CHAPTER 15 The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Intelligence-Led Policing

By Clifford Aims Impunity

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The term “intelligence-led policing” (ILP) has been in use at least since the 1990s, and its origins trace back even further, to the early 1970s. The term shows up everywhere in plans, policies, and procedures for transition from foreign intervention to domestic operations in enforcing the rule of law. And yet, most planners and policymakers have little practical understanding of what ILP means, what it looks like when it works, and what it takes to build sustainable, civilian-led ILP capability within the host nation’s security and justice system. Intelligence-led policing is critical to a state’s ability to check the rise of illicit power and control illicit organizations and activities where they already exist. Thus, a solid understanding of the principles behind illicit power, and of the capacity required to conduct it, is key. This chapter intends to fill our own ILP knowledge gaps so that planners and implementers alike will understand its impact and ask the right questions when assessing need, capacity, and risk.

Defining ILP

Like other strategies and methods used widely in modern law enforcement, such as “community-oriented policing,” “problem-oriented policing,” or “broken windows theory of policing,” ILP defies any simple single definition. To understand ILP, at a minimum we must be aware of who is using the term, what context the method is being applied to, why it is being applied, and what the desired outcomes are for its use. Without such a frame of reference, ILP is largely a meaningless concept with no logical application. This is a particularly acute issue when related to security sector reform (SSR), since poorly defined efforts to introduce ILP will have hit-and-miss results at best. At worst, the unintended consequences will exacerbate existing problems and even create new ones. Such an approach violates the golden rule of SSR: “first, do no harm.”

The term “intelligence” alone is charged with misunderstanding, raising apprehensions by its mere association with police or law enforcement activities. Thus, it helps to be familiar with some of the more commonly used definitions of ILP, which can help clarify what it is not.

  • “Intelligence-led policing is the application of criminal intelligence analysis as an objective decisionmaking tool in order to facilitate crime reduction and prevention through effective policing strategies and external partnership projects drawn from an evidential base.”1
  • “Intelligence-led policing is a collaborative philosophy that starts with information, gathered at all levels of the organization, that is analyzed to create useful intelligence and an improved understanding of the operational environment. This will assist leadership in making the best possible decisions with respect to crime control strategies, allocation of resources, and tactical operations.”2
  • “The collection and analysis of information related to crime and conditions that contribute to crime, resulting in an actionable intelligence product intended to aid law enforcement in developing tactical responses to threats and/or strategic planning related to emerging or changing threats.”3
  • “Intelligence-led policing is defined as the collection and analysis of information to produce an intelligence end product designed to inform law enforcement decision making at both the tactical and strategic levels.4

One of the shortest definitions, from the Netherlands, simply states, “Intelligence-led policing is the use of analyzed information by decision makers to decide on police resources.”5

A Tailored Approach

Anyone involved in security sector reform or capacity building within domestic security institutions, or faced with the challenge of containing illicit activities and organizations, should understand the potential benefits of ILP strategy and process, and the complex situations where it will likely be applied. Very briefly, ILP is a policing strategy that relies on a well-defined plan of collecting data related to criminal activity and then applying a rigorous method of analysis to clearly identify the type(s) of crime being committed and any discernable patterns, with the ultimate goal of determining how such criminal activity can be anticipated, prevented, or disrupted. This information is then used to guide and inform decision making on the tactical and operational levels for making a response. ILP can be effective in dealing with problems as diverse as bicycle thefts on a college campus, and human and contraband trafficking by multibillion-dollar transnational criminal syndicates. There are many case studies on the successful application of ILP from all around the world, and even a cursory review of this information should make one critical central fact evident:

There is no one “right” way to do ILP. The strategy must be tailored to meet the unique needs of each situation, and the methods must be legally acceptable and practical for the stakeholders’ use.

The implications for international personnel engaged in SSR and other capacity building or security assistance are enormous. It is easy to fall prey to the seductive logic that “ILP worked there, so it will work here.” But such thinking can unduly weight the decision to import a particular solution. A far more useful strategy involves working through a process to help the recipients of SSR assistance objectively identify the problems and determine how those problems can best be addressed within the realities and limitations of the indigenous system. To use a grossly simplified medical analogy, we can liken ILP to surgery. The surgery that worked great for patient X may not have the same results for patient Y, because patient X had appendicitis, whereas patient Y’s similar symptoms stemmed from a bad gallbladder. That is, both surgery and ILP are effective, but only if designed to address carefully identified and analyzed problem sets.

Another aggravating factor is the basic human predilection to operate in an environment that is familiar. Experience has shown repeatedly that international SSR efforts often try to import practices that the implementers know and are comfortable with, whether or not they happen to be well suited to the problems at hand.

There can also be confusion regarding the roles of SSR implementers. ILP is an inherently domestic law enforcement operation and must be undertaken only by those who are authorized to conduct such operations by the domestic law of the country where they are carried out. Except in certain highly specialized and unusual situations, international staff engaged in SSR are not charged with directly carrying out law enforcement functions on behalf of the host nation. Therefore, it is critical for anyone reading this article to remember that it is not your role to “do” ILP. The various indigenous entities you are working with are the ones lawfully empowered to enforce the law. And you are there to help them determine whether ILP is an appropriate strategy and how it can best be applied. In other words, your responsibility is to help your local counterparts be better able to arrest the right people, for the right reasons.

