For law enforcers, confidence is in the job description
Throughout my career in law enforcement, first in Australia and now at Interpol, I’ve learned that criminals are opportunistic. They look for weakness to exploit. If one country, or one agency within a country, is not as engaged in combating crime as others then the criminals will exploit that opportunity.
Often environmental law enforcement is not treated like the profession that it is. We expect our scientists, policymakers and lawyers to have advanced degrees and be highly experienced. But our enforcers, our rangers, we give them a one week course, maybe two, then send them out to the field to face criminals that are often armed and dangerous.
When I went through the law enforcement academy it took nine months. At Interpol we conduct trainings to empower environmental law enforcement officers, to give them a belief in themselves that they can do the job. It’s very hands on. Arresting people or interrogating suspects is not something I can teach in a PowerPoint presentation. In a law enforcement recruit course we teach you how to arrest somebody and then we actually go out and do it.
When I was an officer in training, I had learned how to put handcuffs on people but when I had to do it on a real criminal it was totally different. We were just moving him from one jail to another, some rather senior police colleagues were there, and they told me to handcuff the guy so we could transport him. I went up to him – he was a big burly guy - and in my little nervous 22-year-old voice I told him to put his hands behind his back. He growled a little and I stuck the handcuff on, but then I realized the other cuff wasn’t going to get to the other hand because I had put it on wrong. And he started to laugh, even my colleagues laughed.
I had been trained on how to do this stuff, but it was my first time with a real criminal and I was nervous, so I had to unlock the handcuff and put it on again while everyone laughed at me. But I never made the same mistake again. And I learned that it’s ok to make mistakes, but we have to then do something to improve. In our trainings we want to give enforcers confidence in themselves that if they make a mistake it’s not the end of the world as long as they take the opportunity to learn from it and don’t give up.
We also go out into the field for operations, this year it was Operation Worthy, targeting illegal ivory traders. With the support of IFAW and the UK government, we went into 12 African countries to shadow the national law enforcement officers. We provided advisory support, we didn’t do their jobs for them, they did their jobs and we provided the advice.
Initially you could see the confidence wasn’t there. It’s quite scary having all these people watching your every move, film crews where there as well, it was like having the chief of police watching - imagine if he was there watching me with the handcuffs that first time!
The teams were timid; they weren’t sure how to act at first. I felt that they just needed a success, no matter how big or small. So we said, just go out and catch somebody who is breaking the law. Don’t worry about the ivory, just get somebody.
We had some information about a guy with snakes he shouldn’t have. We went in to his house and he did have a heap of snakes! And bang, they got their success. From then on you couldn’t hold them back. Off they went and within a day they had arrested three people for illegal ivory trade. For the first day and a half there was nothing because they needed that win, they needed something to bring them together and to build upon as a team. After that breakthrough they had the confidence they needed to do the job and they’ve kept it up since we’ve left.
At Interpol, and as an international community, we can help with management, strategy, vision and government engagement, but it’s great when I get to see people on the ground putting in the hard yards. We had a part to play in giving them their confidence, but at the end of the day it’s the law enforcement professionals on the ground who are responsible for the success.