The Times, 17 November 2007


This week, the Chief Executive of the National Policing Improvement Agency, Peter Neyroud, admitted that in a target-driven culture, catching a murderer carried no more importance than apprehending someone who had stolen a bottle of milk. As a long-time fan of the police procedural, this worries me.

“There’s been a murder,” said the police constable, as he lifted a notebook from his breast pocket.

“A murder?” cried Mr Swanson. “Good God, man, are you sure?”

“Well, I say murder,” the policeman said. “But it’s more, well… murder’s such a strong word, isn’t it?”

“What’s happened? Is it Cynthia? Spit it out.”

“It is your daughter, I’m afraid. She’s stolen a milk bottle from the house over the road.”

“That’s not a murder.”

“Not technically, Sir, no. But it’s just as bad.”

“It is not. Don’t be ridiculous.”

“It was bad enough when she graffitied all over the pavement, Sir. Has she run completely wild?”

“It wasn’t graffiti. It was hopscotch. She used chalk. It had been washed away by rain the next morning.”

“We have photographic evidence, I’m afraid. And I’ve not forgotten her wayward attitude towards her booster seat in the car.”

“We’d left it at my mother’s. It wasn’t her fault. If anything, it was mine.”

“Is that a confession?”

“No, dammit, it isn’t.”

“Criminality runs in your family, Sir. Remember when I had to arrest your son for grievous bodily harm last week?”

“My son is seven years old.”

“That’s no excuse, Sir.”

“He just pulled a girl’s hair in the playground.”

“You say potato, Sir, I say assault.”

“I didn’t say potato.”

“It’s an expression, Sir. You’d probably know it if you weren’t so busy living a life of crime.”

“I don’t live a life of crime.”

“I believe your car is parked on a double yellow line. That is morally identical to…” he flipped the pages of a manual, which he had removed from his pocket “…genocide.”

“That’s just offensive.”

“I’m sorry you think so. Is it as offensive as being a repeat offender? This isn’t the first time you’ve parked illegally, is it?”

“I didn’t park the bloody car, my wife did.”

“Are you offering to turn State’s Evidence, Sir? Against your wife? She’s the recidivist, is she? There was that incident when we heard her honking the horn while stationary, of course.”

“I think you must have completely lost your mind, Constable.”

“I’m sure you do, Sir. That makes it easier for you to sleep at night, I have no doubt. I, on the other hand, have to go and explain to Mrs Perkins at no. 44 that you have shown no compassion whatsoever, and no remorse.”

“Remorse? What for?”

“You’re denying it?”

“Denying what? I haven’t done anything.”

“You don’t remember a telltale crunching sound, Sir, as you pulled off your driveway this morning?”

“No. What crunching sound? What are you talking about?”

“Come outside with me, please. Now, what do you have to say that this, Sir?”

“To what?”

“You can see the crime scene tape, Mr Swanson. You can see what’s happened.”

“It appears to be some broken pottery, Officer.”

“Don’t play innocent with me, Sir. You know perfectly well what it is. It is a garden gnome. Or rather, it was, before you crushed its tiny, brittle body beneath the wheels of your car.”

“I did nothing of the kind. I’m going back inside now.”

“Oh yes, Sir? Going to destroy some more evidence?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“I asked you if you were going to destroy some more evidence, Mr Swanson. Like when you burned that library book.”

“I didn’t burn a library book. I’ve never burned any books.”

“That’s not what the librarian says, Sir. She thinks you stole copies of…” He broke off to consult his notebook. “Copies of ‘The Story Of Tracey Beaker’ and ‘The Tiger Who Came To Tea’. Which you allege you didn’t borrow.”

“Do I seem to you, Constable, like the target audience for Tracy Beaker?”

“Who knows what goes on behind closed doors? You might like a quick read, when you’re not fully occupied with failing to pay your television licence.”

“I have paid my television licence. It’s on a direct debit.”

“I’m sure that’s what you tell the bank, Sir.”

“I can’t help but think, Officer, that if you spent less time fantasising about my family, and more time solving real crimes, we might live in a safer neighbourhood.”

“You would say that, of course, Mr Swanson. I imagine that fellow bleeding on your front lawn isn’t litter, either?”

“What bleeding fellow? Don’t be… Good Lord. There’s a man, bleeding. He’s dead. This isn’t litter, it’s murder.”

“Murder, Sir, is a very serious crime. I’m issuing you with a fixed penalty notice. You have twenty one days to pay. And, incidentally, littering has a tariff of fifteen years to life.