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Fighting serious organised crime: The National Crime Agency and police forces working together.

October saw images of officers clad in black fatigues flashing across our screens and new National Crime Agency (NCA) being hailed by some as the British FBI. A month in the NCA is getting on with the job.

The stark truth is that the step change in law enforcement which the NCA is designed to deliver is necessary.

We live in a world where crime networks trading in drugs, firearms, cyber crime, counterfeiting, identity crime, sexual exploitation and people trafficking are complex, interlinked and sophisticated. Their members are both highly resilient and skilled at evading the law.

So the launch and clear focus of the NCA on relentless pursuit of these criminals who bring misery to communities is to be celebrated and seen as an important part of the effort that many have been making for many years. It is not, as some have sought to say, just a rebranding exercise with a smaller budget and fewer resources, but an opportunity for all in policing and UK law enforcement to raise their game.

Organised crime group mapping was introduced by ACPO several years ago and this process remains at the heart of the new Home Office strategy and the work of the NCA. All forces take responsibility for identifying offenders, gathering intelligence, investigating and ultimately prosecuting members of organised crime groups. Alongside forces and working with national agencies, the police led multi-agency Regional Organised Crime Units (ROCUs) provide additional specialist assistance to police forces for covert operations, financial investigation and surveillance when required.

The police service has become increasingly successful at putting serious, organised criminals behind bars and taking their assets. We haven’t done this alone, it’s been in partnership with a range of others including the Serious Organised Crime Agency, HM Revenue and Customs, UK Border Agency, Trading Standards, the Environment Agency, the Gangmasters Licensing Authority and the Department for Work and Pensions.

Police forces are highly effective at tackling organised crime in their areas and the newly introduced ROCUs widen their reach and capabilities but their resources and structure mean that they cannot always tackle organised crime on a national and international level. As in other areas of policing, it makes sense to nationally coordinate policing rather than duplicating activity in each force.

That is why we in policing need a niche national agency to support what we do and enhance our ability to fight organised crime. The NCA’s links to European and international partners will be invaluable as will its ability to gather the most sensitive information and intelligence from other national partners like HMRC, GCHQ, MI5 and MI6.

ACPO has been working closely with Keith Bristow, NCA’s director general and his senior team to develop a strong, effective working relationship between chief constables and the NCA. As chief officers, we are in fierce and firm agreement that there needs to be a partnership approach: working together to assess risk, sharing intelligence and resources, and ultimately being jointly accountable for our operations.

Written into the empowering legislation is the ability for the NCA to direct forces to provide assistance or to ensure that a particular task is undertaken. In considering how we best deploy our resources we will always have to take account of specific demands that a particular force might be facing but we and the NCA are clear that directive tasking should not be necessary. I would go so far as to say that if it were to happen, then the relationship and partnership has failed as our shared understanding and responsibility should mean that we work together without falling back on legislation.

We all agree that serious organised crime has a corrosive and devastating effect on communities across the country – drug-related deaths, misery caused by anti-social behaviour, theft, burglary, sophisticated cyber attacks, people being trafficked for slavery, violence and murder. It costs the country at least £40 billion a year and we know that there are at least 40,000 people currently active in over 5,000 organised crime groups in the UK. While smashing the door down, collecting evidence and taking a case to court is attractive to us all, enforcement alone cannot win the war.

We all recognise that there needs to be much more focus on preventing and preparing for the threat of organised crime, making the environment as hostile as possible to these criminals. We should be applying as much crime prevention to top level offences as we do to lower level crimes.

Education, early intervention and social support can help to divert people away from criminal careers. Changes in technology, manufacturing and legislation have substantially reduced some forms of crime such as carbon credit card fraud, VAT fraud and vehicle theft and could do the same for serious organised crime. Looking to the future, effective border control and ensuring that all new computers, tablets and smart phones come with built-in protection from cyber attack could make a real difference. The NCA’s emphasis on tackling corrupt public officials, lawyers and accountants who act as enablers is another positive step in this direction.

Finally, I really do urge those looking on from the sidelines to give the NCA time and space to do what it is there to do. The public, media and politicians of whatever colour must realise that the criminals we are looking to defeat are sophisticated and will do all they can to insulate themselves from investigation, disruption and attack; it can take years of painstaking and complex investigations to build cases against them.

The best result for the UK may not be high-profile arrests and convictions of a few very bad people but rather the long term stifling of opportunity and the prevention of crime, which is much harder to measure and doesn’t make headlines but arguably has a much greater impact.

Mick Creedon is the National Policing Lead for the National Crime Agency Working Group, and is Chief Constable of Derbyshire Constabulary.