Drowning not waving: after 40 years of neglect, what now should be done to develop police intelligence practice in Britain?

Dr Adrian James

I have been studying police intelligence practice for about 16 years (see James, 2016, 2014, 2012, and 2003). It has been a fascinating, intriguing, and frustrating journey in almost equal measure. Perhaps the thing I have found most frustrating is that after more than 40 years of scholarly research, police-led research and ‘official’ inquiries into criminal intelligence work, that practice looks very much the same today as it did in 1975.

The Audit Commission (1993) was a significant actor in stimulating interest in the subject, but insider-led scrutiny of criminal intelligence work began with the Baumber Inquiry (ACPO, 1975). This was followed by the Pearce Report (ACPO, 1978); the Ratcliffe Report (ACPO, 1986), the 1997 report Policing with Intelligence (HMIC); the Bichard Inquiry (Home Office, 2004); the  National Intelligence Model Review (to which I made a small contribution) (ACPO, 2014) right the way through to Building the picture: An inspection of police information management (HMIC, 2015). These are some of the most significant inquiries but I doubt this is an exhaustive list.

            Of course some things have changed. There is increasing specialisation in criminal intelligence work as well as a proliferation of intelligence assessments and sundry other analytical products. But, largely, these changes are presentational. Even if they have shaped practice at the margins, I question whether they have influenced policing in anything other than the most superficial of ways. Certainly, what really mattered to Baumber (and to a great extent to both Pearce and Ratcliffe) in terms of the development of a suitably professional and capable intelligence workforce – a collective vision for intelligence; common understanding of the intelligence basics; improved training and selection procedures that put the best and most experienced staff into those important positions – have not been delivered. I argue that is because, despite the rhetoric to the contrary, the institution has never truly accepted the case for them.

In previous publications, I have attributed this to human factors; the negative impacts of institutional conservatism, managers’ self-interest and professional subcultures (see James, 2016). I have also reflected on the extent to which there is an identity crisis in the intelligence world; left to its own devices has it lost sight of its raison d’etre? Perhaps, it is able only to focus on its own part of the business, without concerning itself with the external realities; the police organization’s unswerving commitment to action over reflection, its rejection of existentialism in favour of pragmatism. It may be more accurate to say that an indifferent executive has not allowed it to concern itself with those external realities by sidelining it from meaningful involvement in the decision-making process – that certainly was a significant factor in the story of the NIM (see James, 2013). I remain convinced that these realities are hugely significant factors in this environment and are detrimental to the development both of the work and the workforce but the more I reflect on the issues, the more I wonder if these are just very obvious symptoms of bigger problems rather than the problems themselves.

Recently, I have been exploring that idea with a colleague from the Finnish Police University. Our dialogue increasingly has focused on classic analyses of bureaucracies. Weber (1947) argued that bureaucracies are wired to become increasingly specialized precision instruments. Largely, their aim is not to fit better with the pieces of a larger puzzle but to achieve excellence in their own right. When the task is unclear, the bureaucracy loses its identity and floats without purpose. Perhaps, that is where the intelligence world finds itself today. Weber said that to exercise control, bureaucratic administrations relied on a combination of technical and experiential knowledge, which itself was a product of the “‘striving’ for power”, characteristic of bureaucratic organisations (1947 p.339). By that analysis, arguably, what we are witnessing here in the intelligence milieu is a natural development of the institution in which significant efforts to reshape the status quo through ‘revolutionary’ schemes such as: the first recorded intelligence-led policing initiative, the Aberdeen Policing Experiment; the Unit Beat Policing experiment of the 1960s, the Kent Policing Model (the precursor of the NIM) and the NIM itself (see James, 2013), have consciously (or unconsciously) been disdained for fear that in the long run they may have unknown and unintended consequences, more detrimental to the institution or to the individuals who wield power within it or to the communities it serves (not necessarily in that order).

Both Robert Reiner (2012) and Ben Bowling (2007) have argued persuasively that we should recognise the limits of policing. Bowling suggests that ‘good enough’ policing is as much as we reasonably can expect from the institution. Should we apply that same caveat to police intelligence practice? I am in complete agreement with Reiner and Bowling on the need for a kind of reality check on police capabilities but it seems to me that ‘good enough’ is only an acceptable aim when it can be demonstrated that the organisation and its individual members actually are doing their best, working efficiently, effectively, and ethically to provide the services that stakeholders and communities expect and need. For all the energy expended by the institution in the context of crime and criminality, the evidence suggests that it may be working hard enough, but in failing to make the best use of its intelligence, it is not working smart enough. As the reader has seen, identifying the root causes of these inefficiencies will be difficult; as the last 40 years have shown, resolving them may be much, much harder.

Dr Adrian James is a Senior Lecturer in Criminal Investigation at the Institute of Criminal Justice Studies, University of Portsmouth. Email: adrian.james@port.ac.uk  



7 thoughts on “Drowning not waving: after 40 years of neglect, what now should be done to develop police intelligence practice in Britain?

