Getting Your Fictional Police Right: A Guest Interview with Kevin N. Robinson

I am very pleased to bring you the first in my Guest Interview series: Meet Kevin N. Robinson.

Kevin has 30 years of experience in policing both in and out of uniform, having worked rural, urban and city beats in England.  He has taught cops how to be better cops.  He has provided specialist technical support and advice to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Eurocustoms as part of their anti-drugs and organised crime programmes and projects. He has also guided authors by providing technical information about the police, their procedures and policies.

I opened up this Q&A to friends and members of some much loved Facebook groups I am a member of: Crime Fiction Addict, Writing Fiction and Writers Unite!

Let’s get started!

 

Career

Q. “How did you start your career in this field?” from Leanne Stevens

As a youngster I had no inclination to become a police officer. In fact from what I’d seen and experienced whilst working at an Unemployment Benefit (Dole) Office in my late teens, I believed that I could never do that job in a month of Sundays. They were always called upon to help deal with the difficult customers that often scared the living daylights out of the staff at the office.

However, having worked in two clerical jobs I came to realise that I couldn’t see myself in a similar job until I reached 65 years of age and retired. Then one day, whilst walking around my home town, I thought that it would be great to pound that beat as a police officer, totally forgetting about my previous experiences and beliefs. It just so happened that there was a police recruitment drive on at the time so, I blindly applied and was successful enough to be able to spend 30 years in the police.

 

Q. “Can you explain a typical day at work for you?” from Leanne Stevens

For an operational police officer, there is no typical day, which is a prime reason why many people join up. The downside is that you can never guarantee finishing work on time either; most days you don’t get a meal break and sometimes, even your start time is changed to cater for unexpected events occurring, such as an outbreak of large scale public disorder or the finding of a body.

As a uniformed constable, you can probably bet that at some time in your shift, you will deal with at least one domestic abuse incident or something involving either alcohol or mental illness. It’s the variety of forms that these incidents come in that add to the unpredictability of the work. As a detective, there is a good chance that you will be completing quite a bit of paperwork and may even get to interview either a witness, victim or suspect but again, these things can take many varied forms.

Any officer can probably guarantee that any job they planned to do that day, will be interrupted or even blocked by an unplanned for incident occurring.

 

Q. “What do you like most and least about your job?” from Leanne Stevens

There were several best things: helping people get on with their lives without fear of crime or disorder: catching criminals and getting them convicted at court and running my own team of police officers (later in my career).

The worst things were dealing with death: some of the shift work causing unnecessary illness and injury and having poor or even bad bosses in charge.

 

Q. “How do you switch off after committing so much of your life dealing with the dark side of life?” from Tom Leman

That’s a very hard thing to do and varies from person to person. Some drink too much, play sport with great enthusiasm, or even slink off to somewhere quiet, where they can be alone with their thoughts. The odd few, don’t feel they have anything to switch off from. I’m not sure that I have ever managed to switch off even though I am now retired. Obviously, the further into retirement I am, the less intrusive the past becomes.

 

Q. “What advice would you give someone at the start of their career in the field?” from Leanne Stevens

If there is something they want to do e.g. become a detective, they have to make that happen, as no one else is going to make it happen for them.

 

Cases and Policing Issues

Q. “What case has stuck with you the most, if any?” from Maggie Nelson

There are many cases, not just one and they usually involve death or serious bodily harm. I still have issues about a person walking out of the house, minding their own business and ending up dead because of some other person’s actions or inactions.

 

Q. “What aspect of cases did you find the most interesting/boring?” from Gina Jackson

The initial part of an investigation and identifying, arresting and charging the suspect is the best part but the subsequent paperwork needed puts a dent in one’s enthusiasm, unless you realise just how important the clerical side is, not just in that case but how it may impact on other crimes either committed or uncovered in the future.

 

Q. “If you could investigate any cold case, what would it be?” from Maggie Nelson

Probably the Claudia Lawrence or Madeline McCann disappearances but that would never happen. In reality, there would be so much information to absorb starting afresh, that too much old ground (already successfully covered) would be gone over again dragging the enquiry on for so much longer.

I’ve been involved in a few cold cases with varying degrees of success. Cases that actually have DNA or forensic samples that can be re-examined are the easiest cold cases to solve. Those that rely on a witness coming forward months or years after a crime has been committed are often the most difficult due to the erosive nature of memory and its subsequent reliability.

 

Q. “If someone who has a pre-existing personal issue with a policeman is then found to be a suspect in a case, do the police treat them differently?” from John Jacob

Not quite sure what you mean with this question. All suspects should be treated fairly and impartially. If it is believed that an officer is unable to do this, they shouldn’t be involved in the investigation as it may end up weakening any case in the future. If it’s just a case that the suspect doesn’t want a particular officer involved in the case, that would be different, depending on their reasons. It may be that the officer is actually the best person to be involved as they can figure out the suspect the best e.g. “I don’t want that detective interviewing me as they can always tell when I’m lying.” wouldn’t be a good reason.

 

Q. “I have a problem with realistic dialogue during an interview or interrogation. Also the steps after someone is murdered or missing after the 48 hrs. Will it be different in the US? Any help would be appreciated. Thank you!” from Andrea Reeves

Yes it (The US v UK versions) will be different. But equally cases within the UK may well differ due to varying circumstances or each police forces’ individual procedures and/or protocols. There are national guidelines published but they are, at the end of the day, only guidelines (due to the nature of crime and criminal behaviour varying).

