Criminal Investigation – Old Style

by Bob Butcher

Extract from the June 2011 edition of History Lines (No. 22)

Among his many talents, our Chief Constable Bill Gay was an expert spin doctor although he would not have recognised that term. For example when the success rate of our unaided investigations of crimes after they had been committed was low, he wrote that we caught more of our criminals red handed than other forces. As we know, the reasons for this included the then inability of our officers to acquire the local knowledge and contacts that are essential to detective work. As the late Detective Chief Superintendent Basil Nichols (later DCC) once told a CID course at Wakefield; ‘The thieves may be on our patch but the receivers are on yours’.

The successful investigation of the theft of goods or parcels traffic in transit was very difficult. For a start the particular item may not even have been stolen but simply gone astray for some reason. More particularly , it is difficult to solve a crime if it is not known where and when it was committed and merchandise in rail transit  could travel great distances, be handled by many staff and be exposed to even more potential thieves. Even when persistent thefts revealed a pattern of crime so that it was reasonable to assume that they were occurring at a particular station, siding, etc, what then? Have a go at the staff there which might run into hundreds or search their houses? Usually the only solution was special watching which, apart from usually being a protracted affair, could be extremely difficult, if not impossible, in many locations.

No wonder that many, if not most, ‘enquiries’ into such losses were really formalities. I know that many inspectors of the old school wanted a report that said the loss did not take place, in descending order: on the railway; on the company’s or region’s system; in their division; and certainly not on their patch. The inclusion of a statement such as ‘there is no reason to believe that the consignment— did not go forward /was received—as stated , was mandatory although some younger officers started to chance their arms by adding that the possibility had not been overlooked. There was certainly some concern when then introduction of a standard crime reporting system laid down that a crime had to be recorded where it was reported unless it was conclusively proved that it happened elsewhere.

I know that during my more cynical moments while stationed in Birmingham (1958 -1967) I said that if we had a murder on our patch we would set up special watching in the hope that the murderer would return to the scene of the crime and commit another murder and that Area HQ would require a monthly return of murders.

I must emphasise however, that throughout my time in the Force, attitudes, confidence and professionalism were growing all the time. Indeed throughout my time I was privileged to serve alongside some very capable detectives who were a credit to the science of criminal investigation.

My aim in writing this is to place on record an accurate account of our achievements and the difficulties under which we worked. There must be some of you who can enlarge on this theme so why not have a go.