OVERVIEW - A CRIME LIKE ANY OTHER CRIME?
Aspects of wildlife crime differ from some other crimes. For example, the locations where it often takes place are remote, the perpetrators may be part of a relatively closed and tight knit community and the levels of media and public interest may seem to some to be disproportionately high.
Whilst these attributes may differentiate this particular type of crime from others, the role of managing specialist crimes is neither new nor particularly unusual; internet crime, fraud and people-trafficking offences are at least as complex.
During this inspection some felt that the investigation of wildlife crime should be dealt with by an agency other than the police. Though only a minority expressed this view it nevertheless presented us with an important point of principle to consider. Our professional judgement is that the investigation of crime should generally, although not exclusively, be dealt with by the police. Gaps in service delivery found during this inspection were not considerable and this combined with our belief that the public considers the police to be the primary body for investigating crime, reinforced our position.
Therefore the stated strategic intention of:
'managing wildlife crime like any other crime'
( ACPOS lead officer on wildlife crime)
is both appropriate and achievable, a view that was strongly and widely shared by stakeholders throughout this inspection.
In a similar vein, we also encountered persistent calls to 'professionalise practice' in relation to wildlife crime. Generally this meant applying a level of professionalism in this area that enforcement agencies already possessed and employed in their other work.
Over many years, the police in particular have built up effective systems and structures to manage investigations, gather intelligence, co-operate with partner agencies and deal with the media. Generally these work very well and should also be used when dealing with wildlife crime.
The use of the term 'manage' in the previous paragraph is important. For it was at this level of activity that we most commonly identified shortcomings. Too frequently in dealing with wildlife crime the police had allowed, rather than directed, their considerable body of professional knowledge and practice to be set aside.
Across many areas of wildlife crime enforcement - for example selecting and supervising Wildlife and Environment Crime Officers ( WECOs), managing intelligence, conducting investigations and liaising with the media - wildlife crime was often dealt with differently. It was not surprising therefore, that there were times when even high profile wildlife crime matters had not been managed well causing disappointment, frustration and tension. The practice of debriefing staff after certain incidents is well-established in the police service. However, a failure to do the same in cases of wildlife crime has in the past served to compound problems. It has weakened the service's ability as a whole to learn and to change its approach where appropriate.
A lack of priority and resources assigned to wildlife crime was often given as the reason for these differences in practice. In some particular cases this was undoubtedly true. Nevertheless, we believe that using the tried and tested systems and structures already in place would make a significant difference. It would also be a more effective use of existing funds. Whether the issue is the use of a national asset, such as the Scottish Intelligence Database ( SID), or an existing force facility such as its media department, the cost of processing relatively low levels of wildlife crime through existing structures would be low.
Acknowledgement of some of the unusual and complex aspects of wildlife crime had resulted in the Procurator Fiscal Service introducing a specialist system to manage wildlife crime. However the cases were subject to the same procedural rules and legal considerations as all other prosecutions. There was no call for, nor evidence to support, withdrawing wildlife prosecutions from mainstream criminal prosecution.
It is generally believed that preventing a crime is better not only for the victim but also in financial terms. Using an analogy, when all the costs of investigating, prosecuting and punishing someone for breaking a window are compared with the costs of preventing this, the case for prevention is strong.
There remain two issues however:
- whilst it is possible to reduce some of these crimes, e.g. in the above example by using a new type of glass or providing an after-school club for young people, it would be almost impossible to prevent all windows being broken;
- the savings accrued by reducing the number of windows being broken may fall within one department's budget and yet some of the increased costs to achieve this, e.g. running the after-school club, may fall to another.
Resolving these types of problem, particularly the budgetary elements, often requires partnership working. People from various departments, commercial and non-commercial agencies, must decide what the most pressing needs are in their communities and agree how best to deal with these. When this kind of local joint working is done well, it is effective. The same approach, though more likely to involve government departments, is also needed at the national level.
Combating wildlife crime is no different. Creating effective structures to discourage people from committing wildlife crime is more effective than investigating and prosecuting it. Whether locally or nationally, a working plan is necessary to deal with the most important aspects of wildlife crime prevention. It is also essential that there is the co-operation of partners necessary to achieve it.
We found no such plan to reduce wildlife crime nationally. Only in a very few areas could we find a local working plan. Nonetheless we believe that the national partnership structure, discussed later in this section, could provide the forum necessary to generate and work to such a plan. We believe that by providing modest funding to encourage agencies to invest in preventative and other approaches, this national group could ensure that new and more effective ways of working are developed.
Possible activities might include the following:
- Piloting closer working arrangements between police and other agencies. For example involving the police early in the planning stages of certain building projects may help to reduce damage to habitats and particular species;
- Helping to fund more complex or higher priority investigations, recognising that successful prosecutions are part of the deterrent that ultimately prevents crime;
- Assisting police forces that already have full-time wildlife crime co-ordinators but want to expand these arrangements.
