With True Detective hitting screens once more, Jon Axworthy delves deep into the much-dramatised psychology of the police detective partnership
Soho. Late Nineties. Two detectives are on a stakeout, waiting for a drug deal to go down.
The moment it’s completed, they move in. But it’s too late – they’re spotted, and a chase begins. Past the area’s bars, past startled tourists, past bookshops barely hiding their true purpose. Eventually, the suspect’s luck runs out. He charges into uniformed officers who take him down. Arriving at the scene seconds later the detectives search him – he’s hiding crack cocaine in his mouth. The arrest is made.
The detectives in question are Christian Plowman and Adrian Westfield. Before they became friends, they were partners, and while the partnership was broken up more than a decade ago, the friendship lasts to this day.
The relationship is standard-issue in films and TV shows about cops. You can probably reel off several iconic partnerships – Riggs and Murtaugh, Crockett and Tubbs, Marty and Rust, Ridzik and Danko… (from Red Heat: try to keep up).
But what makes these relationships tick? And what does it feel like to be half of a real-life True Detective duo?
“Partnerships in the police exceed any normal boundaries of a working relationship,” explains Plowman, who spent 16 years as a Scotland Yard detective and now runs his own security consultancy UJI Covert Solutions. “Initially they’re based solely on trust. From that grows friendship. A partner is someone in whose life you are involved and who is able to nurture, protect and advise. The relationship is utterly mutual and isn’t one of leader and follower, but of true democratic decisions.”
The pairing of two investigative minds and police academy physicalities has long been the modus operandi of detective bureaus around the world. David Thomas, a Police Foundation psychologist, explains why: “The main reason for pairing detectives is the amount of work associated with a major case. Think of a murder investigation, from tracking down leads, speaking with a victim’s family and interviewing witnesses and suspects, to photo line-ups and ultimately preparing a case for trial.”
Home Office figures show that the formula works, with the overall detection rate currently at its highest level since the introduction of the National Crime Recording Standard in 2002.
The detection rate for murder in England and Wales now stands at 90 per cent. “Let’s not forget that these people are hunting the hunter,” comments Thomas. “The safety that a partnership brings is key when you are investigating someone with murderous intent.”
But surely there’s more to it than safety in numbers and sharing the workload?
“Combined, their detecting approaches cover every angle and cases get closed quicker. Each detective will likely have different investigative approaches, even if they’re subtle,” continues Thomas. “One might see something the other missed, or take a line of questioning that the other didn’t think of. One might be more sympathetic and patient with witnesses, while the other is instinctive with suspects.”
Which sounds like just another way of saying they can play ‘good cop, bad cop’.
Once trust has been established, there is also a psychological advantage to this one-on-one dynamic, which means the individuals can purely focus on police work. “They can think outside the box,” reveals Thomas. “We like to think logically, that one plus one equals two, yet crimes don’t move in a linear fashion. In a good partnership there is freedom to develop hypotheses that are unusual, without the fear of being criticised. The challenge for most investigators is to think tangentially, because police are very concrete in their thinking.”
This level of trust is why, for a time, the partnership can be the most important and consuming relationship in a detective’s life, eclipsing all others. Another reason, according to Thomas, is down to two things that are unique to the working day (and often night) of a detective: “The job is 90 per cent boredom and 10 per cent sheer terror.” No other working relationship has to cope with these two stressors, which is why the bond between the individuals can be so strong and enduring.
Christian Plowman agrees: “As a detective, you’ll often become involved in violent situations, and it is of the utmost importance that your partner ‘has your back’. This applies to backing you up evidentially, or if something doesn’t go quite right. I compare it to the military cliche that you fight ‘for the man standing next to you’.”
In Plowman’s case, his relationship with his partner went as far as influencing his personal style: “I grew my hair like him; got tattoos like him; and didn’t shave, like him. In turn, I influenced his policing style and his legal and administrative knowledge.”
