The Innocent Man
Maybe as many as half of the incidents I attend in a day involve a victim of crime and their description of the person who robbed/attacked/cheated them. Typically, the information I get as I drive towards a crime scene is:
"Offender is a white male, aged 17, 5ft7, wearing a blue baseball cap, grey hoodie and Addidas tracksuit bottoms."
If I come across someone like that in the vicinity of the crime, and there is no way to disregard them from the enquiry, I am quite likely going to arrest them. Ways of eliminating them as a suspect might be:
- Having stopped and questioned them, I am happy with the explanation they have given.
- I get an updated/more accurate description, or the offender is seen again by the victim elsewhere.
- I feel strongly that it isn't the right guy.
- He says he didn't do it.
- His hat is a different colour than the victim described.
- He doesn't have the stolen stuff on him (this gets discarded/sold sometimes within minutes of the offence).
The tendency to arrest in these circumstances rises in proportion with the seriousness of the offence. So if a stranger rapist is on the loose, the police won't take the risk of letting the correct offender go, and will arrest more willingly. If it's a trivial theft, they might just take the person's name and address so they can go and arrest them later if it turns out it was the right person.
Occasionally, mistakes are made. I cannot imagine how frustrating it must be to happen past a crime scene wearing exactly the same outfit as the offender and end up spending hours in custody/lying at gunpoint on the floor, but usually police officers are pretty good at judging whether they have the right person.
Traumatic or otherwise, an arrest is just a stage in an investigation.
I've made probably 50-100 arrests based on a mixture of factors such as description/location/suspicion. Over half proved to be the right person. A few proved to be an innocent passer-by. The rest were never proven either way, but I have my suspicions. I generally try not to shoot the suspect eleven times in the head, just in case (unless I'm sure it's them, of course).
It's a shame we have to log the DNA and fingerprints of those who fall foul at this stage, but then again front-line police officers don't make those laws. You can bet that if we let someone go who matched the description of an offender carrying a gun, and he went onto shoot someone round the corner, there would be just a small inquiry into what the hell we were thinking.
'Diary of an On-Call Girl' is available in all good bookstores and online.