An interview with a real murder detective!

Interview with Jim, York, Tuesday 24th May 2011

Jim is an ex-detective, who worked in the police for some considerable years. He very kindly gave up a couple of hours of his time to answer my random questions about being a detective in the UK. I want to thank Jim wholeheartedly for sharing so much information with me, which has been invaluable and in no small way helped in the creation of DI Louisa Townsend, the fictional detective for my novel Murder On Tarawa (a working title).  I hope to interview Jim again in the not too distant future, I have more to ask!

Q: Does a real detective, or ex-detective, like yourself, read crime fiction? If so, what do you think of fictional detectives?

I like crime stories and fictional detectives, especially if they are realistic and factually correct eg: CSI is great fun but totally unrealistic. The main difference between fictional crime and real crime is the time it takes to solve a case: in real life a serious crime can take up to three months to solve, not three days. Cost also plays a role in real life eg: a DNA profile can take weeks. To get one done in 24 hours is expensive: the DNA evidence has to be sent for analysis, then couriered to London and the results put in the national DNA database to get a hit. That can cost £10,000. It will be even more expensive when the Forensic Science labs are privatised. In fiction the forensics scientists can often do everything, in real life they are not Jacks of all trades, they are specialists – for every aspect of forensics there is a specialist eg: ballistics, blood, there’s even a ‘gait’ specialist.

Q: What’s the worst thing that could happen to a detective?

The walk of shame back into uniform. Even though the uniform rank is the same level as the detective rank, a move back into uniform is seen as a demotion.

Q: How does a uniformed officer become a detective?

For the last six years or so new TDs – Trainee Detectives – have to sit a theory test, do course work, and complete a portfolio of work over 12 month period. The portfolio is evaluated and needs to show the TD has had experience of, and is competent in, specific areas of ‘detecting’. Finally the TD goes through a completion course. Then s/he has to wait for a vacancy to arise.

Previous to this, pre 2005 or so, if a uniform officer wanted to become a detective, the officer was attached to CID for 6months. If she or he was good enough, he was nominated to go on a CID course.

The only difference financially between the uniformed officer and the detective was a £20 a month plain clothes allowance, which no longer exists.

Q: Who runs a murder enquiry?

The higher the profile of the murder victim, the more senior the Investigating Officer is. Often, however, this senior figure is more a ‘figurehead’. For example, I remember one time when we were three days into a murder investigation, the SIO (Senior Investigating Officer) left for a conference, the Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) was sick and I, a sergeant, ran the inquiry.

Q: What’s the procedure on a murder enquiry?

An initial report comes in and the Crime Scene Officers (or SOCOs – Scene of Crime Officers) are sent to process the scene. Statements are taken. Each statement can lead to further action and more statements. So, it can be that one statement can generate hundreds of statements, which in turn can lead to hundreds more, many of which are unhelpful. Whoever is in charge of an investigation, therefore, needs to make policy decisions as to what to statements and lines of enquiry to follow up and what not to: these policy decisions must be justified eg: the Investigating Officer must show he or she has considered all lines of enquiry, and give good reason why certain lines were not followed up. Usually, the SIO will ask the investigating team for their thoughts/opinions/input, because the detectives in the team could have knowledge about a previous case which could shed light on the present case.

For the investigation of major incidents such as serial murders and multi-million pound frauds the police forces of England, Scotland Wales and Northern Ireland – and the Military Police – have “Holmes” (now Holmes2) ie: the Home Office Large Major Enquiry System. “Holmes” was brought in after the Yorkshire Ripper case (1981): the case was one of the largest ever investigations by a British police force and pre-dated the use of computers in criminal cases. The information on suspects was stored on handwritten index cards. Aside from difficulties in storing and accessing such a bulk of paperwork (the floor of the incident room had to be reinforced to cope with the weight of the paper), it was difficult for officers to overcome the information overload of such a large manual system. Sutcliffe was interviewed nine times, but all information the police had about the case was stored in paper form, making cross referencing a difficult task. This fact was compounded by the television appeal for information, which generated thousands more documents to process.

