There is a widespread fascination with murder investigation. Turn on your TV tonight and see how long it takes for a fictional detective to become embroiled in an investigation. Walk into a bookshop and see how many of the titles are thrillers where somebody is killed in the first chapter, and the rest of the novel features our very clever (but troubled) hero solving the crime.
I have spent a large part of my career as a Detective and have worked on and run plenty of murders. I thought it might be interesting to blog about the reality of murder investigation.
Each murder investigation is different, but there are threads that run through all of them.
The most obvious thread is that every murder is a tragedy. Victims vary from housewives to criminals, young to old, but every one will have a family and a story.
One of the most difficult but important jobs at the outset of an investigation is meeting the family. These are incredibly challenging and emotional meetings. Just imagine meeting somebody for the first time and telling them that you are responsible for solving the murder of their son, daughter, husband or wife. I have done this many times, and it never fails to have an impact on me.
During the initial hours, the pressure on the SIO (senior investigating officer) leading the investigation is immense. You are thinking about setting up the teams, preserving the scene, meeting the family, managing the media, setting up house to house trawls for witnesses, arranging the post mortem, starting a CCTV trawl, searching for offenders, securing vital evidence, setting a budget, talking to the coroner and a million other things.
You must also prepare to tell your own family that you probably won’t be at home for the next week.
I always visit the scene. I meet the forensic manager there, and always walk through the scene. Not all SIOs do this, but it helps me to get the lay out in my head, together with any blood splatter areas. On my last murder, analysis of the blood splatter patterns in the scene was crucial to understanding what went on. I try to keep the body in situ, as that often tells a story. I sometimes call the pathologist to the scene if I need an early opinion.
Dont believe any TV programme that shows simple post-mortems. They take hours, and they are always extremely unpleasant. Pathologists can’t generally give you reliable times of death, that is TV fiction.
Once the initial frenzy has died down and you have put some structure in place, you start to turn your attention to actually investigating. Almost all murders are solved through detailed examination of the evidence and forensics. The SIO has to make sure that they are aware of the detail of a huge amount of evidence. You reach a point where you feel as though you cannot absorb a single further piece of information, but you must because it may just be the vital link.
Once you have established your team, you need to brief them, I like to brief first and last thing, the amount of breakthroughs that occur when all the officers involved are in the same room is incredible.
The pursuit of an offender can last for minutes or months. I have recently had officers all over the country chasing down suspects and following up leads. I have run two protracted manhunts this year. They involved really long hours and require me to make dynamic and difficult decisions. Once you have located the offenders there is very often a requirement to run a firearms job to actually arrest them, if they have killed one person, how much risk are my officers at?
While all of this is going on, further demands are thrown at you; Who was the victim? What was their ethnicity? What is the impact on the community? Are more people at risk? What are the media saying? Are you prepared to speak to them? The pressure that I feel at this stage of an investigation is immense. Everybody is looking to you for answers, and it is really important to build in some time to actually think and plan.
Normally at this point you will realise that you haven’t eaten since breakfast and you will send somebody out to get the first in what will become a series of takeaways. Murder rooms are not healthy places.
Once the suspect is under arrest, the pressure continues to grow as the clock starts ticking. My interview teams will have been working on an interview plan whilst the hunt for the offender has carried on. There will be plans in place for the forensic recovery off the offender, doctors are called to assess their health, and the defence solicitor lands ready to be briefed.
There is a strange relationship at the best of times between police officers and defence solicitors. This is magnified during murder investigations. Partly this is because of what is at stake, but also officers investigating murders find it difficult to remain detached. You meet the victim’s family, find out every detail of their life, meet their friends, examine their movements, look at their phone messages, visit their workplace, and really do feel as though you know them. The defence solicitor has none of this, and it is their job to help the suspect. This is of course entirely right and proper, and officers and solicitors are professionals, but nonetheless these relationships are often awkward.
Once the interviews are finished, the Crown Prosecution Service enter the fray, as we engage with them regarding a charging decision. These are always long and complex discussions, but if the evidence is there (and it should be after all the effort) the suspect will be charged. The initial paperwork is put together and submitted (there will be months of follow up files to be submitted) and the suspect is sent to the cells waiting for the next court session.
In my opinion murder investigation is amongst the most demanding and rewarding work it is possible to do. I am waiting to be promoted, so I may have run my last investigation, but there is nothing more exhilarating, frustrating, exhausting and satisfying than investigating and solving murder . I hope that this has provided you with an insight into the reality, from the inside out.