Thursday, May 12, 2005

for the want of a shoe

I was at the Thames Valley Police HQ last night presenting to the Police and to Horsewatch on how they might use Virtual Bumblebee to alleviate thefts of horse tack as Sussex Police have done with Operation Saddle.

As can easily be imagined, all of the Thames Valley force's resources are currently bent on bringing the creatures responsible for the torture and murder of 16-year-old Mary-Ann Leneghan to justice.

Saddles, bridles, blankets and weblogs seem very insignificant compared to that task, but I was struck yet again by an intuition that the Police in general are missing a trick by not using Blogs and RSS to:
  • communicate with the public about investigations
  • channel intelligence that the public can give them
  • keep long running investigations in the public eye.
I wrote about this before back in March, when Surrey Police thought that they may have made a breakthrough in the murder of 13 year old Milly Dowler who was abducted nearly three years ago. On that occasion the local Runnymede & Weybridge Labour Party picked up the picture of the car that the Police were trying to trace from my weblog/RSS feed and republished it on their own site. All of this is grist to the mill and I do not think that it would have taken much effort for the Police to take have distributed their own appeal through new media channel that is the blogosphere.

(After the Police made their appeal, I created a "Milly Dowler" watchlist on Technorati so that I could see if people were commenting on it. Quite a while later, this search picked up an entry posted to an MSN Spaces blog written by a school friend of Milly's describing how badly bewildered and disturbed she still was several years after the disappearance. I don't want to link to that because I felt as if I was intruding somehow when I read it even though it was available publicly. I want to mention it though because, for me, it was yet another indication of what a significant social phenomenon this new type of writing and publishing is.)

What haunts me I think about the importance of these appeals and the need to put and keep them before the public is something that I learned from a Sussex policeman about the Sarah Payne tragedy. Sarah Payne was a little girl who disappeared from her grandparents house in summer 2000. She was murdered and her body was found a few weeks later.

That case was cracked largely because a member of the public who was aware of the investigation found one of Sarah's shoes when out walking. The Forensic Science Service managed to link fibres on the shoe to a red sweatshirt belonging to one Roy Whiting who was subsequently jailed for life for her murder.

It seems so amazingly fortuitous that someone would see a single small black shoe in a hedgerow and wonder if it belonged to a missing little girl that it makes you brood on how many other cases did not get that stroke of luck because someone blithely and in all innocence passed by some crucial evidence.

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