to target and disrupt an OCG?
  • How do the various threats overlap?
  • How do OCGs identify and exploit new opportunities?
  • How do criminal markets operate?
  • How do different roles interact within criminal markets?
  • What are the OCG decision making processes?

If we take that third stream, ‘vulnerabilities‘, some key questions are:-

  • How do,we support those who are victims, mitigate harm and prevent re-victimisation?
  • What becomes of an individual at risk of becoming involved in SOC?
  • How do entry points differ among SOC offenders?
  • How do risk factors and motivations differ across OCGS?
  • How are businesses exploited to enable SOC?
  • How do international factors influence SOC?
  • The final theme, ‘what works’ provokes us to consider:-
  • How do we prevent involvement in SOC in the first place?
  • How do we measure the success of interventions?
  • How should we tailor our approaches to different levels of offending?
  • When is intervention most effective?
  • What are the pathways out of SOC, i.e. rehabilitation?
  • What types of disruption provide value for money?
  • What works in tackling OCGs?

So what?

Well, this is a bit like don’t ask what your country can do for you, more what can you do for your country! As researchers we need to get behind the need to work on the priority areas, and as the Home Office identify, help overcome what might be described as a more internalised threat. That threat is basically the silo. How can work together and better keep track of (all) our current research on SOC? Currently there is an element of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing in some of our research activity. That surely doesn’t really benefit anyone.

This is an area where can all make a difference by working better as a team, sharing ideas and insights in the best interests of protecting the UK from SOC. That impact is surely one of the most beneficial forms a researcher can contribute. This means we should work more across disciplines, from social geography, criminology, psychology and computer science (the list is endless!) and even where maybe the application concerning SOC might not so obvious. And we should work as a team across institutions to bring together the various skills and talents – just as in fact OCGs do when they co-operate for a common goal. Having pockets of information and knowledge that do not come together to help society is a current weakness we can all do our bit as researchers to overcome.

Supporting work through the College of Policing’s national Research Map EMPAC’s current work to map our regional research activity and capability, sponsored by Professor Todd Landman at the University of Nottingham, is a good move, but we need to accelerate our efforts and work together even better for maximum impact! This will include in the future increasing our efforts to align research student focus on priority SOC areas and seek, together, more research funding opportunities to better enable the wealth of expertise we have within and across EMPAC’s eight universities.

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