Across the Pond
In the US however, the detective bureau system throws people together based purely on manpower and resources.
And you’ve seen how this can play out. It means writers could put Mel Gibson’s maniacal Vietnam vet Riggs to team up with Danny Glover’s world-weary, permanently-on-the-verge-of-retirement Murtaugh. It allows Nick Nolte’s grizzled, calls-it-as-he-sees-it Jack Cates with Eddie Murphy’s fast-talking, not-actually-even-a-cop Reggie Hammond. And, in extreme cases, it means Tom Hanks can be paired with a dog.
Sometimes though this can work supremely well right from the start. “I worked with plenty of detectives, from a range of backgrounds,” reveals Luke Waters, the author of NYPD Green, who served as a homicide detective for almost 20 years. “I worked with Iris Bresciani, a Hispanic. I worked with Barry Sullivan, an African-American from the Bronx, sharp as could be. And I worked with Jimmy McSloy, and we worked very well together. With each one you have to be close, because you really depend on one another.” And that means taking up the slack, when necessary.
“Another partner of mine was Willie Fisher. We caught a double homicide and he’d just finished a 20-hour shift,” Waters continues.
“I told him: ‘Put your head down, I’ll run with this. And when you wake up, just catch up with me.’ That’s the type of thing that you expect of one another, especially when you’re in a bureau investigating 150 homicides a year."
On the flipside, the US bureau system can lead to some abrasive unions that are doomed from the start. “I was put together with this guy one time and it was just all wrong from the start,” says Peter Ahern [named changed], a robbery homicide detective in New York. “I heard rumours that he would racially profile a case,
but when I work with someone it’s a fresh slate. I need to see things with my own eyes.”
But it didn’t take long for Ahern to begin to see those things and more. “He was a third-grade detective and I was first, but he didn’t want to learn. He was only concerned with arrests, not solving cases. He went about it in the most retrograde way.”
After just a few weeks, the partnership dissolved when Ahern went to his superiors. “I told him I was going to do it, but I don’t think he believed me. I think he thought that the badge was going to protect him, but he was a young kid who’d watched too much TV.
“He was reassigned out of the unit after an internal investigation and I don’t believe he works in law enforcement any more.”
When it works
However, at La Habra Police Department in Orange County, California, there are two detectives who are a world away from the troubled TV detective tropes. Detective Craig Hentcy and Detective Corporal Scott Irwin were first paired together in the gang unit 15 years ago and found that they were highly successful in rooting out gang members and making arrests, which is when fellow detectives gave them the collective nickname of the ‘dynamic duo’.
“We were very successful with gang suppression in Southern California,” says the older Irwin, “because we had a good working relationship and ethic.”
Routine traffic stops often turned into high-speed police chases, with the younger, fitter Hentcy going after the target on foot, while Irwin stayed behind the wheel to keep them boxed in. Chases would often result in arrests, weapon recoveries and seizures of methamphetamine.
The partnership broke up in 2008, when Irwin was offered a new position on a meth-lab task force, but the split was far from acrimonious. In fact, the two saw each other regularly. Now, seven years on, they are partners again in the investigations bureau and are using their intuitive knowledge of one another’s methods to investigate backlogged homicides.
Because partnerships are informal at Scotland Yard, it’s rare to find detectives with such a lengthy shared history in the UK, but the bond is no weaker.
“I was with Adrian when he met his, now, wife,” says Plowman, “and he influenced me to take a path into undercover work, so the impact and involvement we have had in one another’s lives still exists today. The year or so I spent working with him was so impactful that I spent the next 10 years or so in the police desperately searching for the same type of relationship.”
The repercussions of a good pairing on the street are felt all the way to the top. “It’s a win-win for everyone,” Plowman continues. “The work rate is outstanding, the community’s safe, cops are happy and criminals are worried. My partnership with Adrian was my crack cocaine. He was one of the few for whom I would have taken a bullet in a heartbeat."