Australian Institute of Criminology

Skip to content

Introduction

It has been said that professionalism in policing rests upon four pillars—accountability, legitimacy, innovation and national coherence (Stone & Travis 2011). In turn, the first three of those pillars rest upon knowledge of what police do, especially in terms of their performance. There cannot be accountability, legitimacy, or innovation until what has been done is truly understood. Numerous books and articles have been written on the topic of police performance, covering everything from complex statistical data, to the reactions of the public to police on the street (for useful introductory papers see Blumstein 1999; Braga & Moore 2003a; Collier 2006; Mackenzie & Hamilton-Smith 2011). British Home Secretaries have commented on the issue, noting that police performance ‘is about delivering the best possible service to the public’ (Home Office Police Standards Unit 2004: np) and given the attention that surrounds the annual publication of crime statistics, it is likely that the public also have strong views on how well the police are performing.

Amid the vast literature on police performance, however, very few works examine the issue of specialist policing performance—police intelligence groups, in terms of both intelligence collection and analysis; proactive investigation teams, such as drugs and organised crime; forensics units, including crime scene analysis; and advanced operational support, such as air, sea and canine capabilities. There are some studies of particular niches of the specialist policing environment (Canadian Police College Council of Investigative Excellence 2004; Mackenzie & Hamilton-Smith 2011; Willis, Anderson & Homel 2011), but they do not show links with other niches, or the difference between their particular topic and the general policing environment.

The purpose of this report is to show how AMCOS, a specialist policing unit of the New Zealand Police, has developed an innovative performance framework. This framework, which is continually updated, has followed the advice of experts and been derived from national strategic guidance, but shaped by local considerations.

In this report, the concept of specialist policing is defined and then some of the general difficulties surrounding police performance management are examined. The authors then explore the overall conceptual underpinning of the AMCOS system, before focusing more closely on the four main areas of AMCOS capability—forensics, specialist operations, intelligence and proactive investigations. Consideration is then given to describing both what has been done to date, as well as the improvements that will be made to the framework in the future. The report is deliberately focused at the practitioner level, but also includes mention of the various analytical and theoretical issues that have shaped development of the framework.

What is specialist policing?

Before one can talk about performance measurement for specialist policing, clarification is needed on what is meant by the term itself. It is a concept that can be difficult to be precise about and its particular characteristics will vary depending on the specifics of the law enforcement organisation in which such capabilities are based. Perhaps the easiest way to begin a definitional discussion is not to say what specialist policing is, but rather what it is not.

It is not the general public-triggered response/patrol capability that remains the core of most law enforcement agencies, especially in the Anglo-American tradition (Braga & Moore 2003a). It is also not the generalist, investigative capability that is usually the second largest component of law enforcement agencies. Both of these elements are reactive components whose level of demand is largely dependent on public requests and that usually have primary responsibility for the resolution of recorded incidents, whether they are serious crimes or disorder.

Specialist policing comprises two main types of units—those with very specific technical skills or capabilities who deal with a broad range of criminality, termed technical units (forensics, specialist operations and some intelligence units); and those with broader technical skills but who focus proactively, rather than in response to public requests, on a specific subset of criminality, termed niche units (proactive investigation units). Usually, a specialist policing unit will not have primary responsibility for crime control in a particular geographic area; it may be a sub-element of the group that has that responsibility, or it may well be part of an entirely different organisation. AMCOS fits the first type, while the FBI fits the second type. Often, specialist policing units will be multi-jurisdictional and will work across various law enforcement boundaries. They will often participate in multi-agency activities (Mackenzie & Hamilton-Smith 2011; Schneider & Hurst 2008) but will seldom be the lead agency.

From the above, it is obvious why technical units cannot be held responsible for crime in a particular geographic locale. A forensics unit cannot be held primarily responsible for crime resolution rates in a particular city, although its support is essential to such resolutions; and a dog unit cannot be held responsible for the number of car thefts although, again, its support is essential. They are thus contributory to, rather than responsible for, outcomes. With niche units, the issue of responsibility is more confused. Proactive units, such as drugs squads, will have primary responsibility for a particular crime type in a particular area, but there will often be a cross-over with generalist units, such as in the number of street-level drug arrests.

In the United Kingdom, the term protective services is sometimes used to refer to something quite similar to the concept of specialist policing (Flanagan 2008; O’Connor 2005) and in Australia, it often refers to police providing court security, prisoner transfer and at times, transport security officers. This report avoids the term for two reasons. First, it is counter-intuitive. For the average citizen, the term police protective services conveys the image of uniformed constables walking the beat on a Friday night, rather than specialist investigations into organised crime. Second, protective services includes homicide investigations and responses to disorder, which seem more akin to general response and investigation rather than fitting into the categories of technical and niche units.

AMCOS was designed to serve as a single repository for specialist policing services in the upper half of the North Island of New Zealand. Technical units include forensics components (forensic imaging, fingerprints and criminal profiling), specialist operational groups (dogs, air support and maritime units among others) and an intelligence collection and analysis section. Niche units include a number of proactive investigation teams primarily focused on drugs, organised crime and national security problems. Internationally, specialist policing units vary in detail (see NSW Police Force 2012; Queensland Police 2011) but the broad concept remains. As such, anything learned from measuring the performance of AMCOS has global applicability.