12-June-20 Solving Crimes

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I have been reading Martha Gever’s chapter (reproduced in McLaughlin and Muncie, 2013) on the ‘spectacle of crime’ in relation to the American TV series CSI: Crime Series Investigation.  One phrase in particular set me thinking.  Gever talks of “…the flux of visual imagery that harnesses the quest for scientific truths to scenes of very dramatic and always successful crime detection in CSI…” (2013, p.449, my italics).  The requirements of a good story include characters, setting, plot, conflict and resolution – in this case, successful detection.

Crime narratives rarely leave the crime unsolved – unless a sequel is planned.  It is part of the enjoyment of watching and reading crime drama that, Holmes-like, we anticipate the perpetration, motive and apprehension of the suspect.  And where the central premise is an unsolved incident, the same story elements are transferred to victim, alleged perpetrator or community experience – as in the Netflix drama The Staircase, which follows the journey of Michael Peterson, convicted for the murder of his partner, Kathleen.  In this way, fiction and screen writers impose resolution and quasi-detection.

But how far does successful crime detection reflect policing reality?  Before April 2013 in the UK, solved crimes were measured using ‘detection rates’ (Home Office, 2019, p.6). These were the number of cases resolved with a formal or informal criminal justice outcome.  Formal justice outcomes (or ‘sanction detections’) include a criminal charge, a penalty notice for disorder, or a caution; informal justice outcomes (or ‘non-sanction detections’) are those where no further action is taken. 

From April 2014, and as at March 2019, detection has been subsumed under a broader outcomes framework (Home Office, 2019, p.8). 

  • Charged/Summonsed
  • Taken into consideration
  • Out-of-court (formal
  • Out-of-court (informal)
  • Prosecution prevented or not in the public interest
  • Evidential difficulties (suspect identified; victim supports action)
  • Evidential difficulties (victim does not support action) 
  • Investigation complete – no suspect identified
  • Action undertaken by another body/agency (from April 2015)
  • Further investigation to support formal action not in the public interest (police decision) (from January 2016)

The 2019 Home Office release (p.6) shows that in 44% of offences, no suspect was identified.  However, this varies across crime type and is particularly high for example among theft cases (74%), and far lower in rape (9%) and homicide cases.  So perhaps the high detection rates represented on screen and in fiction, which focus disproportionately on serious crimes, are not so far off reality.  In a significant proportion of cases, the victim does not (or does not continue to) support police action: this applied in 39% of rape cases and 43% of violence against the person cases.  In 32% of cases in the year to March 2019, offences were closed as a result of evidential difficulties.

So while there may be detection, there may not be justice.

Gever (2013, p.461) says that in CSI, investigators are shown “at work searching a database, peering through an electron microscope, or skilfully operating all sorts of elaborate equipment”.  She argues that this spectacle “constitutes arguments for the advantages of digital computing and communication systems as the most efficient, most effective surrogate police” (2013, p.461).  Again, the daily reality for UK policing is rather different.  Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick acknowledged in 2019 that inquiries now were more complex, involving a large amount of digital evidence.  Despite (very legitimate) concerns about the surveillance and technical capacity of police, it is not clear that forces are yet adopting emergent technologies and forensic innovations CSI-style.  Austerity and organisational culture have mitigated against this and lead to the more troubling scenario of functions being increasingly outsourced to the private sector.

This raises the question of what we are willing to trade for more successful crime detection.

© Natasha Mulvihill and Criminology Tales, 2020. 

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