The Detectives: Major Investigations Team Q&A

Scotland has more than its fair share of fictional detectives in tv, film and crime novels, from Jim Taggart to John Rebus and Broadchurch to Laidlaw, but how does fiction stack up against the real deal?

Created in 2013 during the formation of Police Scotland, the Major Investigations Team (MIT) is our elite crime squad. This week, we head out to a nondescript office tucked away in an industrial estate close to Glasgow Airport, to catch up with the MIT and speak to two highly experienced detectives about the art and craft of investigating major crimes, including what it takes to solve a murder, the meaning of "the golden hours", run-ins with 500-year-old corpses, and why CSI Miami makes them shout at the telly.


Names and Ranks for the record please?

DI Grant Macleod.

DS Stuart Grainger.

How long have you been with the police?

Grant: 25 years service in October.

Stuart: 18 years.

How did you get to the Major Investigations Team?

Grant: I got into the CID in 2001 at Greenock, and latterly worked in Clydebank in charge of child protection, a demanding role, very full on, busy and rewarding. I came here just over a year ago. It was something I had a long term ambition to do.

Stuart: I was in the CID for about twelve years in the Maryhill area, learning my tradecraft as a Detective Constable then moving onto the larger enquiries. I was promoted to Detective Sergeant six years ago, and worked with Grant here in Clydebank. I applied to come here before him, so I’ve been in the MIT about two and a half years.

I understand you have primacy for all murders and suspicious and unexplained deaths, and interestingly, the investigation of undetected and unresolved homicides. Is that what most people would know as cold case files?

Grant: Yes, we have cold cases going back a number of years. A cold case might be termed that way because it’s an investigation which has lain unresolved for a number of years and a new piece of evidence has come forward, or it might be an investigation where on review a further opportunity has been found. They’re trying to get away from the term 'cold case' as it indicates that nothing’s happening with an investigation, but we never give up on a homicide investigation. They never stagnate, and there’s always a process of review. There might be a breakthrough or a move forward in forensic techniques which might allow us to examine evidence which previously, due to the science available at the time, wasn’t able to yield anything. Or it may be a re-investigation because we now have the double jeopardy legislation.

I remember a film called Double Jeopardy where a woman released from jail sets out to get revenge on the husband who framed her for murder. The idea was that due to the Double Jeopardy law, she could legally kill her ex-spouse, as you can’t be convicted of the same crime twice. Is it like that?

Grant: Yes. Previously in Scots law, once you had been tried for a crime, you couldn’t be retried for the same one again. The difficulty with that was that if you were found not guilty, but then evidence came to light implicating you, it wasn’t possible to have a retrial. This happened in a number of high profile cases, the classic being Angus Sinclair and the World’s End murders from 1977. It was a cold case for years as it was never solved, but in light of new evidence made possible by advanced DNA techniques, Angus Sinclair was arrested in 2004. His trial collapsed however, and he was acquitted in 2007. Due to a desire to see this piece of Scots Law changed, the Double Jeopardy (Scotland) Act was passed in 2011, and Angus Sinclair was retried and found guilty in 2014. The murder of Surjit Singh Chhokar is another high profile example. Ronnie Coulter was cleared following his trial in 1999, but again, because of the changing of Double Jeopardy laws, he was re-tried and found guilty in 2016.

So, fact and fiction. There’s lots of crime and murder on TV, in books and movies. Is there anything you’ve seen in these that really annoys you?However, the law’s there to protect us all, so to put some checks and balances on what the state can do, there are very specific criteria to allow a person to be re-tried for a crime. It has to be a grave crime, generally speaking, a homicide. It has to be based on new evidence not available originally, like a new witness coming forward or new forensic evidence. The Crown also have to petition the court to allow the new prosecution to take place.

Grant: My partner is a great fan of those types of shows and she generally sends me out of the room or I end up shouting at the television. My personal view is that the majority of homicides are not pre-planned. They’re mostly spontaneous acts where there’s been a set of circumstances where there’s anger and aggression, it’s escalated, and you end up with someone dead. Fights developing in pubs, in the house, out in the street, generally as a result of too much alcohol or potentially involving drugs.  Other types of homicides we see  unfortunately   include those that come out of domestic abuse, where the murder can be the culmination of an escalating course of abusive conduct by the perpetrator.

In the majority of homicides therefore, the identity of the accused is known or ascertained at an early stage. These are rarely storylines which novelists and TV writers are interested in as they have a certain demand to satisfy. That’s why the type of murders generally presented on TV and crime fiction tend to be ‘whodunnits’, pre-planned murders, complex serial killer cases, or investigations involving high level corruption and serious organised crime.

That said, I’ve seen and read a fair bit of crime fiction, and some are good, and give a realistic representation of day to day life in a major investigation department. They’re never going to 100% reflect what goes on, but the office dynamic is quite well portrayed in a couple of shows.