At the same time, remember that while ILP is a proven strategy and tool, it is not a magic solution to any problem, and it cannot be applied in a vacuum. Even the best-designed ILP program will be rendered ineffective if the other sectors of the host nation’s justice system are compromised or institutionally weak. Simply put, making more arrests does not, in and of itself, result in greater stability, security, or public safety. There must also be comparable institutional capacity to prosecute, adjudge, and incarcerate offenders.

Designing Assistance for ILP

Unlike many other security sector assistance-related development programs, designing a program to help a host nation adopt ILP does not begin with the development strategy—far from it. Since ILP is a type of law enforcement operation, it is likely that ILP, or an equivalent operational technique, already exists, has been previously informed by legislative, policy, or judicial decisions, and merely needs to be refined or restored. Without a comprehensive review and thorough understanding of the existing justice system, we cannot know whether it makes sense or is even legal to introduce a new ILP concept or methodology. At best, you may very well come up recommending a solution for a problem that does not exist. At worst, you could initiate a strategy that contravenes host nation law or custom, thereby undermining the effectiveness and legitimacy of the entire effort.

Assessing the Current Justice System

Fortunately, a number of handbooks and tools are available that can guide the assessment of a justice system. Among these are the OECD’s SSR handbook, “The INL Guide to Justice Sector Assistance,” and the DCAF backgrounder on police reform.6

It is important to note that these and other related resources do not have the answers. But they do explain the critical questions that must be asked in order to shape and inform any SSR effort and, particularly, to help determine what form of ILP will work in the particular context. At the same time, there is no substitute for having experienced SSR professionals assist with the assessment process. This is not a role for amateurs or generalists. It is a highly technical field in any system, and every effort should be made to bring in the right expertise, even if only temporarily, to help give the program design process a solid foundation. Having expert help at the start of the SSR process greatly improves your ability to start a program in the right direction and reduces the likelihood of having to make major changes in the future.

ILP is not a cure-all for law enforcement failure, however. Implementing ILP can have a number of unexpected negative consequences. Some of the more obvious include putting a strain on the courts and the prison system through increased numbers of arrests, and pushing criminal activity out of more effectively policed areas into areas less prepared to deal with it. Less intuitively, an ILP program that is effective against organized crime can result in political and social backlash against the police because the patronage system of targeted illicit power structures becomes threatened, affecting the livelihoods of citizens not directly engaged in criminal activity (e.g., shopkeepers, bar and restaurant owners). In extreme cases, the targeted criminal elements may be so intertwined in the political establishment that their arrest could create instability within the government. None of this should be a disincentive to adopting ILP. But it is vitally important to consider the second- and third-order effects that could impede overall progress in stabilizing an area and bringing about needed reforms. The implementer must recognize them when they occur, and be prepared to make programming adjustments to mitigate the risks.

Preparation and Training

ILP operations can significantly affect the law enforcement institutions themselves. This is particularly true when ILP is part of a transition from military to civilian control in a postconflict environment, or from a less investigation-oriented policing approach. For example, ILP will very likely require specialized training for police and prosecutors, who must learn how such operations can be technically managed and properly applied within the existing legal system. The roles and responsibilities between police and prosecutors may shift, particularly in a civil law jurisdiction, and both need to understand clearly what is required in order to bring evidence collected through such investigations to trial. Additional technical and legal training for judges may also be warranted. One critical step is a thorough review of the existing laws and codes of criminal procedure. In some locations, many of the practices commonly used by police in the course of an ILP case may not be allowable, and some degree of legislative reform may be necessary. Where regime change has occurred, there may also be resistance to the use of criminal procedure codes that were enacted by the prior regime. In such cases, the use of interim codes may be required, but this creates an additional training and education burden that will have to be addressed across the full range of the security sector.

Aside from training requirements, adoption of ILP may require institutional reorganization or reform of the police and prosecutorial institutions. Since ILP investigations can be complex and require increased confidentiality, law enforcement and prosecutorial agencies may have to set up special units and divert resources to support the new initiative. This, in turn, can cause institutional resistance to ILP if existing units see their resources or prestige threatened by the change. In some cases, it may be a simple matter of someone feeling marginalized and “left out of the loop.” In any case, the unexpected institutional knock-on effects of the transition to ILP can create resistance to its adoption, reduce or limit its effectiveness, and hinder overall SSR efforts.

Using ILP against Terrorism

Just as ILP works against any other form of violent criminal activity, when done well, it is also effective against terrorism. Unfortunately, this is the area most prone to misuse of ILP, which can threaten SSR efforts in general. Acts of terrorism such as the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, and less publicized activities such as kidnappings for ransom, receive near-universal condemnation. When such acts occur, there is wide support for the affected government to respond forcefully in capturing and punishing the perpetrators. In this context, ILP can be tremendously useful, but it can just as easily become a tool of repression, particularly in societies with weak oversight-and-accountability mechanisms or with a history of policing as a tool of the regime rather than as a public service.

