25th June 2021
The use of Task Forces, or any other of the myriad of names given to Police investigation or operational teams, is another slow-burning issue of Police strategies arguably misused in times past; over time, they have created inertia of their own to the detriment of efficient and effective policing.
Dedicated units are an ‘easy get‘ for less competent managers. We have a problem; so, create a Task Force (or specialist group), problem solved. Some of these groups have continued for years. Used in a wide range of serious crime targeting, they are a significant drain on operational resources impacting police capacity to respond to the broader policing function.
When Task Force’s become a fetish of management, this reduces the capacity of Police to respond more broadly and directly drives the need for more task Forces.
Not to be confused with Crime investigation Squads that target a particular crime category, Homicide, Drugs, Fraud etc., rather than solely focused on just one crime or criminal group.
This issue also raises yet another conundrum of whether it is more effective and efficient to have generalists rather than specialists in Policing.
It is an empirically established long-held policing philosophy that prevention is the most effective policing tool. Equally, as all crime has its origins in the community, effectively policing the community will reduce the frequency of all crimes, serious or otherwise.
The question here is not whether Police should, or should not, target significant criminals or crimes, but what and how resources should be applied. And how is the cost-benefit, in the dollar and social impact terms, applied to decision making and how continuous functions are measured and monitored?
We often hear that a serious criminal has been charged with multiple crimes and assets seized, and there is no doubt the community appreciates these outcomes. Still, the kicker is always that the investigation took two or three years to bring about the result. Which, of course, will take another two or three years to progress through the Legal System, so cumulatively, criminals can continue their unlawful activities for years, with Police in effect, acquiescing to the criminal endeavor to continue while they gather the evidence.
The community pays a sometimes-heavy price during this time of continued criminal activity as victims. Something often overlooked by Police in their quest, sometimes doggedly, to build successful prosecutions.
That is something the community (the victims) would no doubt have an opinion on.
In most cases, the community carries the risk to allow a successful Police outcome, which may not always be acceptable.
Task Forces can be very inefficient from the Policing perspective. The drawdown of Police (usually the most competent) from the operational front line service the needs of a Task Force directly impacts the standard of policing at the community level and overall Policing effectiveness.
Successfully negotiating this and other vexed questions is not an easy task given the competing priorities faced by Police. Still, a solution would catapult Victoria Police to the forefront of leading Police services in this country.
An honest Police member who has served on a task force will tell you that although the concept of focusing exclusively on a target/s has advantages, it is incredibly inefficient as the downtime or inactivity for periods is boring and non-productive. Team members often create non-essential work to fill the allotted time.
We accept that downtime, to some extent, is unavoidable but needs to be better managed.
Rather than the Task Force model, the adequate staffing of Criminal Investigation Squads may well be the answer. A Squad can focus on a particular crime type and manage resources to achieve Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s) in that crime category and prioritise multiple investigations targeting multiple suspects rather than focus on one suspect or just one crime. The broader approach ensures that resources of VicPol are more efficiently and strategically applied without reducing but improving effectiveness.
Individuals within a Squad or Crime Investigation Unit (CIU) can still focus on a particular target but perform other support functions in the Squad or unit. This model is currently replicated across the State in local Crime Investigation Units.
Skill sets of investigators are broadened, making it easier to up-skill and maintain effective management controls. Investigators can focus on more than one narrow field, maximising the efficient use of the resource.
The average Detective can deal with multiple issues and, in varying team scenarios working with one Detective on one case while working with another on a completely different case. Sometimes they hold the lead and others the support roles. Nevertheless, the fundamental skill of a Detective is the multitasking model, and we would argue that they are at least as good, if not more so than a Task Force or Squad Detective that is one dimensional.
The proviso is that they are properly resourced with support services as that is usually the only difference between a Local detective and a Task Force or Squad Detective.
With the advances in technology to follow the current model is not a good management practice.
The organisational aspect is but one part; the management is another.
The management of Task Forces, and their failings, was bought into sharp focus by the Royal Commission into the Management of Police Informants, the ‘Gobbo affair’.
Day after day, as many of us sat through the evidence, the one common thread we saw was repeated failures of management, particularly at the Executive level. The direct involvement of Senior Executives and the subsequent failures by them losing objectivity was laid bare.
They became embroiled in the detail, micro-management, instead of standing back and maintaining a global perspective. Task Force members became ensnared in inappropriate actions, which must be placed at the Executives’ feet who failed to perform their proper function. They were just too close to the action to see the failings. That assumes they have the skills to see them.
To emphasise the issue, there are many parallels in the current Government management failures in Victoria’s COVID response where the State Executive class has become totally involved in the function and failed to maintain objectivity.
Interestingly the Victorian Premier, in this case, after a hiatus of some months, recently returned to the job and early signs are that his views have become more pragmatic. He was forced to remove himself from detailed daily management and forced to adopt a global perspective. We can only hope that he has learned from the experience.
Now, and in just a couple of weeks, it appears evident that the Premier has returned to type, again losing objectivity which will inevitably create poor management outcomes. Furthermore, he is delving into micro-management the more severe affliction of this management malady and guaranteed to spawn failure.
It seems that leaders who suffer this affliction confuse leadership and management. We are yet to meet anybody who can do both effectively; it is not a dual interwoven function, but two distinct and separate ones.
These two examples amplify that if the executives get it wrong, the whole system fails. The unfortunate consequence is that the lower-ranking individuals in the organisation will wear blame and suffer consequences for the failure of executive management.
To illustrate the issue further, the actions of the executives in both the Gobbo debacle and the COVID response failures would be like the Chairman of a Board venturing onto the factory floor in an embarrassingly vain effort to help a forklift driver tighten wheel nuts on a forklift. If the executive had caused the company mechanic to intervene, it would have been discovered that the wheel nuts were reverse thread.
The purpose of these comments is to strengthen the argument for a solution.
There is, however, a solution that must be considered.
By adopting the Squad model, with very few exceptions, the management Teams responsible for the oversight of Task Forces will be reduced.
They, however, need to be replaced with an Independent Crime Audit team that can review the ongoing operations of a Squad or any remaining Task Force or any other like grouping anywhere in the organisation to ensure that they are meeting predetermined targets that continually measure the functions and outcomes.
A Crime Audit team must be outside the Crime and Operational departments and form part of the Chief Commissioners Office.
We have previously argued for establishing an Inspectorate within VicPol, which is where this function could lay.
An Audit Team would be essentially global in its function, and checks and balances would be needed to ensure the objectivity and impartiality of that team.
This work must be based on a careful Cost-Benefit Analysis where the fiscal impact is weighed against the social, resource, and legal impacts.
A successful audit team well-resourced with actuarial, research and legal expertise will ensure many members return to the coal face impacting all ranks. The Audit Team must also monitor that process to ensure it is not abused or manipulated.
There will be cries of anguish as some will see their comfortable existence and elitism under challenge by these proposals; however, the current model has not significantly impacted crime overall. Although there are specific successes, the global impact is somewhat opaque; they are less than optimum.
To allay any concerns that organised crime might flourish, the models in New South Wales and Queensland include a Crime Commission with substantially more coercive powers than the Police and much better equipped to deal with the high-end crime syndicates. As part of the reform in modernising crime-fighting in this State, serious consideration must be given to establishing a Crime Commission headed by a Judge on three-year rotations from a superior Court. Not some bureaucrat with a Law Degree given a Clayton’s legal title.