Despite the lack of an effective overall plan we found some excellent examples of preventative work. These included some where an entire local community had become involved, such as 'Eagle Watch' in Mull. Others were working with significant numbers of school children and young people to highlight why the environment and wildlife were important.
In our opinion these and the few working examples of local partnership structures that we found during the inspection, could provide a starting point for the proposed national structure.
Probably the most contentious issue that was raised was the impact of birds of prey in areas where grouse moors are intensively managed for sporting purposes. Considerable research had and was taking place to identify how these two competing concerns could be managed successfully (see Appendix 1 on the Langholm projects).
Some success in preventing illegal activities had been made, most notably in Grampian and Tayside, by bringing together all relevant parties to form partnership groups. In other parts of Scotland little sustained progress was evident. We believe that the proposed national partnership group has a crucial role to play in displaying leadership and holding agencies to account to prevent the illegal persecution of birds of prey nationally. Equally, it needs to make sure that there is a local partnership structure throughout Scotland that can contribute towards the national plan to reduce wildlife crime, within which birds of prey persecution is a significant issue.
In the meantime, in some areas of Scotland there is no doubt that some birds of prey continue to be persecuted.
Increasingly police forces rely on 'intelligence' to assist their investigations. Typically this is information received from their own staff or the public which is then analysed. The resulting intelligence might then be used to generate reports about named individuals or to inform commentary on crime trends.
With increasing use, the police service has recognised the importance of improving the quantity, quality and management of its intelligence.
The Scottish Intelligence Database ( SID) allows forces to record this on a single electronic system. Like any other database SID is only as good as the quality of intelligence entered and its subsequent use. Scotland also has the benefit of hosting the National Wildlife Crime Unit ( NWCU) at North Berwick. This is a UK wide unit. These two factors should mean that Scottish forces are well-placed in terms of wildlife crime intelligence. We were disappointed by the low - sometimes very low - volume of wildlife crime intelligence being submitted and used by forces. In some cases this had been recognised and progress had been made.
The police service has been investigating crime for at least a hundred and fifty years. Over this time it has built up considerable expertise both in terms of how to investigate crime and in making sure that this is done consistently and to a high standard. Unfortunately this same expertise was not always applied in cases of wildlife crime. Instead individual WECOs, though generally committed and knowledgeable, were very much left to conduct any investigations on their own. Difficulties in obtaining additional time or assistance meant that these officers often felt and frequently were unsupported. On the occasions where investigations became very high profile, gaps in support were often more obvious.
We believe that a national minimum standard for investigating wildlife crime would greatly help to remedy these problems, not least by ensuring greater levels of supervision and consistency in the process. It could further ensure that the local or national impact of wildlife crime along with the media interest that it can generate, forms part of the assessment of what resources and management are needed.
The standard should clearly set out how and under what circumstances other agencies can support the police in their investigations, something that was unclear and inconsistently applied at the time of our inspection.
Another way of improving both the prevention and investigation of wildlife crime would be to make sure that the right staff were consistently selected, properly trained and well managed. Few forces had taken these steps despite the fact that such requirements were invariably in place for staff in other specialist police roles. As we found throughout this inspection, wildlife crime work was rarely perceived or treated as equivalent to that of other specialist roles.
Where forces had appointed a lead senior officer for wildlife crime who then took an active interest, the situation was generally better. However we believe that in addition to this management role, forces should have a standard interview process for wildlife crime posts. We also consider that a national overview of training should be taken and managed through the national partnership structure that we have recommended.
As part of the inspection we examined arrangements between the police and other agencies that report to the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service ( COPFS). We also examined the arrangements for cases from first contact with COPFS and all processes thereafter until sentence in those cases that resulted in conviction. We carried out a case review examining all cases reported to COPFS for prosecution from the start of 2006 until the review process started in late 2007. We examined the quality of police and other reports and the processes employed at COPFS including the standard of drafting of charges, the adherence to Crown Office policy, the quality of case handling and the outcome and results of the cases. We concluded that the majority of the cases were dealt with appropriately and in accordance with Crown Office policy. Overall COPFS had introduced a sound system for managing wildlife crime particularly by establishing a network of specialist wildlife prosecutors who should prosecute these cases. We found however that this structure was not fully implemented nationally and was not always fully understood resulting in cases at times being prosecuted by non-specialist prosecutors. In a number of cases there would have been added value had the specialist wildlife prosecutor been involved. We are confident that these issues are capable of easy resolution.
We also looked at how effective the current legislation was thought by practitioners to be and what happened when wildlife crimes were taken to court.
Practitioners did report difficulties with certain legislation. Though some of this was being reviewed at the time of inspection we believe that a broader and continuing review process is necessary. This would usefully fall within the remit of our proposed national partnership structure.
In addition, some practitioners and agencies perceived that courts dealt more leniently with wildlife crimes than they did with other kinds of offence. Court verdicts and sentencing invariably attract controversy and are unlikely to meet the approval of all parties. We found no evidence, however, of any consistent difference of approach towards wildlife crime.