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AC Mike Pannett in his AFP uniform.

Our man around the world

Assistant Commissioner Mike Pannett is a bit of an oddity... but in a good way, he tells Ellen Brook.

The long-serving Kiwi cop is on secondment to the Australian Federal Police’s International Command, based in Canberra. “Being an AC in both countries is unusual,” he says. “A lot of our partners in other countries struggle to understand how that can be done.”

The answer is because of the close relationship and similarities between the two policing agencies.

It’s also beneficial to both countries, says Mike, who is the first New Zealand police officer to take up the AC role with International Command, which is charged with preventing, detecting and combatting transnational crime and key to that is cultivating international partnerships.

Mike’s job has involved leading a review of the AFP’s international network to “have the right people with the right skills in the right locations around the world to make an operational impact on the offshore criminal environment” and to bring “best practice and law enforcement partnerships from around the globe back to AFP”.

It’s lucky for Mike that he likes a challenge because transnational organised crime is not going to cease any time soon.

He’s two years into a three-year secondment, overseeing the International Command team in Canberra and 35 police posts across 33 countries and seven missions in the Pacific.

Nine AFP commanders report to Mike, three in Australia and six based offshore. Covid-19 temporarily put the brakes on in-person contact early in his tenure, but the upside was it gave him time to complete the review of International Command with the aim of expanding the influence of the international network.

As international travel has opened up, Mike can now spend more time with AFP posts across Europe, the Middle East, Africa, the Americas, Asia, Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

“With 70 per cent of Australian upper-level transnational crime targets sitting outside Australia, AFP International Command is facing a large challenge. Many of these same offenders are also targeting New Zealand and the Pacific.”

AFP has contributed to what Mike calls “some of the most forward-leaning operational activity” around the world and has been heavily involved in one of the biggest success stories of recent times, Operation Ironside in Australia (Operation Trojan Shield in the US), dubbed the sting of the century.

It led to coordinated raids in June 2021 across 16 countries, including New Zealand, and resulted in more than 800 arrests and the seizure of massive amounts of drugs and millions of dollars in cash.

It also highlighted the innovation and use of technology by organised crime groups globally. Criminal groups are targeting both Australia and New Zealand, communicating and working together “at levels we have not previously known or understood”, Mike says.

“These groups are extremely versatile and adapt quickly to any changes in the environment. They rely on trusted networks and are careful about who they deal with.

“The offshore criminal environment is made up of many networks, some virtual and some physical, where the communications options are constantly evolving.”

Encrypted communications are the most problematic, he says, which is one reason why the outcomes from Operation Ironside were so satisfying. Criminal networks around the world were communicating with each other on what they thought was a secure network when, in fact, it had been set up, and was being monitored, by law enforcement agencies including AFP.

While the challenges are enormous, Mike remains optimistic. “I have a sense of hope because, while Covid-19 challenged us, it has also taught us to work in different and innovative ways and, more than ever, countries are working together on this because transnational crime is an issue for us all.”

At the heart of everything is the money. “That’s the motivation for the offending, but it’s also a vulnerability because you can follow its movements and seize it. Organised crime offenders hate losing their assets and cash.”

In many ways, he says, the work AFP is doing is at the front edge of policing because of the need to stay abreast of changes in the environment and know who to connect with around the world.

“It’s a process of adapting and following the basic principles of prevention. You prevent harm as close to the source as you can. In doing so we can act earlier and reduce the impact on victims and our communities.”

Mike also has his finger on the pulse of the Five Eyes Law Enforcement Group (FELEG), currently chaired by AFP Commissioner Reece Kershaw, with Mike leading the FELEG Secretariat for AFP. He also sits on the Board of Directors of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, which has 32,000 members.

Mike with President Barack Obama.

Going global

Mike has had a long and wide-ranging career with law enforcement, and even brought his energy to the role of Police Association committee chair for Northland at one stage.

He could probably have gone in any direction in Police, but it was the post-9/11 environment and police and government responses to global events that had a significant influence on him.

“I was introduced to a different style of policing that had heavy international connections, including building on the already close relationship with the Australian Federal Police.”

Even as he took on other leadership roles in Police, Mike maintained links with national security, crime and intelligence operations and in 2009 he was promoted to detective superintendent in the National Intelligence Centre in Wellington.

The following year he was invested as a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit (MNZM) for services to Police, including his intelligence and investigation work.

Overseas deployments followed and in 2011 he took on the Police liaison post in Washington DC. “That was an amazing period of change. The foreign terrorist fighter phenomenon emerged with the rise of IS attacks globally. My role morphed into covering all the Americas and linked further with the Five Eyes community.”

In 2014, Mike led the international segment of the high-profile manhunt across South America for escaped murderer Phillip John Smith until he was captured in Brazil and later returned to New Zealand.

Mike returned to New Zealand in 2015 and became the Southern District Commander for a short period before being promoted to Assistant Commissioner International and National Security in 2016.

On March 15, 2019, Mike was designated National Commander for the Christchurch mosque terror attacks, a period he describes as the most personally challenging of his career.

In October 2020, he was seconded to AFP. “It’s a job where you never ever finish,” he says, “but being asked to be part of further developing and expanding the AFP international network is a privilege.”

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