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At the other end of the case spectrum, is the Shoebox case – a murder which is not deemed of public interest ie: as a result of domestic violence. A case deemed of public interest would be a case of a sexual attack with no know offender, as this would cause the public to be concerned. Such a case could be referred to Holmes. However, a case of domestic violence stays in house. Enquiries are recorded by hand on paper, and fit in a shoe box.

BTW: every fatal car crash in West Yorkshire is investigated for murder: a man can get 5 years for running down his wife but life for murdering her.

Q: Is there any rivalry between uniformed officers and CID (Criminal Investigation Department)?

Bobbies used to be at the beck and call of the detectives. They did things like keep crime scenes secure and suicide watches. On a suicide watch a bobby would sit outside a cell and both keep an eye on the suspect and listen out for a ‘significant statement’. He or she could end up doing a 2-10 shift and then being asked to stay a further six hours because relief hadn’t turned up, being sustained by cups of tea alone. Basically, bobbies used to be treated like shite by CID. One example that comes to mind was a case from a few years back. The DS (detective sergeant) was nicknamed DS Spanner – so called because the officer always threw a spanner in the works. In this incident a more junior officer offered advice regards to the finding of a shot gun, which proved to be helpful. The officer was admonished by DS Spanner – DS Spanner didn’t like being ‘shown-up’ by someone of a lower rank.

This division between uniform and CID doesn’t tend to exist any more, and bobbies are afforded far more respect by CID colleagues.

Q: How long does it take to become a detective/senior detective?

After successfully completing two years as a probationary constable, the officer can apply for specialised roles in CID, Firearms, Dogs Section etc. He or she can also apply for fast track promotion (in theory a constable could become a superintendent in 10 years). Many officers chose to stay in uniform: the uniformed officers are in charge of the station, the public face of the division, if you like. Many chose to advance to sergeant level and then stop, because ’inspectors” don’t get paid overtime. It is common to hear a sergeant say she or he ‘can’t’ afford promotion.

Q: Is their overtime for all murder cases?

On a big case, like the Jill Dando case for example, their will be plenty funds for overtime. On a low profile case, however, eg: when an unknown person gets his head staved in, there’s little or no money for overtime. That said, officers will still put in the extra time to help solve a case. The solving of low profile cases can often depend on the goodwill of the officers working on the cases.

Q: Have you ever been surprised by an outcome?

On one case I remember, a woman reported finding her lover with an axe through his head.

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As we collected the evidence it all pointed to her having done it: we traced the axe to B&Q, it was bought with the victim’s credit card; the very particular blood splatter found on the inside of the woman’s dressing gown was consistent with her having wielded the axe (we had a blood splatter expert on this, you can even get experts on how people walk and talk, they really make a difference). We discovered this woman was a high class escort. She’d moved in with her lover some months before and brought her daughter with her. She was involved in all sorts of promiscuous sexual activities, including “dogging” (“dogging” is when others watch each others having sex in a public place.). We painstakingly built a case again her and were about to arrest her for murder when she walked into the station with her lawyer and confessed. We’d wasted thousands of man hours gathering evidence and, of course, pounds. She got charged for manslaughter, got 5 years, and was out in less than three. That wasn’t the outcome we were expecting.

Another case that surprised me involved a rapist in Leeds. We were really stumped and then he got caught dragging a wheelie bin full of tinned food he’d stolen from a victim. That was a lucky break.

Then there was the the foot fetish murderer, who stabbed Wendy Speakes to death while sexually assaulting her (called piquerism or picquerism). He was caught five years later when he was arrested for drinking and driving. His fingerprints were taken on his arrest and matched a partial print found at the scene of the crime. In the earlier investigation his girlfriend had forgotten to tell the police that she had caught him masturbating into her shoes. It’s surprising what people forget to say or don’t think is important.

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Q: What happens after a murderer is locked away?

