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How successful are police investigations?

I'd like to start by apologising for the length of this article...this may be one limited to the cops amongst you. Anyway; Do you agree with what i've said? Do you disagree? Have i missed something? Have i got it completely wrong? Feel free to comment me to death about it.

As i cast my eyes across the rack of daily papers it becomes obvious that its a slow news day. Almost every paper has a different front page story. My chosen paper for today was The Times...and they have generated a story out of their huge archive of Freedom of Information requests.

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Today's Times headline is "Police Admit one in three crimes not investigated". It's a story based on statistics, and as is so often the case with statistics based stories, it is hugely misleading. Despite it being misleading, it does raise an important issue about witness and victim care. I often come across people who say "i'm not reporting anything to the police, they aren't bothered". The view that the police just don't care is endemic, and is born out of the way the police approach the solving of crimes, and the communication surrounding investigations. Maybe something positive can come out of this misleading story after all.

A very small number of crimes just aren't solvable. Some crimes require passive investigation. Some crimes require active investigation. Some crimes require an emergency response, followed by an active investigation. There is a proportion of crimes that are solvable, but aren't solved for whatever reason. So what are the factors that contribute to a successful investigation?

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Evidence: There is always evidence, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Locard's Exchange Principle tells us that a person will both bring something into the scene and leave with something from the scene. To quote Kirk "Physical evidence cannot be wrong, it cannot perjure itself, it cannot be wholly absent. Only human failure to find it, study and understand it, can diminish its value." The question is, how much are we willing to invest in searching for that evidence? For a 'serious crime', we will invest a lot in locating evidence. For a 'minor crime', we may not be willing to invest very much at all. 

The way the police present evidence can be the difference between charge and not charge. The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) will not charge an offender if the presented evidence is so lacking that it is unlikely to lead to a successful prosecution.

The method the police seeks evidence can be both active and passive. 'Active seeking' requires substantial investment, whereas 'passive seeking' requires less investment. For some crimes, when evidence is being sought, we may choose 'passive seeking' as it has the widest reach, and is cheaper. Examples of 'passive seeking' could be; appeals through the media, intelligence gathering, 'flagging' evidence such as ANPR, PNC and Borders alerts. Examples of 'active seeking' could be; witness evidence and scientific evidence, as per Locard. I suggest it is unlikely that the police completely drop a case, they may be taking a passive approach in order to gathering evidence. Such a method could appear to the public, or the victim, that nothing is being done. This is when communication, and managing expectations, becomes so important.

Public Interest: Public Interest is the second factor, after evidence, that the CPS look at to decide if they will progress to charging. It is based on a now legendary speech by Sir Hartley Shawcross in 1951 when he was the Attorney General; "
“It has never been the rule in this country – I hope it never will be – that suspected criminal offences must automatically be the subject of prosecution. Indeed, the very first regulations under which the Director of Public Prosecutions worked provided that he should intervene to prosecute, amongst other cases: wherever it appears that the offence or the circumstances of its commission is or are of such a character that a prosecution in respect therefore is required in the public interest. That is still the dominant consideration." For more info on this, see this paper (PDF) written by the current DPP Keir Starmer

She can investigate me any time
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Investigator: Kirk, as above, said that the value of evidence is diminished due to human failure to find it, study it, and understand it. A good investigator will make the most efficient and effective use of evidence. A competent investigator would have the following skills; writing ability, knowledge, experience, training and attention to detail. Honesty, integrity, and lack of corruptibility are also essential and can be safeguarded by strict initial selection and good pay and conditions

The investigator should be a specialist, rather than a jack of all trades. There must either be; investment in training those officers charged with immediate response equipping them with more specialist skills, Or a quicker handover of investigations from these response officers to specialists. 

Finally, a good investigator will have authority. Authority comes from law, and from competence. If the investigator has mastered the skills mentioned, he will have a natural authority and inspire confidence in the victim and other officers. This is what the police must be striving for.

