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Trained 'to murder standard'

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Magazine

What is a Scenes of Crime Officer and how knowing what SOCOs really do can improve your crime novel

Andrew Barrett, a writer who has worked for West Yorkshire Police as a Scenes of Crime Officer for 10 years, investigating almost everything from suicide, to drugs crime and murder, is a member of the Council for the Registration of Forensic Practitioners. Andrew is offering to give free advice to aspiring crime writers who want to get their SOCO detail exactly right.

 

You’ve doubtless seen them on the television news, dressed in their white scene suits at the latest murder to befall your neighbourhood. What are they doing, and why does it take them so long? Ever wondered what they do for the rest of the time?

I’ve been a SOCO for ten years and I promise you they don’t keep us in a box until a murder comes in. We’re busy all day every day. In West Yorkshire, there is SOCO assistance available every second of the year.

Volume crime is our daily bread. Be it vehicle interference, assault scenes or victims, commercial and domestic burglary scenes; we will be there. But why are we there?

The criminal court is our lord, and the police force our master. The products of our work aid the court in its decision-making process and of course guide a criminal enquiry.

Using specialist equipment and techniques, SOCOs search for, record and collect the evidence, submitting it as required to a forensic laboratory or to our in-house forensic suppliers such as the footwear department, or the fingerprint lab and subsequently the fingerprint experts. The expert, or the scientist, turns intelligence into fact, relates the fingerprints we found, or the blood we recovered, to a suspect, compares it with the suspect’s story and supplies their findings to the investigation and ultimately to the courts.

Serious crime interrupts our daily bread on a frequent basis. Burglaries and car crime cease for days at a time for the SOCO who picks up a Major Scene. This is where the 3 months of basic training comes in; this is where the thousands of pounds’ worth of ongoing development, the courses attended at laboratories, the fire service and even at military establishments over a period of years really begins to pay back. SOCOs are trained ‘to murder standard’ and have a good working knowledge of most aspects of any murder one can imagine: stabbing, poisoning, drowning, shooting, hanging…

At some major scenes, we may need assistance from a specialist; someone whose entire being is dedicated to the study of insects, or teeth, or anatomy, and a thousand subjects that all seem to end in ‘ology’. These are the people with whom we work closely to find semen at a rape scene or to estimate the position of the gunman as he fired.

When you as a writer are creating a set piece that involves a detailed crime scene examination, your knowledge may not be sufficient to convince the reader. Getting it right is so important; understanding what goes on inside that tent can raise your story from guesswork ("I hope no one notices.") to fact ("I hope everyone notices!").

Injecting a distinct air of realism as your protagonist swabs a cadaver for gunshot residues or attends a forensic post-mortem, excavates an arson scene, or develops a fingerprint on a bloody knife could make all the difference to your manuscript.

A question one invariably hears when the stoical reporter says a man is helping police with their enquiries is, ‘How on earth did they catch him?’

Maybe I can help you.

Email your enquiry to me, Andrew Barrett, together with a little of your writing background and the plotline in question, to crimewrite@hotmail.co.uk, and I’ll do my best to answer it. This is a free service until January 2006.

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