Which ones are closest to reality?

Grant: Scott and Bailey comes across quite well in terms of the dynamic of the office, the relationships and the dark humour of the office, and the original Danish version of The Killing was brilliant in terms of the nature of investigations. There wasn’t a murder every day, but one over twenty odd episodes. The show progressed showing how the investigation was run, but there were side stories about the effects on the victim’s parents and school friends. It was probably as close as I’ve seen to an accurate representation of how an enquiry would go and the wider picture, which I think most of the shows miss.

I’ve heard of the homicide detectives’ dark sense of humour which you mentioned. Is that because of the nature of the things you deal with?

Grant: It’s not that we find the situations funny, but humour is a natural coping mechanism, not just for ourselves but for everyone. Fire service and ambulance crews are the same, and nurses have a famously acerbic view of the world, so we’re not unique in that regard. But police work can give you a fairly cynical view of the world, which is something you have to guard against. Someone once said we’re dealing with the 5 percent of the population 95 percent of the time, which is a great way of putting it. You can’t let it jaundice your world view, but it can happen.

What’s the weirdest case you’ve worked on in the MIT?

Grant: I don’t think “weird” is a good adjective for our investigations. I think there are ones that stick in the memory, but every enquiry has something you’ve never seen before, and some are more challenging than others. We have investigated a number of child deaths and homicides, and thankfully you don’t get many like that. The age of the deceased can be hugely emotive, and it affects the whole community and the enquiry team. You can’t work on an investigation like that and not be affected at some level. Most of our MIT team have kids, so it’s difficult because you naturally put the enquiry into the context of your own life.  But then, every investigation involves someone’s child, someone’s loved one, irrespective of what their lifestyle and circumstances might be. That’s how you have to look at it. You can’t lose focus of that. But those cases are a real challenge for the team as well as the community, very emotive cases, which will probably stay with us longer than most investigations.

Stuart: They all have different challenges as well. We will have to deal with murders that are linked to organised crime groups and again they can be very difficult due to some of the individuals you’re dealing with. In all enquiries you’re looking for witnesses to come forward and assist, but with those types of cases there can be more reluctance for people to come forward.

Grant: The way I look at it is that we are working for the victim. When you have a homicide or suspicious death, the victim doesn’t have a voice, so we really speak for them, we’re doing it for them, and you can’t judge their lifestyle. You have to do everything you can, because no one deserves to be killed. The difficulty with the complex investigations involving organised crime groups is that we have difficulty getting people to speak to us, either through fear or a dislike of the police, but at the heart of it, someone still need to speak for the victim.

Aside from homicides, what other kinds of major investigations do you deal with?

Stuart: We worked on the Clutha helicopter crash. That was five years ago, and MIT have been working on it since it happened, and we’ll keep working right up until the Fatal Accident Inquiry. We also worked on the George Square bin lorry incident. That came to ourselves to investigate because it’s such a large case, and we have the resources here to deal with something that size.

Grant: It’s a good point, because we’re not the major homicide team, we’re the Major Investigation Team. As it says on the tin, we have primacy for homicides and suspicious deaths, but also any other investigation as directed by the Executive. In the examples Stuart just mentioned, there’s no homicide involved, however they’re huge undertakings in terms of resourcing and expertise, very complex enquiries involving hundreds if not thousands of statements. We’ve also investigated two light plane crashes with fatalities in the last three years year, both in Argyll. Again, no homicide, but still a body of work which we have the skills and resources to investigate. There was a shooting in Cambuslang, where a man was shot in his car. He wasn’t killed, however that investigation, due to the complexity and nature of a man being shot in broad daylight, obviously not an everyday event, came to us.

So there’s a range of cases which we either run or get involved in with the support of the local division. Child deaths are another example of something very complex. To ascertain if it’s a homicide, or if it’s natural causes or neglect. The National Child Abuse Investigation Unit or local Divisions may lead the cases, but we’d support them, because we have specialised officers available such as Family Liaison officers, Crime Scene Managers, interview advisors, all these key roles which are very important to an investigation.

I’d imagine there’s also a certain level of personal resilience that you need.

Grant: I think there is. We place a huge investment on the wellbeing of our staff. Not every investigation’s a homicide or death, but the majority are, so the team deals with death on a more regular basis than perhaps other cops will. Certainly in some of the key roles, for example Crime Scene Managers who’re dealing with the deceased at the scene, officers assisting the CSM, we’ll have officers attending the post mortem examination. Generally speaking as the Senior Investigating Officer, or SIO, I’ll attend every post mortem, and I’ll deploy other officers to the post mortem to seize items and clothing. Elsewhere in the enquiry we have Family Liaison officers which is a hugely demanding role. They’re engaging with the victim’s family from the first instance, engaging with the family at the worst possible time of their lives.

