An evening with John Halstead

On Thursday 12th September, I went to listen to John Halstead, retired DCI of West Yorkshire Police take a humorous look at whether the fictional detectives we know and love from reading and our TV screens would actually make it in the real world of policing. The event took place in Newcastle upon Tyne’s Lit and Phil in Westgate Road. Fictional detectives mentioned were Taggart, Jardine, Morse, Lewis, Frost, Vera and Scott and Bailey, amongst others.  I’m not going to report on individual verdicts because it would spoil it if you want to go and listen to him yourself one day, but rather on the changes in policing during the thirty years that Halstead was in the force and on the general points of difference between fact and fiction.

Changes in policing since 1980police

When you work in a particular area for a long time, it is often difficult to keep track of the changes in an objective or meaningful way because you are living through them. Keeping up with them normally forms one of your work objectives and it is more a case of head down and keep going than having a look at what the changes actually mean to the profession. I don’t work in law enforcement (although, as I’m a technical writer by profession, I did begin to wonder about just who writes all the police procedural manuals these days), but I certainly enjoy reading crime novels and watching fictional crime drama series on the television. While I normally enjoy these for the story lines and the characters, the evening’s talk with John presented a very interesting look at the UK cultural background to these stories and their characters since 1980.

John Halstead joined the force in 1980 and one of the first things he said was that nowadays he probably wouldn’t have been able to join the police. Although when he applied he was told to increase his weight and his chest measurement, nowadays you have to have a particular qualification just to apply for the police. When he joined he was one of a bunch of young recruits that were being taken into the force because of a big pay award from the Conservative government at the time. So in the 80s there were a lot of young policemen (and a few women) who were expected to be trained up and serving for around 30 years until the retirement age of 55. There was quite a sociable canteen and drinking culture and canteens were really the focal point. Women officers tended to be given office work and had a male office manager. At the beginning of the 80s, information was held on index cards on a circular storage system and these were standalone so if an investigation was going on in different regions, each had their own index card system. It was difficult to ensure that things were always consistent. From around the mid 1980s, the Home Office Enquiry System, Homes, was introduced and this meant that for the first time one force could read the information held by another force. It has now progressed to Homes 2.

During the 1990s, high ranking police officers began to dress more smartly and women officers were allowed out of the office more than before. WIth cost cutting, many police canteens closed and the emphasis was on getting out in the community to eat and drink although there developed in the stations a pseudo canteen culture where many stations had microwaves, kettles, toasters and so on.

Nowadays, it is common to see much older people becoming police probationers, for example, joining the Met at the age of 49 and retiring at 60. Budget cuts mean not many older detectives work longer than their retirement age. Changes in forensics and technology over the years have meant that even retired detectives may be called back to account for investigations they headed up years before. It is a profession where the obligation to cooperate never leaves you.

General points of difference between fact and fiction

It can take years in the real world to get convictions – add to this the time to prepare a case, to pass to the Crown Prosecution Service, to bring to trial, to deal with appeals, and then even when there is a conviction, people can escape from prison. So the idea that resolution can come in 350 pages or an hour or two of television is fiction, but obviously necessary within the fictional structures of novels and tv series. Of course, sometimes you get books or TV series where crime is solved over the course of a series (or not). That is perhaps more realistic. For example, Patricia Cornwell’s serial killer, Temple Gault, who appears in Cruel and Unusal (1994), the fourth book of the Kay Scarpetta series, reappears in the fifth (The Body Farm (1995)) and sixth (From Potter’s Field (1996)), books of the series.

In reality, hardened criminals say nothing or ‘no comment’ in police interviews, but in fiction, there is a dramatic play going on with the interviewer and the interviewee, who will eventually break down and tell all.

Detecting is a team game and only really works because it is. Yet in fictional representation detectives are often portrayed as loners. They do things that they are too old to do, activities that fall outside their rank or they just don’t interact well with the other officers on their team. This makes for added drama and conflict in the story telling. But the only real drama internally in policing is the huge rivalry between CID, Uniform and Traffic and with the structural changes imposed from higher up in the management teams.

In summary

The evening was informative and thoroughly entertaining and I’d recommend listening to him yourself, if you get the chance.  More information about John Halstead and the kind of training he is involved in now can be found here.