Management: Managers should be facilitative rather than supervisory. If the investigator requires direct supervision, they are not right to be leading an investigation. A manager will exist to ensure the investigator has everything he needs in order to achieve the best result. This will include effective systems of work, technology, support staff, and time. Time is where a manager can offer the most support. An investigator will achieve the most if they can focus on the most important investigations without distraction. The manager will work with the investigator to manage their workload which may involve transferring investigations to other colleagues, or giving the investigator more support in terms of staff.

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Incentive to solve: This was inspired by a bit of research into the origins of detection and investigation. Many moons ago 'thief takers' were rewarded financially by the state. This led to a proactive body of men who sought out thieves and brought them before the court (a la Garrow's Law). Lack of regulation, and a 'dont ask don't tell' style from the courts, meant that they often collaborated with 'victims' to frame an innocent person in order to win the bounty. It also meant that only particular types of serious and acquisitive crimes were solved. 

In a modern context the pride of solving a crime itself is often enough of a reward. However there are occasions where individuals receive little praise and support meaning they do not feel valued. This can lead to lower detection rates, low motivation, resentment and inefficiency. The incentive could be financial (bonus scheme), or it could just be public recognition of a job well done. The latter is often more than enough.

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Urgency: Procrastination is my biggest weakness. I always leave my university assignments to the last minute, and don't really achieve anything until the matter becomes urgent. In the same way, investigations without a deadline/action plan will stagnate and slow down. Some aspects of an investigation are naturally urgent, like gathering physical evidence, securing a crime scene, arresting someone to prevent them from 'doing a runner', or interviewing within the PACE time frames. A general lack of urgency, maybe from a institutional lack of interest in a particular type of crime, will lead to less efficient investigations.

Secrecy: It is important that techniques are protected in order to prevent the criminal fraternity from countering our methods. The careful selection of a team, proper management of paperwork, and consistent use of the Government Protective Marking Scheme (GPMS) will ensure this. Where techniques and information starts to become public knowledge, the less likely it will be for the police to secure the evidence they need. This is the ongoing battle by the police to stay one step ahead of the criminals.



By way of contrast to my selected factors, Tyska and Fennelly (1999, p. 96) suggest the following as benchmarks of a successful investigation.
  • A logical sequence is followed.
  • All available physical evidence is legally obtained
  • All witnesses are effectively interviewed.
  • All suspects are legally and effectively interrogated.
  • All leads are thoroughly developed.
  • All details of the case are accurately and completely recorded and reported.

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When we are planning an investigation we tend to know in our head what a successful investigation looks like...a conviction. More forward thinking investigators may measure success in a similar manner to Tyska and Fennelly, or using the sorts of factors i have discussed. I learned recently that it is important to know, before you start, what a failed investigation looks like. This may sound strange, and pessimistic but failure can be detected way before success can, so knowing what failure looks like is essential for early identification that things are drifting off track, allowing you to make corrections, and ensure success. According to Gunter and Hertig, "An Introduction to Theory, Practice and Career Development for Public and Private Investigators", Aug 2005, International Foundation for Protection Officers), these are the most common 'failure factors';
  • Failure to be systemic
  • Failure to be thorough
  • Failure to present the case effectively.
  • Failure to manage time and other resources.
  • Failure to be humble
  • Lack of expertise in a certain area.
  • Prejudice.

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It is clear that there are many factors that effect the success of an investigation. They can be narrowed down to financial factors, and competence factors. Financial issues are out of our control. In the coming years it is likely that resources won't be so flexible so as to allow proper investigation of all crimes reported to us. On the other hand, investment in competance could produce more efficient investigators who are able to solve more crimes in a shorter amount of time. This is why i support the proposed creation of a professional body for police officers

Investigation is the core of what the police do, and i would like to see the professional body focus on delivering training and accreditation on investigation only. With limited resources we can't afford to create a body that qualifies officers in all policing disciplines, so we must focus on the one that is shown to be our biggest weakness, and the one that is most important to the public; investigation.