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We Asked a Policeman How a Member of the British Public Could Solve a Murder

Could I, a common idiot, work out who done it?

by James Rippingale, Illustration: Sam Taylor
08 May 2015, 11:49am

Could I, a common idiot, solve a murder? It's a question I sometimes ask myself while watching people in cop shows talk about "trace" and "liver temp" and lots of other stuff I have absolutely no understanding of. Because while I don't have the skills or training, I feel like I do have enough tenacity and free time to investigate a killing and work out who done it. Only, I've never been sure of the powers available to me as a civilian to do so.

So recently I contacted a man called Mike Shaw to find out. Now the editor of police lifestyle magazine Nicked, he retired from the force in 1997 after working a considerable catalogue of roles. His 25-year career with Merseyside's special units covered urban foot patrols, high-speed driving, helicopter work, riot-squad and armed response callouts with the Merseyside Firearms branch. He was also the second on scene at the James Bulger murder.

So if anyone would be able to tell me whether or not a member of the public would be able to piece together the evidence and solve a murder, I figured it would be him.

VICE: Hi Mike. Let me give you a scenario: I've discovered a man who lives on my street, dead in his front garden at around 7AM. There were signs of a struggle. What are the first steps I'd take in my investigation as a civilian?
Mike Shaw: You'd basically act as a policeman. You'd ask the neighbours, "Who does this bloke live with? Has he got a partner? Has he got friends? Who are they? What do they look like? Do they come in vehicles? What type of vehicles? When was the last time you saw him? What state was he in? Was he depressed? Does he owe people money?" You'd start asking questions, trying to find a motive or discover anything out of the ordinary.

What sort of physical evidence should I look for at the scene?
A footprint is like a fingerprint. Every trainer and shoe will have a unique mark or scoring to it that, if you find the perpetrator's shoes, will match exactly to the cast you take at the scene.

You're also looking for anything dropped. Whether it's a key, a wallet, a banknote. The motto is: every contact leaves a trace. If I touch the lapel of your jacket lightly, I will have fibres of your jacket on my finger, plus you'll have my sweat and DNA on your jacket. You're also looking for any type of weapon and examining the body to see if a weapon was used and if there's any blood.

How easy would it be for me to establish a time of death?
As a civilian without pathology training it would be fairly impossible. Unless they were still warm and you could say that the time of death was less than 30 minutes ago. But once someone's dead and cold, without pathology training and analysis you could be out by two or three days. Once decay's set in, you could say it was at least a week ago. And if you find remains in a shallow grave, you haven't got a clue.

As my investigation progressed, how would I go about collating evidence?
The best way – and the police still use it – is a dirty great big white board, like the ones you see on Prime Suspect. In the centre you put the name of the deceased, and then you put a circle, and then you have a spider chart with all the individuals connected, with the dates and times they were with that person. Then you want to speak to all individuals involved and see if their story stacks up.

When it comes to tracking down potential suspects, what resources are available to me as a civilian?
Google and nothing else. Members of the public have no jurisdiction on getting anything private. What you could do is hire a private investigator who can track vehicles, do observations, video, covert voice recording. But when it comes to banks, passports, computer records, the public couldn't get access to that, like solving the typical scenario of a husband and wife domestic murder when you get onto the bank and discover that the last withdrawal was made by the husband half an hour ago.

This is what the police look like. They're the people who usually investigate murders. (Photo by Octagon via)

Any tips for tracking people via the internet?
Facebook has certainly changed the way people interact, so you could start there. If you put my name or searched my mobile phone number on Google, it'd show a 15-year trace and three companies I've worked for because I still have that number.

And if I didn't have the suspect's number?
With the correct time and resources, anyone can solve a murder, but you'd have to have the correct access to get people to talk to you. The Jamie Bulger case was solved not out of good police work but out of great public response and information. Blurred pictures of [the killers] were put out and 65 members of the general public rang in and gave the same name. Then when the police went round to that person's house they found the same paint on their clothing that was on the dead body. And after 24 hours of interviews, they cracked.

Do you have any tips on investigating potential suspects? Especially to avoid wrong turns in my investigation?
Yes, if you have a suspect but you've got no real evidence. Take Jamie Bulger again – so many people identified the two faces on the television. They got arrested, [the police] went to DNA. Then they said, "Right, we'll be able to get the facts out of this by splitting them up, getting inconsistent stories and knowing they're telling lies." So making sure you have all your evidence first is crucial.

What's a good way to find out if people are lying when questioned?
It's called Question 17. What happens is you talk to somebody about boring mundane stuff: "Where were you last night? Did you have dinner at home or did you go out? Did you go to work? What clothes did you wear?" Then, the next minute, you look at them straight in the eyes and say, "Did you meet [the deceased] at 9PM?"

Imagine I looked you in the eye after having asked a load of mundane questions, and said, "Are you having an affair with another woman?" If it was false, you'd look at me confused, smile, shrug and say, "Why did you ask that?" But if you were having an affair, your eye contact and your body language would go hysterical. You'd be unsure of how much I knew.

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Any classic telltale signs and ticks?
Eye contact. It is very difficult to look at somebody in the eye and tell them lies. Gestures, too. If I say to you, "How did you get to work today?" You might close your eyes, then go, "Right" and begin to explain. All the time you're re-living it to me – your arms, hands and body are going through it and reliving your journey. If I killed that person last night and I'm trying to tell you that I was at the pictures instead, and you ask, "How did you get there?" I'd say, "I got a taxi." When lying, it's often a very closed and negative response.

Do I then start drilling them on the specifics of what I think is a lie?
Absolutely.

And If I got to the point of identifying my main suspect and informed the police, would they ask me to stop?
I'm a pilot and I fly a paramotor. Two years ago a woman went missing in Ormskirk. I phoned the police and said, "I'm retired, I fly this thing and I can fly over the local area and do aerial observations." They immediately said, "No, our helicopter will be there."

Their helicopter wasn't even up, but basically, if something happened while I was helping the police with their enquires, they would be blamed legally and insurance-wise for anything that happened to me. When they found that woman's body two days later it was one mile from my house. I would have found her within two hours, but the police always err on the side of caution – they don't want members of the public interacting with people who've killed people.

Lastly, do I have full power of arrest as a civilian?
The only difference between a member of the public and a police officer is this: everyone in the world has the power of arrest. If a crime has been committed and a member of the public sees that somebody has done it, they can arrest that person. But a police officer can arrest someone if they suspect a crime's been committed.

But to answer the basic question of, "Can a member of the public solve a murder?" I honestly can't think of many murders that haven't been solved without them.

Thanks, Mike.

@mrrippingale / @SptSam

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