  1. Interesting blog, thank you. Perhaps I could make a couple of comments in no particular order.
    First, Bowling’s ‘good enough’ policing. It seems a reasonable enough proposition but I fear that it is a chimerical vision. Towards the end of his paper, Bowling reserves the right to make the judgement that a particular aspect of policing is not ‘good enough’ and in need of improvement – in his case, stop-search. Here, a pitch is made for the intelligence function and no doubt similar claims would be made by victims of domestic/child/sexual abuse, proponents of problem-oriented policing, road traffic accident prevention and those concerned about the proliferation of cybercrime. There are no doubt other areas and the problem of multiple priorities becomes more acute when the ‘good enough’ standards of the day are rejected as totally inadequate, years later. I don’t see how ‘good enough’ can ever become a reality, short of the police being self-arbiters of ‘good enough’ – a level of professional independence which is a thing of the past.
    The intelligence function came to the fore in the early/mid 1990s, in response to substantial rises in volume crime. Ten years later, recorded crime had fallen, particularly in relation to highly patterned property crime. Whilst intelligence undoubtedly assisted in the fall, the extent of its contribution was unclear. I suspect that this made the intelligence function’s raison d’etre less obvious. This is also a fairly closed world even to police insiders, so the reasons why it should attract the best staff etc would not necessarily be obvious either. Overall it seems to me that the intelligence function needs to decide what its capabilities are and then market them more assertively. If you have 10 uniformed officer attending 40 emergency calls per shift, you have a pretty good idea of what you’re getting for that investment. It would be helpful to have a better idea, even approximately, of the cost-effectiveness of the intelligence function.
    Thanks again for the blog.

  2. Hello Robert

    Thank you for taking the time to post. I have read your own work in this area with great interest. As much as anything, one of my aims here is to stimulate wider interest in the subject but, as you rightly say, intelligence is a closed world and it isn’t obvious that it would present fertile ground for researchers even if my experience (and I guess yours too) suggests otherwise. My research leads me to the conclusion that if the intelligence function can be improved then improvements in all those other areas you describe, necessarily will follow. That may be a little too simplistic – certainly, that takes no account of political pressures, organisational dynamics, cultures, working practices and the like. My sense is that the situation is even more complex. Many managers seem to accept the beneficial link between the two but few have gone on to translate their acceptance of the principle into meaningful action. ‘Why that is so?’ is something upon which I continue to reflect. How to assess the cost-effectiveness of something that doesn’t happen – i.e. quantifying the economic, political, and so on, savings that result from averting a particular criminal act? Now that’s an interesting question. I shall mull that over. Adrian

  3. Having been an ‘inside insider’, ‘outside insider’ and an ‘inside outsider’ (Brown, 1996) in policing and policing research for over 30 years, I share your frustration in the lack of development of police intelligence practice in England and Wales over that period.

    I believe that there are a number of factors that have slowed down this development, which I will endeavour to summarise as follows:
    1. Perhaps surprisingly, police intelligence has never been a major priority for senior police managers, with minimal resources being placed into police intelligence units, despite the introduction of the National Intelligence Model (NIM) in 2000 as a policing business model (NCIS, 1999; 2000; 2002; HMIC, 2005; Flood and Gaspar, 2009).
    2. NIM was introduced at a time of competing priorities such as the Police Act, 1996, the Police Act, 1997, the Data Protection Act, 1998, the Human Rights Act, 1998 and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, 2000 (Home Office, 1996; 1997; 1998a; 1998b; 2000) all of which had ‘major implications’ for the collection, processing and dissemination of information and intelligence (John and Maguire, 2004).
    3. The prominence of other policing models such as; neighbourhood policing (ACPO, 2005), problem-oriented policing (Goldstein, 1979; 1990; 1996), Broken Windows Theory (Kelling and Wilson, 1982), Zero-Tolerance Policing (Dennis, 1998), Knowledge-Based Policing (Williamson, 2008) and Evidence-Based Policing (Sherman, 1998), which were all in competition with intelligence-led policing, rather than being integrated through the NIM.
    4. The plethora of central government performance management indicators, policies and practices introduced over the last 30 years may have served to diffuse the initial intentions of the NIM (Maguire and John, 2006; Scott-Lee, Martin & Shipman, 2008).
    5. The old cliché of; ‘what gets measured get done’ (Berry, 2009).
    6. The introduction of the adversarial CompStat Meetings (Maple and Mitchell, 2000) as a performance management process with a focus on crime and detections, which often replace the NIM Tasking and Coordinating Group Meetings.
    7. The Audit Commission Report (1993) and the overwhelming quest for criminal detections, with the main focus on the offender rather than the victim. Which I term OOPS!!! Policing (i.e. an Offender Oriented Policing Style), rather than real COPS Policing (i.e. a Community Oriented Policing Style).
    8. A lack of understanding of ‘Community Intelligence’ (Thomas, 2015; 2016) and its benefits for counter terrorism.
    9. A lack of preventative policing, which relies on all forms of intelligence, including; Criminal Intelligence, Crime Intelligence, Community Intelligence and Contextual Intelligence (Innes, Fielding and Cope, 2005).
    10. All this may be summed up as a lack of a significant intelligence culture within the police service. As Friedman et al (1998: 8) argue;

    Intelligence systems cannot be created without creating a culture of intelligence. With that culture, professionals may or may not be necessary. Without the culture, professionals are a waste of space.

    The above list is not exhaustive and I feel I have only scratched the surface, but I hope this may help to widen the debate.

  4. Hi Garry. You capture much of what has become a highly complex, multi dimensional debate. I hope that it will stimulate others to contribute. I wasn’t aware of Friedman et al’s work and will now seek it out. Thank you so much for that. Culture is really interesting to me but I feel that it is only part of the problem – a highly significant part but not the whole story. Cheers, Adrian

  5. Pingback: Algorithmic policing and freedom of information – how far should transparency extend? – BSC Policing Network

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