DIY detective work with the Sherlock app

4 min reading time

Imagine: just got home from a party and it looks like you’ve been burgled. The traces left by someone trying to break in are clearly visible. Major adrenaline rush. You’re going to track down that burglar! But how do you do that? Well, with the Sherlock ‘citizen investigation’ app developed by TNO and the police.

The victims of vandalism, cyber bullying, attempted burglary or theft, for example, can use the Sherlock app to create their own criminal investigation file. Depending on the crime in question, they use this file to record details of the location, visible traces, possible motive, witness statements and stolen goods. Another option is to create an identikit photograph of a suspect. Many people find it difficult to identify the right eyes, ears or nose to stick on a face. To help them with this, the app offers a training game in which they have to assemble the faces of celebrities ‘click by click’. And when the dossier is complete? The user then simply uses email or social media to distribute a wanted person bulletin. And send the completed file to the police, who can then take action. After the file has been submitted, the user and the police can use the app to keep each other up to date on any developments in the case.

Interviewing local residents yourself

“The app helps you make use of the ‘wisdom of the crowd’,” says Arnout de Vries, a researcher at TNO. “At the moment, the police are still using fairly traditional methods of engaging the public, such as through TV programme Opsporing Verzocht (the Dutch version of Crimewatch). But members of the public can do more than just observe events with their eyes and ears. They also have knowledge and brainpower, plus hands and legs to take action. Those are the resources we mobilize via the app. For example, interviewing local residents absorbs a lot manpower by the police. After a burglary, what could be easier than popping in next door to the neighbours’ and ask them for a statement? I know when they are at home and, thanks to the app, I also know what questions to ask. The police no longer have to do everything themselves. This will free up police resources, enabling them to deploy their limited capacity as effectively as possible. Hopefully, this will result in more cases being solved.”

“Interviewing local residents takes a lot of time and manpower. After a burglary, what could be easier than popping next door to the neighbours’ to ask them for a statement?”

The risks of tracking down criminals yourself

It is important that members of the public who personally track down criminals will be putting themselves at risk. In emotional, highly charged situations, for example, people may be tempted to take the law into their own hands. While Arnout de Vries is aware this could happen, he says this could also be the case without the app: “You can’t simply stop members of the public taking action. These days, the people involved already launch their own investigations via Facebook, as they are well aware that the police give top priority to relatively few cases or that they lack sufficient capacity.”

Citizen detection

“Citizen detection is still relatively limited, but it is nevertheless a rising trend. That’s something you can’t afford to ignore.” So the Sherlock app not only helps with the detective work, it also gives members of the public information about crime prevention, and about what is allowed by law and what is not. The app helps people understand the consequences of certain actions, such as sharing the names and photos of suspects and victims online.

“It’s going to take time for the police to adopt a more open attitude towards well-meaning members of the public and to make the necessary changes to official police procedures”

The ‘Recalibrating Investigation’ programme

The Sherlock app is still in the prototype stage, and not effectively in use. TNO plans to develop this innovative app further, within the framework of the police’s ‘Recalibrating Investigations’ programme. This renewal programme gives due consideration to public participation. This is because the police are starting to appreciate that a genuine revolution is needed. One that involves an active role for – and cooperation with – members of the public. The Sherlock app is an effective instrument in this regard.

Culture change needed

Arnout de Vries has a realistic view. He knows that the Sherlock app will require a change of culture. “The police traditionally see this work as a matter for the policemen on the street or the criminal Investigation officers. The police’s investigative branch deals with crime every day, and it has reservations about civilians playing detective and trying to solve their own cases. It’s going to take time for them to adopt a more open attitude towards well-meaning members of the public and to make the necessary changes to official police procedures.”

“Citizen detection is still relatively limited, but it is nevertheless a rising trend. That’s something you can’t afford to ignore”

Cooperating with the police

A change in mindset is also needed. Police officers working on a case often treat public participation as a last resort. Police professionals are concerned that members of the public might undermine cases, making it impossible to prosecute the criminals involved. “My studies indicate that most members of the public have nothing but good will towards the police, and that they are willing to cooperate with them. So, following an initial testing phase, TNO and the police plan to explore the use of this app in practice. We are currently visiting burglary victims and helping them create a criminal investigation file. This approach gives the police and members of the public hands-on experience of such cooperation, creating an atmosphere in which mutual respect and trust can flourish. Modern Sherlocks, equipped with an app, are the way of the future.”

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Arnout de Vries MSc Locatie Leiden - Sch + Page 1 Location: Location Groningen
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