In the UK, the police do not conduct “interrogations”. They do speak with suspects but they are called “interviews” (less of an aggressive word that interrogation).

UK/US police dialogue differs just as everyday dialogue differs across the Atlantic. If you watch documentaries about the police you’re interested in rather than drama, films or works of fiction, you will gain a better insight into how they work and speak.

 

Q. “I’ve read a couple of books recently where the homicide detectives were part of a taskforce. Could you explain under what circumstances a taskforce would be set up and how it runs differently from a normal homicide team?”

“Taskforce” tend to be an Americanism. If a UK police force is too small to have a permanent homicide team, it will create one (when needed), comprising of detectives from around the force and they may be given an operational name. If used, “Taskforce” tends to be associated with teams looking across local borders and cross border criminals e.g. the theft of vehicles from one force area by criminals from another force area, so you will have investigators from several police forces (possibly) working along with staff from other agencies e.g. Trading Standards, Revenue and Excise etc..

 

Q. “How do you feel about racial biasing with regards to policing?” from Daniel Wilson

I’m not familiar with the term.

If you mean are the police racist – there will be individuals who are but the organisations strive very hard to eliminate such behaviour. Most officers are not racist.

If you mean racial profiling – this again is something that is not acceptable and if it is found to be in existence should be stopped.

There is a strong ethos in the UK police that a person’s ethnic appearance or background should not be the determining factor for why someone is dealt with or not or the way in which they are dealt with. Compare this approach with that of many members of the public or sections of society, who have their own stereotypical view of race and ethnicity (be they good or bad).

 

Q. “How do you stop the criminal cycle that occurs because of the lack of rehabilitation after a custodial sentence?” from Daniel Wilson

I believe that you can’t. Simply incarcerating someone, does little to break the offending cycle. Things I have seen work though (but not in all cases), are getting ex-offenders into education or employment or finding them a “good” girlfriend/boyfriend, capable of inspiring them to quit their criminal life style.

 

Q. “Do small police units have forensic techs? Say there’s a murder in the Scillies, who investigates the scene?” from A.K Lakelett

If that’s the isle of Scillies, a murder would be something they are not equipped to deal with so would get support from their parent force – Devon and Cornwall Police, who are equipped to deal with murders. They would send a team across.

 

Reading and Writing Crime Fiction

Q. “What is your biggest pet peeve when reading crime fiction?”

I have many unfortunately.

I don’t like lone Detective Sergeants and Constables investigating stranger murders unless there is a very good and convincing reason to do so, such as the speed at which an investigation is developing (over minutes or a few short hours, not many hours, days or weeks, by which time, there should be higher ranking officers involved). This also brings me on to another peeve – that of having a Detective Chief Inspector or Superintendent, pounding the streets conducting enquiries themselves. They have teams of officers to do this.

I also don’t like to hear of Coroners or Pathologist being heavily involved in an investigation. The Coroner in the UK has nothing to do with the police investigation and the Pathologist is employed to conduct an examination of the deceased and maybe some of the surroundings they were found in (at a push).

I especially don’t like to read about officers from the UK going abroad, acting as investigating officers, as they don’t have the power to conduct such enquires. The best they can do is advise local officers or ask them to conduct the enquiries on the UK’s behalf. Likewise, police officers coming to the UK from abroad have no police powers to exercise. They are no different from a normal citizen of the UK.

 

Q. “Do you have any advice for new writers who are struggling to differentiate between police practices in the UK and USA?”

Make sure that you conduct your research with appropriately based sources. For example, it is no good watching NCIS and thinking that the police in the UK (or in the US for that matter) conduct investigations in the same way (as NCIS). The writer would do better watching documentaries for a more truthful representation. Make use of a pause button and analyse a featured incident that interests you e.g. what dialogue is used, what equipment do the officers carry, who is doing most of the talking/investigating, what do the interview rooms look like?.

 

Q. “Do you have any crime fiction recommendations from authors who really got their policing facts right?”

First of all, having spent thirty years doing the job, I do not tend to read much modern UK based crime fiction often. However, I have been impressed by the way that Lesley Horton gets across the working of a homicide investigation team in The Hollow Core; how JJ Franklin accurately includes her DI’s domestic issues and his working practices and relationships in Echoes of Justice and the way Mark Billingham successfully portrayed internal police relationships in Buried.

 

Q. “Do you have a favourite film in terms of getting the policing right?” from Ian Hewson

Not a film but the TV drama Happy Valley was spot on.

 

Q. “What would you like to read about in a crime story?”

If I read any crime fiction, it tends to be set abroad and usually back in time e.g. Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series or Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko series and not forgetting of course, Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books.

What I don’t like to read are stories by authors (that seem to me to be) getting their own gratification writing disturbing scenes particularly involving women and children being subject to torture and abuse. It has no entertainment value for me whatsoever. I appreciate there are readers out there who crave such material but I’m not one of them but I’m sure that will not trouble such writers.

 

 

Thanks so much to Kevin for answering all of our questions!

If any readers would like to contact Kevin to ask further specific questions, he is happy for you to get in touch with him at the.writer@hotmail.co.uk, or check out his brilliant blog at crimewritingsolutions.wordpress.com.

I’d also thoroughly recommend checking out his books he has written specifically for writers.

Find them here:

218 Facts a Writer Needs to Know About the Police

A Writer’s Guide to Senior Police Investigators in the UK

British Police and Crime Directory for Writers and Researchers 2016

Over to you

Let me know what you thought in the comments below!

 

 

 

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