It must be a job that’s hard to not take home with you?

Grant: I’ve had various jobs in the police where you’re conscious of the need to not take the job home with you, as your family has to put up with a lot as it is when you are working long hours. I was in Child Protection for two years leading investigations into child abuse, neglect, sexual crimes against children and child deaths. I think as you develop through the police from a young constable up to running investigations, you build your skillset but also a skill for dealing with the trauma you see. You strive to not bring it home, but inevitably there will be occasions when it’s hard to not think about an enquiry. We make that assessment with people who want to come in here. Are you the right person for the MIT based on your personality and your skills? If we had any concerns about a person’s ability to deal with some of the stuff we see then we’d highlight that as a concern.

So that’s a part of the selection process?

Grant: It has to be. Generally we’ll recruit our investigators from the wider CID and Public Protection, so the majority of us will build up a range of skills over time to deal with the trauma we see.

Stuart: We still review that as supervisors and SIOs. As Grant says every enquiry can be emotive or troubling to any one of our team. They're not robots, so you have keep an eye on how everyone is doing emotionally. You have to ensure everyone is aware of the support processes we have and you have to be alert to anyone who is struggling so you can maybe take them aside and have a quiet word. We try and foster a culture of looking out for each other. You can’t take  that   for granted because somebody is an experienced detective they're immune to the types of the horrific cases they'll work on in the MIT.

I’ve noticed this is a priority right across the force. There’s a lot of focus on taking care of officers.

Grant: Yes. We place a big investment in our staff and we have to look after them, be mindful of what they’re dealing with, and make sure they have the support service available. It’s something that in the past we maybe didn’t give as much cognisance to as we do now. What we don’t want is people suffering psychological effects and stress. It also comes down to deployment for the investigation. It might be a child murder where certain officers due to their personal circumstances are perhaps more likely to be affected. As managers we have to find the most appropriate staff. If a member of staff’s just had a baby, is it appropriate to deploy that person to a child death? Then again there’s an argument that that officer might in fact be the right person to deploy to that enquiry, but I still have to consider what’s going on with their family life.

What about the forensic side of things?

Grant: When we have a homicide and I’m the SIO, I’ll appoint a Crime Scene Manager (CSM), so that might be Stuart here. The management of that scene will be under my direction, but Stuart will manage it on my behalf. You have to extract every forensic opportunity, and to do that, you have to have a plan, and so we would discuss a forensic strategy with the Procurator Fiscal, the Pathologist and Scenes of Crime examiners because every scene is different. It might be in a house, a public park, or it may not even be a crime, like a plane crash in the sea, so your scene could be out in the Sound of Mull somewhere. So we’d create a tailor made strategy for the scene, and have a meeting before anyone went in. Stuart, as the CSM, would be responsible for pulling in all the necessary experts, who are employed by the Scottish Police Authority. For example Stuart would assess the scene and might decide we need a biologist, who would typically examine and interpret blood and bodily fluids, that kind of thing. Blood spray patterns are something else which they have skills in identifying and interpreting.

Really? Like in the TV show Dexter?

Grant: Is that the serial killer that works for the police, and kills other serial killers?

That’s him.

Grant: We’ve not had one of them, but blood pattern analysis is certainly a real science. It’s not always the case that biologists can give an exact interpretation, but they can give an opinion as to whether blood spots on a wall are from an arterial spray, a bludgeoning, or cast off.

Cast off?

Grant: If I stab you and pull the knife out, blood will come off the blade and ‘cast’ onto another surface, for example a ceiling, and the pattern that makes can be interpreted differently from other types of attacks.

So anyway, Stuart assesses the scene, and decides we also need, for example, a chemist. One thing they specialise in is enhancing footprints; footwear impressions on concrete, or on a carpet. They have techniques which can bring up a quite remarkable impression. Chemists also might be used if there’s a fatal fire with a suspicion of criminality. They can carry out an examination that interprets chemicals that may have be used. We might need other more specific specialists, such as etymologists. They’re used if you have a body where there’s flies or maggots. They can examine them and give a time of death based on the age and development of the larvae.

If a body’s been buried, forensic botanists might be used. If a cadaver’s been in the ground for a period of time, the foliage above the corpse behaves in a certain way. Generally speaking what you get is a depression in the ground, because as the body decomposes and breaks down, the earth above it sinks, and the way the flora and fauna develops above can be an indicator. So if we’re looking for a burial site over a large area, that’s another specialist that we may call in.

