The challenges of international knowledge-sharing by police organisations: Lessons from ten European case studies
Current restrictions aside, improved transportation, better IT systems, easing of travel restrictions across borders, greater world trade and the increasing size of vulnerable populations have led to greater opportunities for cross-border crimes.
Written by Dr Kamal Birdi, Senior Lecturer in Occupational Psychology, Institute of Work Psychology, Sheffield University Management School
Beyond the current pandemic restrictions, improved transportation, better information and communication technology systems, easing of travel restrictions across borders, greater world trade and the increasing size of vulnerable populations have led to greater opportunities for committing cross-border crimes such as drug smuggling, people trafficking, terrorism, money-laundering and cyberfraud (European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction and Europol, 2019; Europol, 2019; Van der Laan, 2017).
The implication of these trends is that increased international co-operation between police organisations is needed to tackle border-spanning criminal activities.
With the UK’s recent exit from the European Union, concerns have rightly been raised about the consequent reduction in sharing of security information between UK and EU-based police organisations.
For example, the UK has left the Schengen Information System which is the main database for sharing European police alerts about people of interest and is consulted millions of times a year.
Brexit has therefore spotlighted the wider value of knowledge-sharing, the exchange between two or more parties of potentially valuable information, as a key component of co-operation.
So what are the specific challenges faced by police organisations in sharing important information across national boundaries and how can they be best overcome?
A recently published paper by the author of this blog and teams of researchers located in ten European countries has helped clarify the manifold challenges and facilitators of cross-border knowledge sharing by police organisations (see Birdi, K. et al., (2021). Factors influencing cross-border knowledge sharing by police organisations: an integration of ten European case studies. Police Practice and Research, 22(1), 3-22)
The reported research was undertaken as part of the European Union-funded Comparative Police Studies In The EU (COMPOSITE) programme.
Research teams in ten European countries (UK, France, Belgium, Germany, Netherlands, Spain, Italy, Czech Republic, Republic of North Macedonia and Romania) produced ten case studies of knowledge sharing across borders.
The case studies were either involving direct collaboration between police forces in different countries (eg the German-Polish Police and Customs Co-operation Centre in Świecko, Poland) or through international agencies such as CEPOL or INTERPOL.
Each case study comprised interviews with up to five police officers involved in cross-border collaborations and consultation of regional reports and articles.
Comparative and integrative analyses across the case studies showed that different sets of organisational, inter-organisational and inter-country factors influenced the quality and quantity of international knowledge sharing:
- Organisational factors: Technology proved to be a major issue. Email, videoconferencing, the internet, mobile phones and shared databases all eased the transfer of information across borders. These were not only used for sharing criminal intelligence but other types of information, too. For example, the case study on CEPOL described that their online system for training hosts a variety of courses on topics such as cybercrime and gender-based violence, making it quickly and easily accessible to police officers across Europe. However, technology became an obstacle when systems were not integrated across organisations, the right technology was not available or was too costly. For example, the Police and Customs Cooperation Centre in Le-Pertus reported technical barriers due to problems with connectivity (the centre is in the middle of the Pyrenees) and cost (phone calls to forces in other countries were classed as international since the centre is in France). It was also quite obvious that the capabilities of staff played a strong role in facilitating cooperation, particularly with regards to language skills, with all but one case study citing it as a barrier. This was both in terms of not being able to directly communicate with staff in other countries but also the indirect delays and possibilities of misinterpretation caused by translation activities. Other employee characteristics raised concerned employees’ motivation and experience/skills in sharing knowledge. These are both areas that could be improved by appropriate learning, appraisal and reward interventions.
- Inter-organisational factors: Developing good working relationships between organisations was crucial. Trust and understanding of cultural and organisational differences between parties seemed to be an underpinning issue for defining a good relationship. In the case studies, such relationships were cultivated by having social events, officer exchanges and visits. The international agencies such as CEPOL had a particular role in brokering relationships through their abilities to co-ordinate and deliver training programmes and conferences for multiple police organisations. Shared ways of working were also seen as key drivers. These were reported as being in the form of written agreements on how shared operations would work and standardised processes and documentation. Interestingly, three case studies mentioned being allowed to work flexibly with partners helped their collaborations. The same cross-organisational teams being able to work in the same locations in different countries or sharing the same building space were also given as good methods of promoting face-to-face knowledge sharing.
- Inter-country factors: It was clear from the evidence that a distinct set of national factors also influenced knowledge sharing efforts. In particular, the actions of Governments and the EU in setting up legal frameworks and conventions between countries eased cooperation for some and their absence proved a barrier in other case studies. The post-Brexit situation has highlighted the difficulties of negotiating security information agreements between the UK and EU. Of course, national differences in the law proved an obstacle when acts were inconsistently classed as crimes in various regions. For example, traffic offences in Poland are an infraction when they occur without personal injury but in Germany, they are always classed as a criminal offence. Government decisions to organise their police forces in different ways and to place different strategic emphases on types of crimes and collaborations were also seen as influential.
Practical implications for improving international knowledge sharing arising from the research include:
- standardising technology systems across countries
- improving inter-organisational trust through exchanges and physical co-working
- developing police members’ knowledge and skills with regards to collaborative working
- creating joint agreements and visions.
Given patterns of criminal activity suggest no let-up in the need for policing cooperation across borders in the future, it is imperative that research-based insights are used for promoting more productive international security partnerships.
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