The senior officers on the case prepare a “lifer manual” ie: the history of the individual before he went into jail. This is referred to whenever/if parole is considered.

Q: What is the most vital stage/aspect of an investigation?

The first 24 hours are gold – people’s memories are fresh then, you can preserve the scene, and you can use the knowledge of what happened to stage a “repeat incident’ on a significant anniversary.

It’s also important to be efficient with time eg: if there are lots of witnesses at a scene, you need to ask everyone if they saw something but you only take down the name and address of the people who actually did witness something. If you take the details of everyone present, while your taking down the name and address from someone who hasn’t witnessed anything at the scene, someone else who has information of use could be walking away. You have to be thorough but you also have to be efficient.

You must always be fair and be seen to be fair. This means that you must disclose anything that could both harm or help your suspect and the prosecution.

Q: Do you know of any murderers who got way?

It’s not that common. But it happens. One instance I can think of, the man was a right thug, but, although we weren’t able to lock this killer up, we believe his criminal activities caught up with him: he’s disappeared and we assume he’s dead.

Q: What is the best moment for you in a case?

When you see a killer going down those stairs from the dock and into permanent custody, and you know the bad bastard won’t cause havoc again. And you know the family of the victim have resolution.

Q: Is there a type of person that becomes a killer?

Any type of person can become a murderer. I believe no one is born bad, they become bad because of their circumstances and environment.

However, some types of offenders have specific behaviour patterns. For example, most people who commit arson have a history of sex offences.

The police now use a profiling computer database system called CATCHEM: the Centralised Analytical Team Collating Homicide Expertise and Management. It can produce profiles of killers, based on previous cases. For example the system holds details of every child murder since 1960, including the characteristics and patterns of each offender.

By comparing details of a current crime with those on the system, it is able to provide officers with an average age of a suspect and an idea of how close he or she may live to their victim.

It can also give an indication of how long a killer is likely to keep victims alive before murdering them.

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In one particular case called ‘Operation Lynx’, a vile and nasty rapist (on one occasion he super-glued his victim’s eyes shut) was caught amongst other reasons, because he used the phrase: “if you do what I tell you, I won’t hurt you.” The CATCHEM database suggested the kind of person who would say this was married, or at least in a serious relationship with a woman, because the person who would use such a phrase knows to offer a female reassurance (which was true, he was married with four children).

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CATCHEM is great, it revealed things like a dumped body is usually found 50 paces from a parking spot. It can even provide a ‘geographic’ profile for an offender– in one instance it said an offender lived near grass, and he did!

Q: What is one of the worst things to have happened to you while being a detective?

Having to go to a post mortem of a six week old baby on Xmas eve.

Q: Why did you become a detective?

I liked being a bobby. I joined police at 28 after being in the army. We used to have a good crack! Once there were six of us, skidding down a hill at the back of a high-rise at 4am. We got a call to deal with a disturbance there. It was us!

Another time, in the days when you could smoke in the police, one bobby put cannabis in the roll up of one of the detectives and he had no idea why he felt so ‘high’. We were very silly sometimes but it was a laugh.

On a more serious note, I joined the police more than anything because I wanted to help the families of victims by putting the bad guys away. There are family liaison officers now but the detective controls the family liaison officer. Families can ring 24/7 the investigating officer and they are grateful for the support from him or her. Some families still send the station I worked in a Xmas card every year in gratitude.

Q: Did your colleagues share your integrity and sense of moral responsibility and justice and fairness?

I always cared about the victim and her or his family. I also always cared for the people in my team. Not all officers are like that.

Q: Why did you leave the force?

I retired, and at the same time, to be honest, I got tired of not having a life out of the force. Being a police officer takes over. You never have a Saturday at home, or get to a party on a Friday. If there’s a serious investigation on – like for example the case of when one of our own, a traffic bobby, was killed by an American gun man, a terrible tragedy: the bobby pulled him over for a traffic incident and the man shot him. In this kind of cases, or a high profile case, everyone works flat out. You want to find the killer, of course you do, but you’re seven days on, followed by another seven days on. There’s nothing in your fridge, you’re living on shite and drinking too much. It puts a strain on personal relationships. Many detectives end up getting divorced– and/or playing away.

