FORTY years ago the north of England was gripped by fear. Women, with good reason, were fearful that the shadowy person identified by the press as “The Yorkshire Ripper” could strike at any time. Albeit none of the linked attacks happened in the North East, we were brought into it by the now infamous “I’m Jack” tape. Any reader old enough to remember the television footage etched in their memory of Assistant Chief Constable George Oldfield, ruddy faced and bent over, listening repeatedly to the taunts of the killer – or so he believed.

In March 2006, John Humble, a resident of Sunderland, was convicted of having sent the hoax tapes. So “Wearside Jack” was indeed from Wearside and coincidentally, he was called John. George Oldfield did not live to see Humble sent to prison for eight years.

In 1985, Alec Jeffreys a research scientist at Leicester University, developed the technique to separate cells in crime stain samples. In the first successful prosecution built on this world-beating technique, Jeffreys and colleagues from the Forensic Science Service separated single sperm cells left by the murderer and, as a result, created the first “DNA profile”. This allowed the team to link two dreadful murders separated by three years: Lynda Mann a fifteen year girl murdered in November 1983 and Dawn Ashworth another 15-year-old Leicestershire girl, who tragically met her end in July 1986.

What is commonly forgotten is that Richard Buckland, a 17 year old with learning difficulties, was the strong suspect for the 1986 murder. The investigation team were convinced he had done it. He had taken detectives to where Dawn Ashworth’s body had been deposited. He even admitted the crime when questioned. The DNA profile of the offender proved Buckland could not have been the killer. His incontrovertible innocence had been sealed by science. This left a big question, if Buckland hadn’t done it, who had? The DNA technique had established the sperm cells left at both crime scenes came from the same person.

On September 19, 1987 Colin Pitchfork was arrested by the police and the DNA swab he provided contained the self-same cells from both murder scenes. His fate was sealed: Buckland’s future was that of a proven innocent man. In a world of CSI-assisted fictional detectives, the meticulous and painstaking work of scientists in Leicester and the Forensic Science Service can sometimes be overlooked. In common with all great scientists, Alec Jeffreys humbly described his work as a “glorious accident”. The Forensic Science Service was closed down in the first austerity cuts implemented by the coalition government nine years ago. I trust, as I leave policing, that we will not live to regret the absence of a publicly-funded, independent, world-beating, scientific body and a crucial partner in the investigation of all crime, not just murders.

I recently suffered the trauma of being burgled. The offender cut himself getting in and one drop of blood led to his identification. He has admitted the offence. He had no option – all thanks to those assiduous, quiet scientists in Leicester over 30 years ago.

Peter William Sutcliffe was arrested in 1981 in Sheffield. Two patrolling police officers were curious about his car. He was with a woman in a red light district and his car was on false plates. After his arrest for these more innocuous offences, the ball pein hammer used to savagely attack many, many women over the preceding six or so years was found dumped nearby. DNA would have identified him many years earlier if it had been available, but the police had enough clues now to realise they had their man. But he had a broad Yorkshire accent and had clearly not sent the hoax tapes from Wearside which derailed the police investigation for so long.

The most lasting lesson for policing in this case was the recognition that Sutcliffe had appeared in the inquiry 17 times. None of these links were brought to the surface until Sutcliffe had been arrested and the benefit of hindsight kicked in. The subsequent Public Inquiry chaired by Sir Lawrence Byford recommended that computers should be used to organise investigations where detectives were unable to understand the length and breadth of their case using paper alone. Thus was borne the HOLMES (Home Office Large Major Enquiry System) computer system. Every murder and serious case since the late 1980s has been investigated using this process. I remember as a detective inspector in the early 1990s working on a blinking green screen. Very different from the 2019 upgraded version.

On April 15, 2013, two homemade pressure cooker bombs detonated fourteen seconds and 210 yards apart near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Three people were killed, many hundreds were injured, some terribly. The tragic events were captured by television, but also by people using their newly-acquired mobile phones. Mobile phones with cameras. Mobile phones with movie cameras.

The Boston Police and the FBI were drowned in footage – a 21st century version of West Yorkshire Police drowning in paper in the 1970s. The murderers were caught. As suspected, they were terrorists who had planned their crime to generate maximum media coverage, which is always what terrorists crave.

I had the privilege with other chief constables of hearing the Boston Police Department describe how they were unable to assimilate and organise all the CCTV footage and I knew we had to do something different in the UK. We face the same threats as the United States when it comes to violent extremism and terrorist attacks. Fast forward to the murder of Lyra McKee. The PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland) investigation team turned on the Major Incident Police Portal immediately. They knew many people in Derry that night would be capturing what had happened for the social media age. Selfies, Instagram, WhatsApp or just filming it with their mobile phones because they can.

Within seconds, all of that footage can now be downloaded directly into the innards of the HOLMES computer. You can have a look at it now if you want: just search and have a look at the public portal.

The PSNI successfully used this capability in March this year when three teenagers died outside a St Patrick’s Day disco in Cookstown, County Tyrone. All the people who were at the Greenvale Hotel that night could help with their mobile phone footage. Chief Superintendent Raymond Murray said “As part of our investigation we have utilised the Major Incident Public Portal to allow people to upload mobile footage and images of the evening”. A 21st century investigation tool for a 21st century tragedy.

There are thankfully women who survived attacks by Peter Sutcliffe, but in looking back as a senior officer, the police service must learn from history. There will sadly, inevitably, be tragedies and murders, a fearful inevitability. But what is not inevitable is a less than optimal hoovering up of clues and a less than optimal brigading of that information. The Major Incident Police Portal may be your opportunity to interact and assist the police in the future. Let’s hope not though.