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The Creation of the National Crime Agency in the United Kingdom

By Keith Bristow QPM, Director General, National Crime Agency, United Kingdom

he concept of “policing by consent” has been a cornerstone of law enforcement in the United Kingdom for almost 200 years. The willing cooperation of the public toward being policed, and the need for the police to earn the public’s trust and cooperation, influences the U.K. approach as much today as it did in 1829, when the first organized police force came into being in London and each of its officers was presented with a copy of Robert Peel’s “Nine Principles of Policing.”

But whilst the philosophy shaping how any country protects its citizens may remain constant over time, law enforcement is ever changing—and rightly so. Crime threats keep evolving, and law enforcement’s tactics and strategies must do the same.

In the United Kingdom, the creation of SOCA (Serious Organised Crime Agency) seven years ago brought together different agencies and changed the landscape substantially. SOCA built on the successes and learned from the experiences of its predecessors to increase the U.K. focus on tackling serious organized crime, both at home and through solid international partnerships. Its approach recognized that domestic borders are not the only defensive line against contemporary crime threats.

The United Kingdom now needs to take that work to another level in order to match and, wherever possible, get ahead of the changing crime threats from serious, organized, and complex crime. The planned step change is one of the most ambitious to be delivered for generations.

At the center of the wide-ranging law enforcement reforms is the creation of the National Crime Agency (NCA). The new agency will be fully operational in October 2013, subject to legislation being passed by the Houses of Parliament, and the NCA is very clear on what it will need to achieve.

For example, local, international, and organizational boundaries are losing their relevance in matching the response to contemporary threats. At the same time, those threats have the potential to target people at the most local level of all—in their own homes. Organized crime no longer needs to occupy physical space to be a danger. The Internet has transformed how criminals operate—people can be victimized by personal data hacking and online child abuse without opening their front doors. Criminal groups deliberately cross from one police force area to another, spreading their activities and attempting to stay sufficiently below the radar in any single area to avoid law enforcement attention, yet leaving considerable criminal impact in their wake. Fraudsters develop high-volume low-impact scams, figuring that most people will not bother to report a small loss, that even if it does get reported law enforcement will not feel inclined to investigate, and that multiplying that small loss by enough victims can be more profitable and considerably less risky than robbing a bank.

Globally, international law enforcement partners have recognized the value of intervening before a crime occurs. Not one single gram of the tons of heroin and cocaine consumed by users in the United Kingdom, the United States, and Australia is produced in those countries. It must cross international borders to reach the streets, and the closer to local streets it gets, the more resources local law enforcement agencies must use to deal with the fallout. Class A drugs provide a graphic illustration, but criminal groups cross boundaries and invade local communities with other commodities and threats. The principle is the same for human trafficking, arms trafficking, fraud, and cyber crime, amongst others.

It is impossible to protect a neighborhood from contemporary crime threats through local policing alone. Indeed, in protecting people from the impacts of crime on their doorsteps—and inside their homes—no single force or agency can confront the threats by itself.

Local policing, strongly grounded in communities, is vital and will stay that way. But so is collaboration across police force boundaries, across the range of national agencies, and across transnational borders. And if operational boundaries are defined too closely—as agencies and as nations—law enforcement agencies play directly into the hands of those criminals who will do all they can to turn those rigid definitions into new criminal activity opportunities.

What Will the NCA Do to Make a Difference?

First, it will provide national leadership, aligning and directing the U.K. collective response to serious, organized, and complex crime. The United Kingdom has never before had an agency with this specific responsibility and authority. When it comes to dealing with national level threats, its more than 40 police forces and numerous national agencies have been equal participants, whose collaboration and cooperation had to be negotiated on a case-by-case basis, through “a coalition of the willing.” Not one U.K. agency was in the position to take an overview or ensure that collective resources were being used and targeted in the most effective way.

Under the NCA, that loose arrangement will be replaced by a structured approach, with strong cross-agency leadership and a clear understanding of how individual organizations contribute.

Another big difference is that the NCA will be responsible for producing and sharing a single intelligence picture of organized crime affecting the United Kingdom. This will increase confidence in the information shared, and enable collectively prioritising targets, the activity against them and the resources to tackle them.

The NCA will have a broader remit than any single U.K. agency before it. As well as tackling organized crime, it will accelerate efforts against economic crime, protect children from exploitation, and bring together experts on cyber crime to form the first U.K. National Cyber Crime Unit. It will have a new role in strengthening U.K. border defences, ensuring for the first time that all the law enforcement agencies in and around the border understand their contributions to U.K. security, and the NCA will lead and coordinate action to address threats.

The agency will have the means to reach across international boundaries when needed, andthe new levels of cooperation the NCA will achieve in the United Kingdom can be effective only if the quality of its partnerships overseas is equally high.

SOCA is recognized rightly for its success in connecting the United Kingdom with law enforcement partners overseas and in protecting the public at home through joint interventions and investigations. It works alongside the five eyes (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States) in all the key threat areas around the world. The relationships enjoyed at the most senior levels among the five eyes’ governments are mirrored by the work their officers do every day to make these nations safer.

