In 2013, the New South Wales (Australia) Police Force had to confront a vexing and concerning situation. Following a series of dramatic media reports, New South Wales residents had begun to perceive that public shootings had increased dramatically. In practice, government crime data demonstrated that shootings had not risen. Nonetheless, as Gavin Dengate, a Detective Superintendent in the New South Wales (NSW) Police Force, explained, this did little to change the fact that he and his colleagues had a serious problem. “The community still believed there was an increase,” Dengate elaborated, “because the media jumped onto the issue and did a lot of work blaming the government. And, obviously, when they blame government, they look at the police force as to what we were and weren’t doing.”
The NSW Police Force responded by launching Operation Talon, a multifaceted initiative to combat gun violence and bolster public confidence. One of Operation Talon’s most important elements was a renewed emphasis on intelligence gathering, which, as Dengate lamented, had previously received scant attention from other units and senior department officials. The initiative—which was being spearheaded by the department’s then-Deputy Commissioner, Nick Kaldas—also called for increased community engagement and aimed to strengthen coordination among a number of units that had been previously operating in silos. Most importantly, Operation Talon highlighted the importance of the NSW Police Force becoming more proactive. “Our job as cops,” Dengate said, “is to stop crime before it happens. If we go around doing the high fives all the time because we’re locking people up, we really need to have a good look in the mirror as to what our business is.”
While the strategy behind Operation Talon was well thought-out, there was no guarantee that it would succeed. Rather, as Kaldas, Dengate, and their colleagues set out to implement the initiative, they faced a number of difficult questions. Given that shootings were not actually on the rise, how should they define the problem they were trying to solve? How could they foster stronger coordination among a number of entities accustomed to operating in silos? Would the initiative be adequately resourced? Could they change the culture surrounding intelligence gathering and elevate the importance of this work? Would the public and the press respond well to the department’s increased engagement efforts? Would the department be able to leverage technology and other tactics to enhance their work? Most fundamentally, would they be able to make New South Wales a safer place to live and assuage public fear?
Located in the southeast portion of the country, NSW is one of Australia’s six regional states. The responsibility for securing the region lies with the NSW Police Force, an approximately 20,500-person force (including 16,500 sworn officers) whose resources are most heavily concentrated in Sydney, NSW’s most-populous city.
In late 2012 and early 2013, as public concern about shootings increased, one of the first questions that the NSW Police Force had to address was how to define the nature and scope of the problem they were trying to solve. This was critical because much of the public concern was a byproduct of dramatic media stories, and what was lost in the narrative was that public shootings had not actually increased. What’s more, many of the news stories had spotlighted shootings that had occurred in southwest Sydney, an area that is home to over 240 nationalities and, as Dengate noted, is considered the second-most diverse place in the world. It would not be hard to infer incorrectly that ethnic minorities were fueling the perceived surge in gun violence. Hoping to add some precision to this discussion and simultaneously begin to correct dangerous, false narratives, NSW police officials therefore offered a precise definition of public place shootings (PPS) and emphasized that the issue was not limited to any location or ethnic group.
Having more sharply defined the issue that they were trying to resolve, NSW police leaders had to develop a strategy and well-resourced operation and structure to guide the initiative. After studying Operations Spartan and Apollo, two past departmental initiatives focused on combatting gun violence, NSW police leaders recognized that units responding to gun violence had to start becoming more proactive. They also realized that one of the impediments to effective prevention was the inconsistent communication and poor data-sharing between (among other groups) rank-and-file officers and the State Crime Command, which oversaw efforts to weaken organized crime groups. (Organized crime groups frequently perpetrated public place shootings and often succeeded in evading detection because so much of their operations were covert; as a result, the involvement of the State Crime Command—which possessed extensive knowledge of the organized crime groups’ sophisticated tactics—was extremely important to the success of the initiative.) To sharpen coordination among these groups, the department created a tightly defined command-and-control structure that brought together senior commanders from the State Crime Command, Regional Commands, and different specialist areas.
