Elephant dust, Police enquiries and the Presumption of innocence

The police leadership in the recent Suffolk Murder investigations has been widely commended. It left me pondering on the nature of police enquiries, and the absolute and ultimate necessity of the presumption of innocence in all such cases. The old story of elephant dust turns out to have surprising relevance to the argument.

The Suffolk murders

Over the last few months, the brutal murder of five young women has dominated the headlines nationally and internationally. The headlines stopped under legal embargo after a suspect was arrested and charged with all five murders.

One blogger raised concerns over the media treatment of the case. On further reflection, I began to see the ultimate necessity for the presumption of innocence in any legal case. It is acutely relevant for murder cases.

Elephant dust

Stay with me while I introduce the elephant dust. An old joke actually helped me work my way through this issue. The story takes place on a train in those long-gone days of private compartments.

A traveller gets on, and notices that the only other occupant of the compartment is behaving strangely. From time to time, he takes out a little silver box and sprinkles something around the carriage.

“What are you doing” asks the curious traveller.
“I’m sprinkling this special dust. It’s to keep the elephants away” his travelling companion tells him.
“But the nearest elephant is miles away”


“You see! Elephant dust works really well, doesn’t it?”

Back to Police investigations

Suppose the Police trying to solve a serious a major crime were to go in for sprinkling a little elephant dust? This is how we might translate the old joke.

The police arrest someone and charge the suspect with the crime. “What are you doing?” asks observers of the scene. “We are stopping the perpetrator of these heinous crimes from any more wrong-doing”, say the Police, sprinkling a little elephant dust around.

In time, despite embargoes on further reporting, questions then continue to be asked. “Can you be sure you have caught the real criminal?” Sprinkle sprinkle. “…Well, since we made the arrest, the crimes have stopped. That proves our elephant dust is working.”

Or does it?

Having pursued this particular metaphorical elephant thus far, I was struck by a further thought Maybe the Police have a cast-iron case and have caught the right person. They do not have to point to the fact that the crimes have stopped. The anxieties of the public gradually subside. So they are not deluded sprinklers of elephant dust, they really have kept the elephant away.

And yet, there is another possibility. Suppose the real criminal is still at large? He (probably a he in the case we started from) has to deal with the changed circumstances. In some circumstances he may be in sufficient control over his behaviour to figure out he would be well advised to stop his modus operandi. That way, the rest of the world would go on believing in the elephant dust theory.

The presumption of innocence

Which brings me to the presumption of innocence. We have outlined why an arrest, and subsequent cessation of crimes with the appropriate signatures, do not prove that the suspect is the criminal. We have to fall back on the presumption of innocence, lest we fall into the elephant trap, of believing in elephant dust.

A more hideous possibility

Having taken the flight of fancy this far, I now face a more hideous possibility. The arrest of a plausible and innocent suspect may well be a success in stopping the original criminal committing crimes, at least for a period. This is scary elephant dust indeed. How should we feel about this as citizens. Would we settle for such a temporary ‘solution’ to the problem if it cuts down on a series of murders?

I have had some contact with police procedures over a period of years. No officer has ever suggested in any way that such a strategy has been carried out, or even considered. So there we go. It’s all a lot of elephant dust. But what if it really is keeping elephants away? As in most police enquiries, I seem to have raised a lot of questions.

I’m not saying the Police have got the wrong man

I’m not saying the Police have got the wrong man. There is very little in the public domain on which to judge. The presumption of innocence can operate alongside an assessment that the Police investigation has been conducted in good faith, and has led to an arrest on grounds adequate to mount a prosecution. The point of concern raised by blogger PC reminds us that the Police arrested two suspects and released one around whom a lot of circumstantial evidence did seem to be gathering. This suggests that the Police believe their case to be stronger for the person whom they eventually charged. My point is a more conceptual one, indicating why, regardless of appearances, Police and Public alike have to be so rigorous in honouring the presumption of innocence.

4 Responses to Elephant dust, Police enquiries and the Presumption of innocence

  1. RS says:

    its sad but true, we now presume guilt. Why don’t we all admit it?

  2. RS says:

    I meant to add that I think the French system is better these days. The accused is guilty i think under their system unless he can prove innocence. This seems to be a betteer fit as its more natural for people to read the newspapers and think someone is guiulty

  3. Tudor says:

    That’s a biggie, RS! The French (naturellement) think the Napoleonic system is supreme. Itr’s also fundamentally different for example in the ultimate grounding of a ruling of evidence of guilt.

  4. May 3rd 2015. I found much in this post relevant to current situation of public unrest in Baltimore.

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