Q: What is the relationship between senior and junior officers within CID?

It depends on the senior officer. During briefing and debriefing a good SIO will ask the opinion of his team on a case. Some SIOs, however, can be aloof and run an investigation more ‘top down’. This tends to not to bring out the best of the team. In the olden days, officers used to be seconded from other stations to help out if there was a big investigation on. If an investigation wasn’t getting anywhere, one bad bastard SIO would deliberately sack two of the officers, even if they had done nothing wrong, and send them back to their division. This would scare the remaining officers into frenzied activity as there was huge shame attached to be sent back to your division before an investigation concluded.

Q: Are some areas harder to police than others?

Oh yes. More affluent areas have less crime than more deprived areas. One supermarket in a deprived area I know has been built with no windows, steel doors, and a three foot thick roof because it’s known without such protection it will be broken into.

Q: Has crime changed since you were a bobby?

There’s more violence because of drugs like cocaine and heroine. In the olden days it was more like cops and robbers. You had ‘career’ burglars, who would burgle houses, or warehouses. Now you get drug fuelled break-ins, where a junkie breaks down a door and swipes a lap top or phone to sell in the pub. We know this to be a fact because certain violent crimes (including rape) are called ‘trigger crimes’ and when these occur the suspect is automatically tested for drugs and alcohol.

Rape is still a problem. And never a straightforward crime. Horrific for the victim. The truth is not always clear cut however. For example– a certain policewoman was seen having sex in a doorway via a CCTV camera. When questioned she said was raped. But then when she was asked to do a medical she refused: the prosecution service won’t prosecute without the medical. So it went down as an unresolved rape – though the general opinion was that she’d said she’d been raped rather than get done for having sex in public place ( hence why she refused the medical). Another girl had just been with her lover and bumped into her sister who said she smelled sex on her sister and asked her outright if she’d had sex. The girl said she’d been raped to avoid admitting she was having an affair and the affair getting back to her husband. Eventually the girl admitted she’d lied but by then £30,00 had been spent on the investigation and her lover had had all his windows stoved in because word had got out that he was a rapist.

DNA is the best help in rape cases. But even with it, sometimes a rapist can still get out on bail – one case I remember, a terrible rape, the rapist got out on bail because his victim was a prostitute, as if raping a prostitute was less of an important crime. The system can be very unfair sometimes.

The Criminal Prosecution Service (CPS) won’t prosecute unless its 95% sure of conviction. So, even if someone is stopped in the dead of night, with recognisable housebreaking tools on them and a record of house breaking, the CPS will let him go. They don’t want to take on cases which aren’t 100% water-tight.

In the olden days a custody sergeant used to decide if there was sufficient evidence to charge a suspect or not. Now CPS does it. And, something else CPS seemed to do while I was on the force, was under charge in order to be sure of a conviction. Let me explain: if someone attacks someone with a knife, we would arrest him under “section 18 of the Offences Against The Person Act (1861), for causing grievous bodily harm with intent”. However, the CPS may feel they have more of chance of convicting the offender on a less serious charge of say, a “section 20 – inflicting grievous bodily harm”, or a “section 47 – occasioning actually bodily harm” or even a “section 39 –common assault and or battery”. Obviously, there’s big difference in the sentence someone can get from one to charge to the other. In my opinion the CPS go for the lesser charge every time, because they feel they are more likely to get a conviction. This is not how the police used to do it when they were in charge of prosecutions.

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Another offence that can be tricky to prosecute is when a group of people are involved in a crime, especially a killing. If a group act together to commit a crime, say a robbery, and one of the three happen to be carrying a knife (but the other two don’t know about that knife), and then later during the robbery, the knife is used to kill someone, only the killer is prosecuted for the murder. They can all be prosecuted in a joint enterprise for the robbery. However, if the other two knew the third person was carrying a knife on him, they have basically ’consented’ to the existence of the knife and are equally guilty of murder.

