Exploring Intelligence Driven Policing

EMPAC’s John Coxhead has been invited to contribute to the international West Coast Security Conference in Vancouver in November, which is  sponsored by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. Amongst other things he will draw attention to the demise of the strategic intelligence function within law enforcement, and the fundamental, and urgent, need to revitalise the importance of intelligence driven investment. 

In the 1970s, the US national Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards suggested better systems should be enabled to gather and assess intelligence, a point re-affirmed in 1985 when Canada failed to foresee the Air Flight India  bombing. For several decades intelligence-led policing has played some part in policy and practice thinking, particularly concerning demand and crime reduction, as an alternative to reactive approaches (see US Department of Justice, 2008).

In the UK, the Audit Commission (1993) and HMIC (1997) promoted more use of the approach, but in the main adoption sped up due to  9/11, in Northern Ireland and counties such as Kent. Ratcliffe’s  (2008; 2016) assessments of intelligence-led (which have increasingly migrated into Problem Orientated Policing – POP) tend to remain insular in their perspective and preoccupied between the relationship of command and analyst functions. 

That has been part of the problem. Intelligence led policing was purposefully misinterpreted as analytical led policing, because that’s what analysts preferred within their comfort zone and police leaders let them get on with it.

An internalised focus

This abuse of the concept of intelligence driven has been played out in the following decades as something of a power play between who knows best in directing policing resources and intervention (science vs. craft and so forth); see Coxhead’s work on Policing 5.0 (2023). The limiting effect of the narrative of intelligence led as being about analysis has consistently undermined the importance of social ethnographic-based reconnaissance, with a biased leaning towards confirmatory quantification.

The gap with the desk-bound analyst lens of intelligence-led is the point of origin. Simply put, no analyst can analyse what is not there: someone somewhere has to got to go do the hunter gatherer bit. The passive policing approach to intelligence is in stark contrast to how intelligence and military services have found success: you have to go find things out or someone else will get there before you.

Rietjens (2023) points to the necessary fuzzy edges of operations and intelligence, and indeed not only the vitality of intelligence in the operational theatre, but also the potential potential in the further weaponisation of it. Policing has demarcated functions erroneously and in the process chosen to ignore the most important aspect of intelligence. 

Policing as remote and reactive

Policing has, despite several efforts to push it upstream, remained insular from communities and consequently reactive: often the last to know and trying to put together investigate jigsaw pieces after the event. Since the times of Sun Tzu this was never the point of intelligence; it is not supposed to be about hindsight, it’s supposed to about accentuating proactive initiative, to gain advantage.

Since there is a need to reaffirm the need for change, we need to be necessarily explicit that intelligence driven policing is needed because the police do not know what is happening out in the community unless someone somewhere tells it. Where policing relies on remote surveillance monitoring through CCTV and the like, as a form of disconnected curator, it scarcely keeps up with the symptoms and never finds the causes. Policing has given up on any thirst for pursuing intelligence and has become accustomed to cataloguing statistics.

Whilst there is a heated push still on the growth of the analytical function, and its analytics efficiency, there is a woeful appreciation of the greatest intelligence asset, which sits within communities. The majority of intelligence capacity and capability is unrealised because it has been written off as latent.  

Hit and run intelligence

Appealing for information from the wider community after the event is a weak plan. That’s exactly what happened, on the global stage following the murder of Olivia Pratt-Korbel in 2022; when it was too little, too late.

Policy decisions around neighbourhood policing had a toll on strategic and tactical actionable intelligence – not just a reduction of boots on the ground but ears on the streets – leaving a pick up the pieces investigation as the only approach then possible.

The policy approach of token investment which signals to the public we only want to talk to you when we want something has never worked. That’s why when the police investigations do start (after the event) they are often from scratch and have a tough job trying to persuade those who live amongst the crime zone that they care. It’s often expressed local communities have to live with their forgotten problems and they still have to live there when the police vans have gone. 

Intelligence failures 

Policing does not like the term ‘failure’ but without this there is no learning (see Coxhead, 2023, on maladaptive learning within policing), and, case in point,  there is rarely any discussion of ‘intelligence failures’, at a tactical or strategic level, even when the police are taken by surprise attack, time and again. 

The military, and business, understand the value of being on the front foot of intelligence failures, because the costs, operationally, of having poor intelligence are too great to write off. Policing has intimated it understands this concept yet repeatedly undervalues the most important cycle of intelligence: gathering it.

The single fundamental failure of modern UK policing is the lack of, and disregard for, being curious about what information lurks within communities. That lack of engagement also has some bearing on overlapping issues of a lack of trust in policing, which many have interpreted as a lack of interest: that the police have given up (Police Foundation. 2020). 

Intelligence driven

Driven is more purposeful than being led, and driven policing needs to be about its intelligence growth. Just to spell this out, this is not about trying to invest more in the analytical function, it’s about talking, and more important, listening to people. Not just for 30 second snatches of interaction under the haze of blue lights at the latest knife crime incident, but day in day out, warts and all, mundane and trivial. Not just on dial-in media shows and following appeals when the bodies pile up. 

Policing intelligence has to be an authentic investment, and where it matters most – in communities. Don’t expect a community to talk to you straight away, after all they may well ask where have you been for the last decade. But stick with it, because persistence will pay off. It will help build greater trust and confidence through listening more, which will in turn improve policing services, and there will be more actionable intelligence.

The reality we need to grapple with is, given a policing function that has retreated behind algorithms, calculators and triage, ‘if you want to know ask a police officer’ is no longer true – they are out of touch with what’s happening affecting the streets. The public on the other hand have an untold lived experience and know  more than they are telling. Because they aren’t being asked in the right way. 

What to do about it? The police need to get out more and pay attention by listening to people, which will source more information for analysts to craft, or, better still, make the functions hybrid as research agents. Intelligence driven means community driven. 




Comments are closed.