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No shortcuts to solving crime


There are no shortcuts to solving crime . Recruiting master detectives is the stuff of fiction.


Read what I have to say about this in my latest column, published in today's Scotsman (22 August 2023).


Ever since Sherlock Holmes stepped out of Conan Doyle’s imagination nearly 150 years ago we have been transfixed by detectives. The private or consulting sleuths of fiction are typically gifted amateur’s or eccentric geniuses who both patronise and amaze the plodding police who trail in their wake, agog at their brilliance . The police detectives of fiction are usually loners or renegades, ill-disciplined and usually with a troubled past and a wagon full of personal baggage. They come in all shapes and sizes, aristocrats and elderly ladies, eccentric Belgiums and Nuns, there are even dog detectives. Over the years they have fascinated and enthralled us, and they all have one thing in common. They are fictional - in the real world it’s not like that at all.


Real detectives cannot be ill-disciplined loners or renegades for team work is essential and the bigger the case the more essential it is. The master detectives who demonstrate their infallibility by following their hunches do not exist either - and thank goodness for it. I have met a few who thought they were master detectives, and a damned liability they were. Serious crimes are solved by good teams and good systems, not individual intuition.


Detective work is a skill that can be developed over time and while areas like cyber crime may require specialist selection and training, for general work there is no substitute for experience.


To be a proficient police detective you must first be a proficient police officer.

This may seem blindingly obvious, but apparently not, because in response to the appallingly bad crime clear up rates in parts of England and Wales there is a call to recruit detectives direct from the best and brightest, who can be put to work, without the tiresome necessity of working nights or wearing a uniform. Thankfully there’s no mention of this foolishness in Scotland yet but we should beware.


Direct entry to the police service, either as a senior officer or a detective is an old idea which resurrects itself now and again. It goes back to the Trenchard Scheme of the 1930s and was reinvented by Margaret Thatcher in the 80.The idea has been tried and failed repeatedly.


I predict this latest ‘quick fix’ will do likewise for it not only misidentifies the solution, it also misunderstands the problem .


I spent much of my long police service as a detective in junior and senior ranks, and I can say with certainty that I could not have done the job without the solid base of experience I gained as a uniformed cop. It would have been like building a house without the foundations.


And there’s another inconvenient fact you never read in crime novels. It’s not the detectives who solve most crime, it’s the uniformed street cops. As a young detective I quickly learned to identify and cultivate the best uniformed ‘Thief Catchers’ . They were my bread and butter, bringing me endless arrests as well as good intelligence that I could develop.


So if you want to prevent and detect crime there is no substitute for a viable community based police patrol force. Good detectives can add much, but in the end they depend on the young men and women in uniform.


There are no shortcuts. To think otherwise is the stuff of fiction.

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