We also have access to forensic archaeologists, who’re used if we’re excavating a body. They can give expertise in terms of how to recover that body to keep it in as good condition as possible and preserve any forensic evidence. If you have skeletal human remains, we may employ a forensic anthropologist to give a view on the likely sex and age of the deceased and timescale of death. I remember when I was a sergeant over in Argyll, one of my first days I got a phone call from a Special Constable on the Island of Tiree, telling me a dog walker had found a skull on a beach. So I was immediately thinking it’s a murder case, but what the Special Constable had failed to tell me was that the skull was found on a beach near to where there was an archaeological dig going on. The forensic anthropologist we called in reckoned the skull was at least five hundred years old.

So when putting together a forensic strategy for a scene, we might need people like these along with fingerprint experts, scenes of the crime photographers and the pathologist, and before we do anything with the scene we have a meeting to prioritise them. Is the biologist going to examine the scene first, or is it the chemist? Is what one discipline does going to affect what others do? Is deploying one forensic technique going to destroy evidence that could be found by another specialism?

Stuart: You have to weigh up what you’re hoping to achieve from each scene. We’ll maybe take a scene to a certain point, it might be that there’s a murder and the deceased is still in the scene, so the priority is the removal of the body, but there’s probably a significant amount of forensic work that the experts need to do before then. So we might set the priority on getting the work done so the body can then be removed for post mortem examination. We’d then have another meeting to decide the best way to progress. It’s all about maximising the forensic capture we can get from the scene.

I guess this is one of the things that people don’t realise. Going back to movies and books, it seems there’s usually just one forensic person that does everything.

Grant: CSI is the one that makes me shout at the telly the most. A lot of it’s science fiction, using techniques that don’t even exist. The idea that one person goes in and does it all is nonsense. It’s actually potentially damaging to a case as well. The legal profession now talk about ‘The CSI Effect’ on a jury. We now have a generation of people who may serve on a jury having watched these programs, with an unrealistic expectation of what’s available. So you may have people listening to one of our scientists giving evidence, and thinking, well why didn’t they do x, y and z like I’ve seen on CSI?

The other thing that’s foremost in our minds when carrying out the forensic examination is the dignity and respect for the victim. As Stuart said, when we have a body removed from the scene, the next stage of the investigation is the post mortem, which will hopefully establish the cause of death, which in turn directs further enquiry. So to me, there’s a twin priority of removing the body in such a way that’s respectful, but that also maximises the forensic capture, because that goes back to our obligation to the victim to find out what happened.

Any words of advice for anyone in the public or serving officers maybe thinking of trying to get into the MIT?

Grant: You have to be the right person in terms of your skillset, experience and also personality. I think if you have the attributes it’s a hugely satisfying environment, particularly when working on a murder case and you have a conviction at the end, hopefully with the perpetrator going to prison for a long time, and there’s some degree of… I don’t like the term closure, but an outcome for the victim’s family. You’ve provided them with an answer, and ultimately, you have some form of restitution for the deceased who we’re representing. I’m of course biased, but I’d definitely recommend a career in the MIT.

Stuart: I think if you go down the route of being a detective because that’s what interests you and that’s where you’ve served your division time, you should be trying to get to the MIT. It’s not for everyone, it’s long hours sometimes, particularly in the initial phases of an enquiry, but that expectation’s on all of us; the SIO, the sergeants, the enquiry teams, we don’t just clock off at four o’clock.

Grant: From my point of view, it’s a fantastic job. You work on the highest profile cases there are, investigations of national interest and importance. As an investigator, you learn your craft initially as a uniformed beat cop when you’re investigating local crimes in the community like vandalism and assaults. As that goes on, as with Stuart and myself, it leads to the CID where you learn further skills which allow you to investigate more serious crimes; serious assaults, robberies, rapes and other sexual crimes. So as your career goes on, you build a set of skills in investigation. The most serious crime is homicide, so as an investigator, that’s what you should aspire to. It’s a fantastic place to work in terms of the satisfaction you get from working these high profile cases. The other side of that of course, is that the enquires you work on will be subject to the highest scrutiny in the land. They’re tried at the High Court, and subject to significant media attention, so you have to have the skill set but also the highest standards of professionalism and integrity. Everything you do in the investigation is subject to that examination and national interest, so we have to be methodical, and work in such a way that’ll withstand any kind of legal scrutiny.

It’s a fascinating, but grim job. The art, the process of building an investigation from scratch, from the very first ‘golden hours’ as we call them, because those are the hours immediately after the homicide when you’re most likely to get your key evidence. It’s hugely satisfying; building an investigation from the initial homicide, in terms of assembling the team, deploying people into the correct roles, who’s going to do what and why are they the right person? Then following the lines of enquiry; what are you going to do first? What are you going to do at the scene? What are we going to do with the witnesses? If someone’s been named as responsible, what are we going to do with them? Building that enquiry from those golden hours to the point where somebody is charged and ultimately convicted at court... I can’t imagine any more satisfying role.