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Why is amateur sleuthing a mug's game in the UK? It is time for change.
Longer-term readers will know that I started Crime Guy after being inspired by Michelle McNamara’s long hunt for the Golden State Killer. I had always been interested in true crime, but Michelle’s story was a huge inspiration. I really liked that she developed trust with the police to the extent that they let her load up a car with the old case notes! Never in the UK, I thought. Why is British crime investigation so old fashioned?
Crowdsourcing and crowdfunding is not a new idea, but the mere thought of bringing the wisdom of the crowd to cold case research is anathema to the way law and order works here. It is easy to understand the history: it’s not a good idea to have amateurs wandering through delicate evidence, some of which is really painful and personal to the victim and their families and friends. At best the investigators will not find anything significant and at worst they could start spreading the stuff on the internet. The dim hope of a trial would be ruined by loose talk. The risks for the established order are too high.
But this means the police and justice system are dependent on paid journalists, many of whom work for tabloids which spin even the dullest story into a salacious page turner. Even the local press, and perhaps more so the local press, are guilty of this. The better journalists will write a longer work, a book, but then again they are forced to highlight a rumour here and a bit of gossip there to sell a few more copies. In the UK, it seems, the whole system is driven by the police on the one hand and paid journalism on the other.
The notion that anyone would want to volunteer to research a cold case with no payment seems not to have been considered. But early computer grassroots movements led to something called open source software. It is free software generated by enthusiasts, at least initially, and now powers a vast proportion of the internet. One of the fruits of that collaboration led to Linux, a free operating system every bit as good as the paid ones. Apple’s MacOS X is based on Linux.
The US get a lot of things wrong, just like any other country. But they have always licensed their private investigators, right from the off. The UK has never brought in effective licensing and efforts are ongoing to change that. We have an antiquated legal system that has always been underfunded and has always worked in favour of established majorities. True, we don’t vote for our sheriffs, but policing is every bit as political here. The way London’s Metropolitan Police has treated women and ethnic minorities in recent years is just one example.
The impetus behind Crime Guy is to solve cold cases. There is one case near me that is of particular interest that I think could make a good test case. It is the unsolved murder of Helen Davidson. Helen died in 1966. She had no children and therefore there are few relatives surviving. Monica Weller’s book is the most recent and definitive account of the crime and the local suspects. It is suggested that the police lost or destroyed much of the evidence, but some remains. Why not allow local volunteers to sign whatever nondisclosure agreements would be required and set to work sifting through the witness statements? This could even be done at a police station, so that the documents cannot be leaked.
Why cannot the British police permit a trial project to open-source cold case investigation? Some of the parameters could be, for example:-
The victim disappeared (or was killed) at least 50 years ago;
There are no living children, or if there are, they consent to the project;
Volunteers sign nondisclosure agreements and submit to criminal records checks;
No documentation to be removed from the police station;
No mobile phones or cameras to be brought into the police station - this happens already in courts, for example;
In future, the volunteers could even be trained to enter findings onto police databases… these few notes are just the first step.
It has to happen. No police force wants to investigate the coldest cases, but they are forced to keep them officially open. Why not open them properly and allow volunteers to get involved? It is time to start closing some of these cold cases.