To signal the importance of different sub-groups participating in the initiative, the department announced that then-Deputy Commissioner Kaldas would spearhead the initiative. The Deputy Commissioner then reached out to Dengate and asked him to help oversee Operation Talon. Dengate had not worked extensively with Kaldas in the past, but as he recalled, “When the Deputy Commissioner asks you, you just say, ‘Yes.’” What’s more, he was confident that Kaldas’ involvement would guarantee that Operation Talon would receive the “resources needed to fix” the perceived threat of public place shootings. Operation Talon had immediate credibility because of the involvement of one of the department’s senior-most leaders.
With a strategy and command structure in place, Kaldas, Dengate, and their partners shifted their attention to implementation. One of their first focuses was amplifying the department’s intelligence gathering for public place shootings. As Dengate noted, the NSW Police Force’s intelligence officers had previously worked normal business hours, meaning that they would typically leave the office around 5 p.m. This made it difficult to combat public place shootings, which often occurred at night. Dengate, Kaldas, and other senior officials therefore emphasized to intelligence officers that they would have to start working later hours, a request which, as Dengate said, initially prompted significant pushback from the public service association (non-sworn officers) and some police. As this resistance faded, Operation Talon stood up a real-time intelligence center that would be staffed for 20 hours per day. This ensured that the operation had sufficient resources and helped to signal to other units that the intelligence team—which, as Dengate said, had previously been treated like one of the police force’s “poor cousins”—would be taking on an elevated role.
Operation Talon leaders simultaneously strove to equip officers in the field with tactics and tools that could help them to achieve their mission. This included leveraging technology, such as body-worn cameras, automatic number plate recognition for vehicles, and real-time data transmission systems. The NSW Police Force also created a suppression model that highlighted the key phases of a public shooting (catalyst, access to weapon, and incident) and the roles that different units were supposed to play during each part of the sequence. This served as a systematic reminder of the importance of different proactive techniques and also ensured that different units would know what they were expected to do—and how they were expected to interact with one another—regardless of when they began working on a specific target.
Finally, Operation Talon led to the NSW Police Force placing a renewed emphasis on public engagement. This included reaching out to members of the media, with whom Kaldas and Dengate were in regular contact and who were invited to participate in police trainings and staged events to better understand their work. Similarly, Operation Talon elevated the importance of community relations by having officers knock on doors and reaching out to local residents before incidents occurred. This helped the NSW police to reassure concerned citizens that they were taking the public’s concerns about shootings seriously; it also enabled the NSW Police Force to build connections that helped them to gather intelligence to prevent and solve future crimes. In fact, in some cases, when shootings occurred, families of the suspect were willing to cooperate with the police because of the foundation of trust that the police had already established. “You can’t build a relationship in times of conflict,” Dengate said. “You’ve got to do it when everything’s good. Unfortunately, we sit back on our laurels, and suddenly things get bad. You’ve got to engage when things are going well to keep that relationship going."
Approximately four years after the launch of Operation Talon, Dengate and his colleagues recognize that the threat of public place shootings continues. This is in no small part because, as Dengate lamented, there are occasionally upticks in shootings, as was the case in spring 2016. Nonetheless, Operation Talon has had a tremendously positive impact. From 2012 through 2016, shootings in three high-priority areas in Sydney—Central Metro, North West Metro, and South West Metro—fell by 77 percent, 45 percent, and 51 percent, respectively. What’s more, Operation Talon recently received public recognition from the NSW Government that led to an expanded charter and increased funding. More broadly, Operation Talon has helped to remind a number of leaders in the NSW Police Force about the gravity of their work. “Each police officer has the ability to change someone’s life for the better,” Dengate said. “If all police do that, then collectively we’re going to change a lot of peoples’ lives. I don’t think police realize how much they can change someone’s life. And it doesn’t take too much.”
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