Beware the Slippery Slope

Implementers of SSR must always remember that ILP should be viewed as a method for improving the host nation’s ability to provide public security and the rule of law. Thus, assistance strategies have to be designed to instill this idea, and the host nation’s security services must be held to account when they begin to stray from this central tenet. Also, while ILP is very effective at identifying individuals or organizations likely to carry out criminal acts such as terrorism or crimes against internal security, how the host nation defines “terrorism” or “insurgency,” and who it labels as “terrorists” or “insurgents,” can become an issue. Overly broad legal or political definitions will subvert the nature of ILP, degrade the public perception of policing’s legitimacy, and damage the credibility of wider SSR.

Abuses of ILP are not limited to the pursuit of terrorists and insurgents. There is great potential for ILP to be misused or, more insidiously, used selectively in pursuing regular criminals to the point of detention, but not through the whole of the justice process. Selective application of ILP is most likely to occur when the larger justice system is weak or incomplete—a common situation in areas recovering from conflict or other societal breakdown. In weak systems, criminals quickly identify the capacity gaps and seams and exploit them for illicit gain. Even a government that is largely not corrupt and not reliant on the criminal activity knows full well that high levels of criminality can cause a lack of public confidence in the legitimate institutions. In such cases, law enforcement entities are often under tremendous pressure to reduce the crime rate, but this can come at a cost. The risk that law enforcement will use ILP to conduct extrajudicial detentions and incarceration is very real.

On the positive side, in such a scenario, if donors can act quickly before bad practices are entrenched and illicit relationships formed, most police will be happy to receive training and other assistance that increases their capabilities, and are therefore likely to adopt ILP as quickly as possible. The SSR assistance will likely result in immediate and positive results (e.g., higher arrest rates) that would appear to be a good thing. But again, caution is in order, for these results can mask certain underlying systemic problems where police capacity exceeds that of the other justice institutions. In a weakened justice system, the police will know how able the prosecutors are to deal with suspects. They will also know how effective the independent oversight mechanisms are that regulate police conduct. It can be very tempting for police to use ILP only to the point that they identify a suspect and make an arrest, without doing the full investigation necessary to build a solid case that can be presented in a court of law.

Knowing that the prosecutorial function is weak and oversight mechanisms are ineffectual, police can be inclined to rely on confessions (possibly obtained through less-than-transparent means) rather than on hard evidence as the foundation for a case that is referred for prosecution. The implication for those implementing SSR and wanting to introduce ILP is that such an initiative, without a thorough understanding of the indigenous justice system, may do little more than enable the police to go out and “round up the usual suspects.” As mentioned earlier, ILP can lead to improved results, such as higher arrest rates, but not advance (and, indeed, even hinder) achievement of overall outcomes, such as establishing a strong justice system that promotes stability and the rule of law.

Ultimately, the important thing to remember is that intelligence-led policing is more than just the insertion of “intelligence” into particular types of policing operations. Effective ILP engages the whole of the justice sector, within the host nation’s domestic legal framework. It can often require highly specialized and technical capabilities, but it is just as often about low-tech community engagement and personal interaction. In a shifting environment, ILP is an essential tool in the fight to control illicit power. But it is equally prone to abuse. And it can produce unintended consequences for weak or nascent governance and justice systems if it is not carefully overseen and calibrated to match the capacity of the other government institutions that its outcomes depend on. As governance takes hold, however, ILP, when done right, lends strength and legitimacy to nascent governance institutions and ultimately preserves the monopoly of force for licit actors, rather than ceding it to illicit power.


1 Jerry H. Ratcliffe, “Intelligence-Led Policing,” Australian Institute of Criminology, Trends and Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice Series, no. 248, Apr. 2003, 3, www.aic.gov.au/media_library/publications/tandi/ti248.pdf.

2 New Jersey State Police, “Practical Guide to Intelligence-Led Policing,” Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, Sept. 2006, www.njsp.org/divorg/invest/pdf/njsp_ilpguide_010907.pdf.

3 David L. Carter, Law Enforcement Intelligence: A Guide for State, Local, and Tribal Law Enforcement, 2nd ed. (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State Univ., 2004), www.cops.usdoj.gov/pdf/e09042536.pdf.

4 U.S. Justice Dept., “The National Criminal Intelligence Sharing Plan,” Oct. 2003, https://it.ojp.gov/documents/ncisp/National_Criminal_Intelligence_Sharing_Plan.pdf.

5 Mariëlle den Hengst and Jan ter Mors, “Community of Intelligence: The Secret behind Intelligence-Led Policing,” Delft Univ. of Technology, 2012, http://pubs.iids.org/index.php/publications/show/1879.

6 OECD, OECD DAC Handbook on Security System Reform: Supporting Security and Justice, Feb. 2008, www.oecd.org/governance/governance-peace/conflictandfragility/oecddachandbookonsecuritysystemreformsupportingsecurityandjustice.htm; U.S. State Dept., “INL Guide to Justice Sector Assistance,” 2010, www.state.gov/documents/organization/222048.pdf; DCAF, “Police Reform,” Oct. 2009, www.dcaf.ch/Publications/Police-Reform.