How the police can help crime writers

Getting the inside info…

The pace of change is increasing everywhere, not least in the world of police investigations and forensic science. So that’s why I contacted the Press Office of the West Midlands police service to seek help in updating my understanding of the latest practices. They were most helpful, for which I am genuinely appreciative.

image photo : Police car with a flasher at lorry crash

I gave some thought beforehand about what I needed to know and used a check-list that I submitted in advance. Working through the list covered all the ground – and more.

My visit to police headquarters in Birmingham was a truly eye-opening experience and I am sure will lend greater credibility and verisimilitude to my crime writing. At least that’s my hope – although I fear all those keen-eyed police procedural experts out there will still find slips and flaws! Still, as they say – that goes with the territory.

However, verisimilitude is ‘the appearance of being true’ and after all, I am writing fiction. So if – or rather when – I’m challenged, in defence I’ll hold up my hands and say, ‘At least I made the effort to get things as right as possible.’

Here’s how my visit was reported in the press office news section:

(Click the link below to read the article as it appeared on the West Midlands police website)

Saturday 24 May 2014

A murder suspect fugitive leaps from a moving train − narrowly missing a high-speed commuter shuttle − and staggers across a boggy field in a desperate bid to shake off the detective chief inspector in hot pursuit.
The female DCI leading the manhunt rugby tackles him in a swollen brook and, as the two trade punches, an exasperated cry echoes out from an armchair far, far away.

“Oh for goodness sake…that would never happen. I’d be lucky to get out of the office during a murder case!”

The disbelieving TV critic is West Midlands Police Superintendent Mark Payne. A hugely experienced detective, he’s led many homicide enquiries during his 20-year career…and precisely none have involved a punch-up with his number one suspect in a stream!

Today he’s agreed to meet Stourbridge crime fiction writer Tom Bryson who is on a modern-day policing fact-finding mission in order to keep such outbursts from readers with insider knowledge to a minimum.

“It’s important to have a solid working knowledge of how police investigations unfold,” said Tom, whose fictional top cop DCI Matt Proctor has cracked two complex West Midlands murder cases.

“For my books to be credible they must have their foundations in real-life police practices and techniques − but at the same time there has to be creative licence to keep audiences captivated. It can be hard to juggle…and I can imagine there are many police officers who shake their heads in disbelief when watching TV crime dramas!

“In the 1980s I worked in the personnel department at Lloyd House (the force’s HQ) so I’m familiar with police processes − but science and technology used by police to stay ahead of criminals advances so fast that it’s important for me to get a refresher.”

Tom is talked through terminology such as “nominal” − a common police label for a criminal − and acronyms like PoI (person of interest), FSI (forensic scene investigator) and HOLMES − a very apt crime fighting abbreviation for Home Office Large Major Enquiry System.

HOLMES incident rooms are set up to manage complex cases and see detectives assigned specific roles − statement reader, receiver, indexer, allocator to name a few − to ensure no information slips through the net, any links are identified, and all leads are followed up.

image photo : British police

Det Supt Payne also brings Tom − whose 2012 novel Too Smart to Die opens in dramatic fashion as a dead body turns up on the council steps in Victoria Square − up-to-date on advances in forensic science and communications analysis.

He said: “There have been incredible advances in how we’re able to forensically recover and examine tiny particles of DNA − including prints, blood, hair, saliva and skin − and the lead officer must manage these evidence opportunities. That means appointing separate FSIs at each scene to avoid cross contamination of DNA samples.

“And it’s amazing what we can do with phones and IT technology these days to obtain an accurate picture of who our suspect was contacting and where they were at times central to the investigation. I won’t divulge some of the wizardry…a lot of what we recover is crucial in building up a solid prosecution case.

“An SIO might also consider calling a pathologist out to a murder scene if there’s something odd about the positioning of the body or the injuries, and will also oversee the post mortem and interview procedures.

“Another big change is that only a few years ago you could lock down a crime scene and manage the information flow. Citizen journalism has brought lots of benefits − and helped us trace wanted people − but also presents many challenges. I’ve had key witnesses tweeting about what they saw and residents of homes overlooking the scene taking photos or videos and sharing them on social media. Information management is much more difficult now.

“Unlike in TV dramas where the lead officer is actively involved in all lines of enquiry from knocking doors and assessing CCTV to chasing suspects and quizzing them in interview, I’m so busy managing the enquiry that I’ll rarely step out of the office!”

Richness of character goes hand-in-hand with plot depth for author Tom so Mark’s candid account on juggling personal, family and work life whilst immersed in complex investigations was equally insightful.

Tom added: “It’s important to explore the lead characters’ personalities so to get a first-hand account of how all-consuming running a murder enquiry is was really helpful. Mark recalled emotional moments when his children have pleaded with him not to go in at weekends, and countless occasions where he’s missed family gatherings or school plays.

“And even when SIOs aren’t physically at work managing the enquiry Mark said it’s hard to escape…even when at home watching TV or over dinner he’ll be mulling over lines of enquiry, actions and potential motives. But when you’re responsible for finding a killer, and getting justice for bereaved families, it must be hard to take time out.”

Tom Bryson’s second novel (in cop Matt Proctor series) ‘IN IT FOR THE MONEY’ − again centring on DCI Matt Proctor − was released last month (April 2014).’

Coming soon ‘BLOOD RED RABBIT’ Psychological thriller/romance set in Ireland.