The global methamphetamine drug trade is a “global scourge and a massive problem across Asia and Australia”, John Coyne, Head of the Border Security Programme at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, tells GovInsider.

The amount of meth seized in East and Southeast Asia quadrupled between 2009 and 2013, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. In particular, there has been a “large increase” in seizures in China, the UN says.

So how can governments react in the face of this global onslaught? What should they do to protect their citizens, and where have they proven effective? Coyne set out his thinking in this interview with GovInsider at Interpol World 2017.

Erasing a global scourge

According to Coyne, the “easiest way” to disrupt the supply of meth is to assist China in regulating its chemical and pharmaceutical industries. There are roughly 28,000 labs and chemical pharmaceutical production plants in mainland China, he says, and while the vast majority are legitimately operated, the Chinese “don’t have a strong history of regulation”, he says. “They have some bleed out of products”.

Nevertheless, China has acknowledged that they have a domestic drug problem, Coyne says. There is an opportunity for countries like Singapore, where there’s a good regulatory basis, to “find a common ground” with China.

However, “the challenge is that for the police, not a single arrest and no seizures of drugs would come from helping the Chinese regulate their chemical and pharmaceutical industries,” Coyne explains.

The problem is that police forces and border agencies in have performance measures and KPIs that focus on “mechanic outcomes”, he says. “I think that there’s still a great deal of comfort for most enforcement and border agencies in saying: ‘This year, we arrested 10% more people’”.

A cultural change

Policing is “not about arresting people, putting them in jail and investigating crime,” Coyne believes. The broader objective of policing is to make countries, communities and environments safer – and “seizing drugs would be an example of this,” he says.

For countries to move away from this emphasis on arrests, Coyne believes that the culture in law enforcement and border agencies needs to change. Countries have to “hold senior leadership in countries, certainly in law enforcement and border agencies, to a higher level of accountability around delivering actual results,” he explains. “That’s a hard battle.”

Countries should also assess how they recruit and train police officers and border officials. To cope with an increase in cyber crime in the future, “we need to be training them to manage high-tech cyber investigations,” Coyne shares. “We need to be developing those skills now.”

Besides proficiency in cyber investigations, ICT literacy and “the capacity to independently think” will be essential for the police officer and border official of the future, Coyne says. “It’s the ability to think strategically.”

Safer nations

Nowadays, countries face a “more diverse threat environment”. In today’s world, “the bad guys can do things faster than we can,” says Coyne.

Criminals can quickly hire hackers on the dark web to carry out cyber attacks, while governments are much slower at procuring security technology. “It takes me six to 12 months to assess everything, then I’ve got to get it implemented. By the time I do, the problem’s moved on and there’s a new problem,” he explains.

Border security is more complex now, too. Short of building a giant wall and not letting anybody in—the fastest way to secure a country, but “impossible” in the 21st century—border officials have to ensure that travel, trade and supply chains can still rapidly move goods across borders. “The game isn’t to catch bad guys—it is to have a fully functioning economy and country and preventing as much harm as possible from coming into and out of the country,” he explains.

Law enforcement and security agencies have to contend with a lot of moving parts at borders. With greater training, a more flexible approach, and a rethink of their KPIs, border agencies will better keep their countries safe.

Border and security agencies will be in Singapore at Innovation Labs World on 26 September 2017 to share lessons on improving public safety. Register today.

Image by Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick Kelley (U.S. Coast Guard)