Investigating the Finances of Criminality: The Record So Far and the Challenges Ahead

Upon his retirement, one of Britain’s former senior policemen reflects on the progress made in identifying and seizing the proceeds of crime, and offers suggestions for further improvement in this battle of wills, organisation and technology.

Before leaving my post as Chief Constable of Derbyshire Police earlier this year, I noted that officers are now routinely being called on to investigate crimes infinitely more complex and multi-jurisdictional than those I faced in the 1980s. I am continuously impressed by how well these officers are rising to these significant challenges.

The globalisation of organised crime, the near-universal use of the internet and mobile communications as a primary tool of the criminal, and the growth of a wider set of organised crime types, such as cybercrime, human trafficking and organised child sexual exploitation, are just some of the major changes I have witnessed during my policing career. To try and maintain some equality of arms in this changing and challenging world, the police service has developed an array of tools unimaginable to the police officer of the 1980s, such as organised crime group mapping, automatic number plate recognition, the widespread use of DNA as an investigative tool and the vast array of CCTV cameras, to name but a few.

However, even given the many changes in the world of crime and policing over the past four decades, it is evident that some principles remain the same. The one thing which unifies almost all organised criminals across the decades is their personal greed. While organised crime and its proceeds may be shapeshifting and crossing borders on an unprecedented scale, the profit motive of the criminal remains the same. It is this greed which presents our opportunity.

The one thing which unifies almost all organised criminals across the decades is their personal greed

This opportunity was recognised as far back as 2000 by the then government’s excellent Performance and Innovation Unit report on the proceeds of crime. This not only stressed the need to remove a greater proportion of a criminal’s assets and profit, but pointed to the opportunity to use financial footprints to track and attack organised criminality. It is the potential of financial investigation as a game-changer in policing which I pushed hard to embed into the policing lexicon during my ten years as National Police Chief’s Council (NPCC) lead on organised and financial crime and asset recovery.

However, while the 2000 report led to powerful legislation in the form of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 (POCA), which provides wide-reaching powers to investigate the finances of criminality and remove illicit wealth, I am disappointed that these powers are not being exploited as fully as I would like. During my policing career, techniques associated with financial investigation and asset confiscation have failed to enter the policing mainstream in the same way as other techniques, such as the excellent developments in the use of DNA as a forensic investigative tool.

Why is this the case? The answer is complex and multi-faceted. First, although asset confiscation is an important by-product of good financial investigation, in the 2000’s era of metrics and targets, the value of POCA was too often simplistically measured purely on the basis of the money in the ‘tin box’ at the end of the year, rather than its less tangible – but arguably more important – disruptive impact. While the era of policing by targets has thankfully passed, the legacy remains. The adage that ‘POCA should pay for POCA’ is a misguided one and is not a measure applied to other police strategies and investigation tools.

Second, overly frequent changes in the strategic plans, coupled with numerous changes to the national law enforcement architecture since the implementation of POCA, have led to a certain amount of instability of response. In the last decade alone we have seen the emergence and decline of agencies such as the National Crime Squad, the National Criminal Intelligence Service, the Asset Recovery Agency and the Serious and Organised Crime Agency, as well as the merger of the previously separate Customs and Revenue departments.

Finally, while those using the financial investigation tools on a frequent basis understand their worth and can point to anecdotal evidence of the disruptive effect, this is an under-researched area where the non-financial value of the discipline is neither appreciated nor properly understood.  

That is not to say that all is lost. Moving the police service away from pursuing criminals through ‘traditional’ tools is analogous to turning around an oil tanker: it will take time, patience and an accurate sense of direction, in addition to clear and strong leadership. So, what advice can I offer my successors charged with embedding POCA tools into policing?

To achieve anything there has to be some vision and a clear and unified plan

It may be a trite statement, but to achieve anything there has to be some vision and a clear and unified plan. Whereas the multi-agency, Home Office-chaired Criminal Finances Board has provided some leadership and coordination, the work has frequently been marginalised outside of mainstream policing policy. The case for greater ‘industrialisation’ of the powers across all levels of policing and law enforcement needs to be made.

Furthermore, our empirical understanding of the value of the tools contained within POCA is limited – in these days of ‘evidence-led’ policing and public policy, we must establish that evidence base. The lack of this has meant that the government remains on the back foot against a media and opposition narrative focused quite wrongly on the mounting levels of unenforced confiscation orders borne out of an era of ‘value and volume’ targets. Allowing this media narrative to go unchallenged is wrong-headed; only by better understanding the value of the powers and communicating this to the public will the government be able to move into proactive mode.

Finally, policymakers and police must ensure that the legislative tools and operational response evolve in response to the threat. The tools contained within POCA are already comprehensive, while recent changes in the Criminal Finances Act 2017 have added to them, recognising that POCA was conceived at a time when nobody could have imagined the growth of contactless payment systems, pre-payment cards and virtual currencies. All of these innovations make tracking even more challenging for law enforcement. Police budgets will remain under pressure, but cutting back in this area is both a financial and opportunity cost policing cannot afford.

I leave a career in policing at a time of unprecedented change, convinced that financial investigation and asset confiscation remain key tools. And I am confident those who now lead on this for the police continue to try and ensure financial investigation will eventually take the same journey into mainstream policing as DNA has done over the past 30 years.

Chief Constable Professor Mick Creedon headed Derbyshire Constabulary until May 2017, when he retired after a 37-year policing career. He is a Senior Associate Fellow at RUSI. 

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.

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