CSI: Northern Ireland – Detective for a day

The PSNI challenged journalists to solve a fictional murder using real policing techniques – and with the same pressures on time, manpower and budget


Being a murder detective isn’t a job for the weak-hearted, says Det Supt Karen Baxter of the Police Service of Northern Ireland as she sets us our task, which is to nail a man who murdered a woman in north Belfast before he strikes again.

We start with the victim and end up directing a heavily armed Swat-type team about to hit on the main suspect. We get to deploy a surveillance helicopter. There’s even a car chase.

Welcome to CSI: Northern Ireland. We’re a collection of seven journalists being detectives for a day. The PSNI should patent this idea and market it like a hotel murder weekend.

Baxter will explain later what makes a good murder detective. But first we have some investigating to do. We’re divided into two groups and put in two separate rooms – pods, they call them – at the PSNI training centre in Antrim, with Baxter and her colleagues in a control room from where they can see and hear all we do.

A detective is with each group to respond to our directions. We have to solve an imaginary crime. From time to time detectives who have served as senior investigating officers (SIOs) check on our progress, perhaps pointing us in certain directions. Some come across almost as caricatures of hard-bitten cops; they have an engaging weather-beaten air.

Over the police radio comes word that a young woman has been rushed to hospital after an assault. The prognosis is bad, as her heart stopped on the way to the Royal Victoria Hospital – and so it proves, as she later dies from her injuries.

We’re long enough on the go to know that investigators will need their own protection, from possible dissident attack, for instance – guarding the guards, so to speak.

“Well, how much back-up do you need? And what type?” And roads need to be closed. “But what roads, and for how long? It’s a working day; rush hour is approaching. People can get very annoyed.”

And so the questioning and decisionmaking begin, and they don’t end all day.

Baxter explains that dealing with most murders – from investigation to arrest and charging, through to trial and conviction or acquittal – normally takes about two years.

Instructions, decisions and information gathered have to be carefully recorded. Get something wrong and down the line a wigged lawyer will be chewing over the book of evidence, seeking to destroy the testimony of police and prosecution witnesses. So treat this exercise seriously, Baxter says.

There are a few cynical comments – “Okay: round up the usual suspects, and let’s go home” – but we suspend disbelief and roll with the drama. It’s a frenetic day; we end up mentally beat.

We have to figure out the information to gather, the questions to ask, the detectives and uniforms to deploy, the leads to follow, the CCTV footage to view, the DNA swabs to take. There’s also the victim’s family, whom we must treat with compassion.

A fax in the corner pushes out information. A large computer screen displays the latest bulletins; a radio broadcasts investigation updates.

Each of us has a turn as SIO, directing the investigation and making the key decisions. Most of the work is collaborative. We apply our journalistic experience, cold reasoning, whatever common sense we have, and some gut instinct. And so it continues at a furious pace, with potential life-or-death questions demanding quick but wise answers. For this exercise, months of work is squeezed into a day.

I won’t give away the entire story, as the PSNI plans to use this scenario, or a variation of it, for the likes of the Northern Ireland Policing Board and community groups. But in the end we get our man.

Baxter says the purpose of the exercise is to increase awareness about what murder and other serious investigations are about, to get rid of some of the mystique. Communities frequently get irritated when roads are closed and normal life is disrupted during the initial stage of an inquiry.

Modus operandi

At the height of the Troubles, in the early to mid 1970s, police had to to deal with hundreds of murders each year. Thankfully the annual figure now ranges from 20 to 24. This is in line, in terms of population, with the rest of the UK and not dissimilar to the Republic, where the Garda on average deals with about one murder each week.

Baxter has been involved in directing more than 20 investigations since she joined the murder team. Two recent cases she successfully concluded were the murders of Philip Strickland, in Comber, Co Down, in 2012, and of Duncan Morrison, in Downpatrick, in 2011, for which several men were convicted.

Good murder detectives must be passionate about their work, she says. “You are actually dealing with people who are at the very worst stage of their life. They have just lost a loved one. You need to care for what you do.”

Making the case

“What’s most crucial is that we would have witnesses and that they have the confidence to come forward,” Baxter says. “That is tricky in all jurisdictions, but certainly, in our situation in Northern Ireland, people can be more fearful than elsewhere.”

As we have learned today, the amount of information that the team has to process can seem overpowering. A senior investigating officer requires confidence and courage to drive an investigation forward, says Baxter. “You need quite a lot of energy, and you need the ability to remain calm, particularly when what’s in front of you seems overwhelming.”

She knows it’s a cliche, but detectives also need to keep an open mind. “You always encourage people on the investigation team to be vocal. You need to be challenged by your team, and you need to be open to that challenge.”

Baxter dislikes the word “hunch” but doesn’t dismiss the notion of gut instinct. “That develops by the amount of times you have done it right and the amount of times you have done it wrong. You need continuous training as well. There is room for gut instinct, but it’s a learned instinctiveness.”

The word Baxter uses most is “confidence”, as in SIOs having enough of it to see cases through – from the day of a murder to the intimidating scene of a courtroom battle between prosecution and defence, to a jury pronouncing the verdict.

“As an SIO from the very first day of the murder or shortly thereafter, you are engaged with the family,” she says. “For them there is an enormous satisfaction in seeing justice done. And on their behalf you feel relieved for them. And you are also pleased for the investigation team, who have done an enormous amount of work.

“You must also remember you are dealing with people who have violated on the worst level.”

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