Investigation skills – how a mindset can impact an investigation

How do investigation skills impact the investigatory process? How should an investigation be approached?

Investigation skills and mindset can have a huge impact on the ability of an investigator to discover the truth. In this article investigation experts, Verita, explore the skills and processes required for an investigation to be carried out thoroughly. As well as understanding what makes a good investigator, we look at the example of the Carl Beech case from 2019 as an example of the problems which can arise by having the wrong investigative mindset.

What are investigation skills?

There are many qualities an investigator needs to effectively carry out an investigation. Although investigations come in many shapes and sizes, the fundamental requirements of being able to gather evidence and analyse it to discover the truth are constant. An impartial investigator is important to provide confidence to stakeholders that the evidence has been appraised in a fair and unbiased manner. But even then an important set of skills are required. An investigator must be able to:

  • Keep an open mind
  • Gather and evaluate evidence in terms of validity and relevance
  • Think logically and rationally to solve problems
  • Write clear and concise reports that communicate the findings of an investigation
  • Communicate effectively with others, both verbally and in writing
  • Stay focused even when the investigation is difficult or challenging

Verita provides a range of incident investigation training courses to help develop investigation skills. Each course is provided by trainers who are experienced investigators and have wide-ranging experience in reviewing failed investigations.

The impact of poor investigation skills

We previously discussed the impact of improperly investigating workplace misconduct which can result in loss of employee trust, legal issues, reputational damage, and impacting company culture. We also explored the importance for an organisation to effectively conduct an internal investigation, to ensure corrective actions are put in place following violations or misconduct. Being proactive by sharing information in a timely manner with families and those involved can avoid feelings of conspiracy and mistrust.

But what about an investigation taking place in the public eye? When the Metropolitan Police investigated the allegations made by Carl Beech, their initial mindset impacted the outcome, leading to conclusions being formed before evidence had been fully gathered and appraised.

In each situation, having the right set of investigation skills is crucial in fairly and impartially evaluating the evidence. Without these skills in place, critical errors such as preconceptions and assumptions can result in a failure to discover the truth.

Investigation skills learned from the Carl Beech case

Carl Beech was convicted of fraud and 12 counts of perverting the course of justice on 22 July 2019.  This followed him making a series of lurid allegations about senior politicians and military chiefs which led the police to launch a £2.5m investigation into an imaginary VIP paedophile ring.

Ed Marsden, managing director of Verita, oversaw investigations for the Department of Health into Jimmy Savile in the run up to the Beech allegations with the barrister Kate LampardKieran Seale, a Verita director, spoke to Ed about investigation skills and what lessons could be learnt from this case.

Kieran – What is your reaction to the conviction of Carl Beech?

Ed – I am sure that Beech knew what he was doing.  He was a nurse by background and he previously worked for the Care Quality Commission, so he must have been aware of the trouble he caused.  A number of people have suffered genuine hardship as a result of what he did and we must have enormous sympathy for them.

What is remarkable is how the largest police force in the country, using experienced detectives with a range of investigation skills, allowed this to happen.

When Scotland Yard launched the investigation, code-named ‘Operation Midland’ they held an appeal for witnesses where the detective in charge of the inquiry said that he considered Beech’s account to be “credible and true”.  The wording itself is strange.  It is fine to say that allegations are credible, but to say that they are “true” is another thing entirely.

That is a remarkable frame of mind in which to enter an investigation before any real evidence had been collected.

Kieran – What do you think lies behind this?

Ed – It is important to understand the context of the events leading up to this.  In 2012 the Jimmy Savile story broke, a year after Savile’s death.  Many people came forward to say that they had been abused.  The police came under a lot of pressure in the wake of this and with other historical offences coming to light.

The police said that they didn’t have the resources to investigate all these historical cases, so they did some work with the NSPCC setting up a phone line and producing a report.  In that report ‘Giving victims a voice’, they pronounced on the ‘guilt’ of Savile on the basis of what people had told them, even though the evidence was largely uncorroborated.

There is a sense of the police losing track of their responsibilities.  In the report they said:

“Some people have questioned why police resources are being deployed on an investigation when the suspect is dead, cannot defend himself or be criminally prosecuted. This is understandable but does not take account of the need for hundreds of victims to have official recognition of the serious crimes they have suffered and to know they have been taken seriously”.

So the police appear to have already made up their mind that these were “serious crimes” even though they hadn’t been properly investigated.

Kieran – Investigating cases where the victim is dead is particularly problematic, isn’t it?   Both because the police are never going to investigate the cases in the normal way, you can’t get a direct account from the accused and even the most basic corroboration can be difficult.

Ed – Yes, that is right – they are very tricky.

Ironically, at the same time as this, the NHS was beginning its investigations into Savile. We were asked by the Secretary of State for Health to oversee the investigations that the NHS was doing (the report that I wrote with Kate Lampard is here).  I think that the NHS did a more thorough job of investigating than the police.    Those investigations did try to cross-reference what witnesses were saying and challenge the evidence.

In some cases the investigations concluded that the accounts weren’t credible or supported by the evidence.  Some accounts just couldn’t be reconciled with the other evidence and so were excluded from the report.  Of course, Savile committed some very, very serious crimes, as our report demonstrated, but it is still necessary to keep an open mind about each individual allegation.

Kieran – The metaphor that I often use for investigations is a jig-saw.  Sometimes individuals are concerned that too much will be built on their one piece of evidence, but I explain to them that the skill in our job is to put everything together and see the pattern – no investigation should rely on a single source of information.

Ed – Yes, seeing the context and the full picture is vital.  As part of the Savile work we commissioned a piece of research from ‘History and Policy’ a national network of academics led by Kings College, London and Cambridge University.  They wrote a report into the history of how complaints were handled in the 1960’s and 70’s, how the press responded to this sort of issue, how hospitals were run etc.  That work revealed that attitudes were very different at that time in terms of people being more deferential and more reluctant to talk about “embarrassing” things like abuse.

Kieran – What would you say to people who say that ‘the victim should always be believed?’

Ed – Witnesses should be treated with sympathy and respect and should be heard.  It is a very important investigative skill to be sensitive and to listen carefully to what they say.  But it is simply wrong to say that they should always be believed.  Evidence should always be tested and judgements made against evidence.  In the Savile oversight report we set out four or five tests that investigators should apply to evidence that they were hearing from witnesses.

One of the skills investigators have to have is an open mind going into an investigation.  Starting an investigation with the mindset that any of the facts are true or untrue will always be problematic.  For the detective in charge at the beginning of the case to say that Beech’s evidence was “true” was a recipe for disaster – the mindset is just all wrong.

Kieran – Why do think the police sided with Beech in this way?

Ed – The Metropolitan police led on the Savile case.  They found it a very difficult, scarring experience.  They had been criticised for being insensitive in the past. They made a decision to be victim-centric.  I think that they over-compensated.

Kieran – Are there any general lessons that can be learnt from the Beech case?

Ed – It is really a lesson about following good investigatory practice and ensuring you have the right set of investigation skills.  It is essential to always have an open mind, however overwhelming the evidence appears at first to be or however strong the desire is to believe or to be sympathetic to a particular witness.  There is just no substitute for a thorough investigatory process.

Having an open mind is crucial in establishing the facts because without it, important avenues of investigation may remain unexplored, and the truth, undiscovered.

For more information on investigation skills or our independent investigations and reviews please book a free consultation or contact Ed Marsden on 020 7494 5670 or [email protected].


This article was written in July 2019 and updated with additional content in August 2023.


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