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Q: Do you think jail is a deterrent?

Not necessarily, but it works in the sense that it keeps the bad bastards off the street ie: the ones who are raping and robbing and killing!

Q: You said earlier that one of the reasons for the increase in violent crime is due to the increasing use of drugs (and addicts looking to fund a habit), what other crimes are drugs and alcohol related?

It’s not just that people rob others in order to get money to fuel a drug habit. More and more people use drugs and alcohol recreationally to excess, leaving them vulnerable and out of control – one particular concoction that people like to take before going out on a night out is the cough syrup “night nurse”, apparently it helps you get drunk more quickly. Combine this with cocaine and alcohol and you have people “off their face” ie: in no condition to know what they are consenting to and unable to remember anything of what has happened to them. Under such circumstances, the crime of ‘stranger rape’, for example, can be very difficult to prove.

The increased use of drugs and alcohol is also behind a lot of domestic violence. I knew of a case where a woman killed her husband in a fight over a bottle of whiskey.

Q: Have you ever taken a dislike to a victim?

It can happen that you don’t like a victim, of course it can, but you put any prejudices aside and do your job: at end of day your job is to be fair and to lock up the bad guys and defend the good guys, regardless of who they are.

Q: Is it usual for officers to go back into uniform after being in ‘plain clothes’?

It happens. Other than by being dropped in the shit, you may chose to do a further board (ie: another course and study) and become a uniform sergeant/inspector. The uniformed officers have specific areas of control, like the station. They are the front line on the street. They usually get to the crimes first and report to the station sergeant, who decides if CID should become involved or not.

Q: How accurately can the time of death of a body be ascertained?

Working out the TOD is not an exact science. A good pathologist always gives an approximate time. Sometimes it’s really obvious when someone has been dead a while. Once we were called to a flat where there had been reports of a nasty smell. The body was so decomposed it had melted into the sofa. And, on this occasion, before we could break into the flat to investigate (even though I recognised the putrid smell immediately and knew there had to be a cadaver in the flat) we had to phone the station sergeant and ask permission to break into the flat. It was in the summer time, had it been winter the body my have lain undetected for months.

At other times you find a body and it’s clearly still warm and only been recently killed. More often than not, however, it is difficult to tell the exact time of death because so many factors can affect the state of the body. Pathologists will say ‘last night-ish’, never 10pm. It’s not generally known but you can get a second post mortem report if you’re not happy with the first one. However, most forensic pathologists are Home Office coroners and also surgeons, they’ve often worked and trained together, and they usually always agree. Because a second autopsy can be called for, after the first PM is over, the insides of the body are put in a yellow hazardous waste bag and sewn back inside the victim. The body is then put into storage AKA the freezer. A frozen cadaver takes 2 days to defrost.

A PM can often reveal something that is not obvious eg: if someone’s stamped on someone’s face, the imprint of boot/show stamp may not be apparent at death, but it may be revealed in the PM.

Occasionally you find yourself doing some funny things: once we had to shave a cadaver: when someone dies the skin dehydrates and makes stubble obvious, as if you’ve not shaved. In order to shave a frozen corpse you need to use talc as a lubricant, if you use the usual shaving creams/gel you’ll rip the skin off the face. We didn’t want to hurt the deceased even though he was dead, you see we’d got to know this man over the investigation: we’d learned who his friends were, what is drinking habits were, were he worked. If we had to shave him, we were going to do it properly.

However, a PM can’t reveal everything. In the news recently, I don’t know if you know about it, these bodies have been found in the river. They know they drowned but not why. One theory is that these bodies are alcohol related suicides: people drink, they get drunk, they get depressed (drink is a depressant for many), they go sit by the river, because rivers are tranquil, and then they either jump deliberately, or fall asleep and fall in. No one knows.

The interview ended here as we’d ran out of time.


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