It is vital to all that this expertise is not lost, so whilst the NCA replaces SOCA it will build on the work of SOCA, including the U.K. network of liaison officers based overseas and relationships with foreign law enforcement community officers based in London.

NCA’s intention is to deliver a single face for U.K. law enforcement working overseas, managed by NCA officers working from U.K. embassies and missions. In support of this, David Armond and Trevor Pearce, who have been appointed respectively Directors of the NCA Border Policing Command and NCA Operations, have commissioned a review of SOCA’s overseas network to identify new opportunities for intervention, including where new posts might be opened.

The author spoke at a recent U.S.-U.K. event in London that underscored the countries’ joint commitment and the ongoing operational partnerships between their law enforcement agencies.

One of the key outcomes was a recognition that partnerships now need to go beyond cooperation. This is new territory. Needed are ways to develop joint action and joint investigation and to share assets and information.

Some of the emerging ideas included how the countries might work together in other countries of mutual threat—developing international task forces where U.K. and U.S. officers work side by side, and with host nation partners—to intervene as close to the source of a threat as possible; to consider how to support each other in countries where only one country’s agencies are represented; to increase global coverage; and to use solidarity to shrink the space occupied by international criminals.

Care is needed to ensure understanding of the differences between the respective jurisdictions. The NCA is committed to an alliance, which it is hoped will become the benchmark for international operations more broadly.

To support closer working with its international partners, the NCA will adopt a front-desk approach for accessing professional services and support. It will have a central tasking function—NCA Coordination and Tasking, or NCAT—providing a gateway for partner requests for NCA support, and overseeing the deployment of NCA operational assets.

The NCA is currently refining NCAT’s functions with a limited range of U.K. partners and anticipates expanding that range of partners further over the coming months. Eventually NCAT will be responsible for the 24/7 gateway, which will ensure the NCA can respond urgently as the need demands.

As the United Kingdom moves toward the NCA becoming fully operational later this year, the NCA is taking the opportunity to test out its philosophy, assumptions, and operating models. Part of that thinking is how the NCA will measure its success.

This measurement will be about three main areas. First, how well does the NCA unify the overall law enforcement effort in the United Kingdom to deliver a coherent response against serious, organized, and complex criminality? Second, the recognition that the NCA’s crime fighting focus will require it to be open and transparent, which means having a relationship with the public and sharing assets and knowledge more readily. Third, it will be about the NCA’s impact, and for me this is in part about building a better understanding of a much broader range of threats and the full range of potential responses to those threats. For example, the NCA will always target high-level criminals through traditional investigative techniques, gather the best evidence against them it can, work with its partners in the criminal justice system to take cases to court, and seek the appropriate sanctions. This is the bedrock of most countries’ approaches to tackling serious, organized, and complex crime.


All must recognize that—in some cases—the most effective response will not necessarily be the conventional one. Throughput to the criminal justice system will tell only part of the picture. Being more creative and innovative in the way law enforcement tackles, prevents, and disrupts emergent threats like cyber crime is needed.

Robert Peel’s Nine Principles of Policing from 1829, includes one that is strikingly pertinent in the context of 21st century crime threats and makes this point perfectly. It advises “to recognise always that the test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, and not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them.”1

A colossal challenge still exists. The public wants to see criminals face justice and tends to judge law enforcement efficiency on the number of people entering the criminal justice system and the sanctions applied to them rather than on the damage law enforcement is able to prevent. This does not mean that protecting the public is best served by allowing the commission of a crime in order to deliver satisfaction when it is solved, prosecuted, and punished.

The need exists to shift to a sharper focus on the value of preventative and disruptive law enforcement strategies, and nowhere is that as relevant as in upstream interventions with international partners. It may be harder to demonstrate in terms the public relates to, but it is a vital part of NCA’s ambition.

If better protection for the public is the priority, this challenge must be met. A way ought to be found to help the public understand that organized crime is real, and, wherever it originates, it has real effects in every community. People may not see it, or know that they see it, but they feel its impacts even when they do not recognize them as such.

That is why the NCA will likely move to a system akin to that used to measure counterterrorism success, where questions such as what is the threat, what is the impact, what is NCA doing, and what is the difference are asked.

The NCA will be a visible, accessible, and open organization. The people who work in it, the public they serve, and the criminals they target are to be quite clear about what the agency stands for and what it delivers.

A crucial element of protecting the public is building a relationship of trust. That is not just about providing peace of mind, though of course that is an important part. It is also about providing a foundation that helps to give victims and witnesses the enormous courage they need to tell law enforcement what is going on. It is the job of everyone in law enforcement to create an environment where people have confidence in the professionals they are talking to—without fear of reprisal. If this public confidence is achieved, a vital blow against the ability of organized crime to diminish communities will have been struck.  ♦


1Metropolitan Police, Office of the Commissioner, General Instructions (1829).

Please cite as:

Keith Bristow, "The Creation of the National Crime Agency in the United Kingdom," The Police Chief 80 (August 2013): 60–62.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXX, no. 8, August 2013. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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