Policing 30 years ago: A detective visits the 1980s
Imagine investigating a major crime with no access to CCTV footage or DNA profiling
By Keith Wright
Imagine being able to go back in time and see the world how it was 30 years ago. Not just the world in general, but your own space; the world you lived in.
I feel that this is what I have done by re-mastering my original crime novels, which were published in the early 1990s, set in the late 1980s. The world – my world as it was then – recorded for posterity. I was a young detective at the time in Nottinghamshire CID in England. The differences between then and now were more surprising than my memory recalled.
In the late 1980s, CCTV was a new thing – only a handful of private companies had it, and the British government was holding trials at some government buildings.
In one of my books, a young trainee asks, “What’s CCTV?” There are now reportedly 6 million CCTV cameras in the UK, and an estimated 30 million in the United States. Today, it is one of the first things we consider in an investigation; in the 1980s, less so.
DNA profiling was in its infancy in the 1980s. The first use in a major criminal case was in England. Two girls had been murdered in Narborough, Leicestershire, in 1983 and 1986. The investigation saw all the men in the village “voluntarily” give a sample that was broken down to DNA profiles for comparison of evidence left at the scene. A suspect, Richard Buckland, was taken into custody for the crime. The real offender, Colin Pitchfork, remained at large, and tried to evade capture by paying a co-worker, Ian Kelly, to pose as him; giving a sample while purporting to be Pitchfork. This was to be his downfall.
The fact that there were no cellphones in the 1980s meant that when you turned up at a scene you were the decision-maker without detailed recourse to anyone senior. Personal radios were dodgy, and you couldn’t always get a signal. It was down to you!
The quick rise of technology is exemplified in an incident that occurred to me slightly later in the 1990s. A low life was targeting and breaking into the houses of elderly people.
My team did some covert observations in the area where we thought the suspect would strike next. I got called away and, on my return alone, saw three young guys walking toward me, one matching the description of the offender. I shouted up on my covert radio, but there was no reply or signal.
Instinctively I stopped him for a “chat.” He was fine until I told him I intended to search him, then he resisted and produced a handgun (rare in England, but not unknown – it’s usually knives). He fought hard, and we slammed into a low wall, the edge cracking a couple of my ribs. The locals came out of their houses to watch. I was concerned my injury was hampering me, and I had something in my pocket called a cellphone. As I tried to get the gun off him, I threw my cellphone to an onlooker. ‘Ring 999!’
“How does it work, youth?”
So, I am rolling around the floor with this lout, trying to punch his lights out to release the gun, with broken ribs and his friends joining in the ruckus, while shouting to this old guy, “Press the button with the circle in it.”
It turned out my team had heard my last radio shout, and I heard the screeching tyres, thankfully. The by-standers lack of knowledge illustrated the changes happening in technology nearly to my cost. I could imagine the coroner’s report – killed due to technological ignorance!
The art of the interview
Imagine saying to a rookie detective, “Here is a murder case, go and solve it, but there is no CCTV, and no DNA.”
In the absence of DNA, CCTV, location devices, social media, cellphones and high-tech covert equipment, investigation in those days relied heavily on interviewing. Particularly in the CID. The art of the interview was king. If you could find what buttons to press, catch them in a lie, and sell them your product – prison – you might just prove the case. Nothing to it!
When you look at the changes in technology and society during and since the 1980s, this incredible change has made a huge impact on our lives, both as people, and law enforcement officers. What will the next 30 years bring?
On a personal note, to our law enforcement brothers and sisters across the pond, you have got it much tougher than us in many ways, and you should know that you have our undying respect and support.
About the author
Keith Wright joined Nottinghamshire Police in 1979. He became a detective in 1985 and retired in 2005 as a detective sergeant having responsibility for an area with the highest crime rate in the UK. He then became the head of the Serious and Corporate Investigations Team for a global retailer.
He is the author of “One Oblique One” (the UK police radio code word for sudden death) and “Trace and Eliminate,” both available on Amazon, Kindle and Kindle Unlimited. His books have received critical acclaim in “The Times,” “Financial Times” and the “Sunday Express.”