Crime Bytes: The role of the behavioural sciences in tackling organised crime

In a recent article published in Jane’s Intelligence Review (Jan 2015) Dr Anna Sergi, a lecturer in policing and crime science at the University of West London, explores the role of the behavioural sciences in tackling organised crime. Social and behavioural science is a multidisciplinary field, involving studies of psychology, sociology, criminology, anthropology, economics and communication that examine the relationships, networks and dynamics between individuals, groups and the society in which they are embedded. Applied to a range of criminal issues, from ASB to organised crime, Dr Sergi emphasises the importance of using these approaches to understand crime in relation to society, and to ensure our analysis is “rooted in reality.”

Specifically in relation to organised crime, this approach has been used to prevent, disrupt and reduce organised crime be understanding the motivation of offenders, analysing their roles within criminal groups, detecting the truthfulness or deception of victims or perpetrators, and by effectively using the communication between law enforcement and criminals in order to influence criminal behaviour.

For example, the National Crime Agency (NCA) has a dedicated Behavioural Science Unit which aims to support investigations by analysing, predicting and influencing suspects’ intentions. A thorough psychological understanding of offender motivations and behaviour is particularly important in the battle against online child exploitation, which can involve setting up “honey traps” and undercover work in which offenders are approached online from within their own networks. In the case of Operation Rescue, a CEOP-led (Child Exploitation and Online Protection) operation in which an online forum of over 70,000 members was dismantled between 2007 and 2014, law enforcement intervention was successful due to human error on the part of the offenders – namely by mistakes made when trying to anonymised their activities online. These mistakes, combined with delicate undercover work online in which information is collected, networks are analysed and careful communication is used to gain trust and influence offender behaviour, led to the arrest of 184 offenders worldwide (including 33 UK convictions).

A behavioural science approach can be equally valuable in understanding and influencing offline behaviour. Dr Sergi highlights the importance of these techniques in tackling human trafficking, by improving our understanding of both offender and victim behaviour. It is critical for us to understand the mind-set of vulnerable targets in order to prevent others in similar conditions from also suffering victimisation. For example, with the support of behavioural scientists, the NCA secured evidence that tracked down the offenders involved in Operation Visionary – 3 Nigerian men involved in the trafficking of a 23-year-old Nigerian woman to the UK. This woman was “befriended, raped, trafficked, and threatened with black magic”, and the men deliberately targeted women who were orphans or who had financial or educational needs. In this case, an understanding of both the psychological state of the victim and an anthropological understanding and cultural awareness regarding the role of black magic, were both critical in engaging the victim and fully understanding her vulnerability. This case in particular highlights how social sciences can push our understanding of criminality beyond the investigation of a single offence, towards a fuller awareness of the social context and the logic behind trafficking from the perspective of both offender and victim.

To read more, please find Dr Sergi’s full article here.

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