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SIO Corner: Initial Response

We look at the importance of the Initial Response to any Major Investigation and its impact on the enquiry

In this series we look at various aspects of life as an SIO. This includes the necessary skill sets for the successful SIO, the management of serious crime investigation and specific elements of investigative practice from initial response through crime scene examination and investigative strategies to dealing with suspects and the media. The articles are excerpts from the 2nd edition of Blackstone's, the 'Senior Investigating Officers' Handbook', written by two highly experienced SIOs (see 'About the Authors' at the end of the article).

Initial Response - 'The Golden Hour(s)

The key to any major crime investigation is the early gathering and recording of accurate and detailed information and securing evidence.

This process starts from the very first moment the initial call or report is received and continues with subsequent attendance and management of the scene and the investigation. The SIO needs to be aware of which initial actions should have been completed. These should form part of the early considerations before and after the SIO has attended the incident.

It is essential that all those involved in initial procedures adopt the right approach. If there is any doubt whatsoever about what they are dealing with, the incident should always be treated with respect as to what it may be (or perceived to be), particularly with regard to offences such as homicide. This is because the initial assessment is fed back to the control room and supervisors who ultimately determine how it is categorized and dealt with in terms of seriousness, priority, and appropriate resources. This is in a period often referred to as the ‘golden hour(s)’.

While this chapter contains useful checklists that attempt to serve as practical guides, aide memoires, or prompts, it must be remembered that sometimes over-reliance on fixed routines can be detrimental to the essential principle of ‘keeping an open mind’. Each case will always be unique in some way and may require a tailored approach in one aspect or another.

At some point the SIO will take charge and direct and control the investigation. However, it is the actions taken and tradecraft used during the initial stages, ie the call or report to a passing patrol and first response, that are so critical to success. Unfortunately these preliminary stages are usually outside the control of the SIO; it is therefore essential that any actions taken are soon afterwards analysed and reviewed.

This is one point of focus in this chapter—the importance of the SIO finding out what has been done, by whom, and to what standard, in order to put things right if they have already gone wrong. This cannot be done without having an appreciation of what others should have done or should be doing.

Most investigations begin with the first report and then attendance at the crime scene(s). Both can yield an abundance of information and evidence as a starting point for the enquiry. The initial information, together with a successful and professional response in smartly securing physical or trace evidence from a scene(s), gets things off to a promising start. No two circumstances are identical and the adoption of the fundamental principles can be easily adapted to suit most requirements of any particular case.

One consideration that may not be so obvious when dealing with the circumstances and nature of any incident, but nevertheless of prime importance, is the training of personnel. No opportunity should be lost in operating a methodical and professional approach in any suitable cases, even if they turn out to be of lesser importance. This will afford key staff an opportunity of becoming familiar with correct procedures and good practice.

The ‘What?’ Question

The object of any initial response and assessment is to try and accurately determine what has happened and ascertain the precise nature and type of incident to be dealt with. For example, if a death is involved and the deceased’s doctor has issued a medical certificate as to the cause of death, there are not usually grounds to suspect there is a potential homicide (the infamous Dr Harold Shipman case being an obvious exception).

On the other hand, a deceased person may be laid on the floor in their own home with head injuries and signs of a struggle having taken place.

Some circumstances will not always appear unequivocal, making it very difficult to rule criminality in or out straightaway. These cases are often the most challenging to deal with because of their uncertain and unpredictable nature. It may also be appropriate that a variety of less obvious offences have to be considered, including neglect or breach of care issues relating to, say, corporate manslaughter from deaths in health-care settings, prison deaths, or industrial accidents.

Considering the ‘What?’

Therefore, as a general rule, initial responders should exercise extreme care and keep an open mind, making good use of their investigative skills to obtain as much information from the scene and any witnesses as possible (using the 5 × WH + H model).

They should always take care to question and clarify any facts presented (applying the A B C principle), and record and note everything. Where there is any doubt whatsoever, the case should be handed over to a senior detective and/or SIO and other specialists to supervise and/or assume command and control of the initial assessment and any subsequent investigation.

It is a fact that some assessments and enquiries prove resource-intensive and prolonged, particularly if a major investigation is launched and a final conclusion eliminates any criminal involvement.

Some serious assault victims may even make a full recovery and then refuse to assist or support the enquiry team. However, any temptation to bypass time-consuming correct procedures or to ‘cut corners’, make wild guesses and take unprofessional risks in order to save time and effort should always be avoided. This approach tends to prove very costly when trying to ‘back track’ at some later stage; whereas thoroughness is far less risk-oriented.

In most cases clues are present and just need finding. Once again, good use of the 5 × WH + H questions holds the key.


A determination as to what has happened must be based on the total information available. In the early stages of a preliminary investigation it is very unlikely there will be sufficient information on which to reach a conclusion, particularly as in most cases of uncertified deaths a postmortem will be required before a cause of death can be ascertained.

About the Authors: Detective Superintendent Tony Cook was a CID officer with Greater Manchester Police for over 31 years until his retirement in 2009. During his time as an SIO, he led a number of high profile investigations including operations into gangland violence at Moss Side, the Bolton murder of a teenage girl in 2002, and the Denton strangling case. He was a trained assessor for promotion and a qualified Authorising Officer under RIPA. Tony received 14 commendations and a first-class BSc Honours degree in social sciences and a Diploma in Social Policy & Criminology from the Open University. Andy Tattersall, formerly Detective Superintendent in Greater Manchester Police on the Force Major Incident Team, retired in 2007 after 33 years service and became the first ever Support Staff SIO in charge of a new Homicide Support Unit. With over 29 years in CID at all ranks Andy received the Homicide Working Group National Award for his Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Homicide in November 2006.

To see more details about the Senior Investigating Officers' Handbook, or to purchase a copy, click here.

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