Ex-copper turned QI Elf, author and all-round lovely chap Stevyn Colgan has recently launched a project to crowd-fund a new book, Why Did the Policeman Cross the Road? with crowd-sourcing publisher Unbound. In the book, Stevyn will show how creative problem solving kickstarted a crime-solving revolution of sorts at Scotland Yard, and how you can get creative with your own solutions.
As it’s such a quirky topic, I thought I’d send Stevyn a few questions to get his own take on the subject…
Frankie: First of all, you’ve had an array of amazing jobs – but which was the most surprising, which has the world foolishly overlooked as an exciting occupation and which would you never, ever do again!?
Stevyn: Being a police officer covers all three of those! I’ve been shot at, had knives waggled at me, been kicked the crap out of. But I’ve also met two presidents, a pope, four prime ministers, most of the royals and countless celebs and people of note. I’ve been kissed by Princess Diana, hugged by Freddie Mercury, written briefing notes for Prime Minister’s question time … the list is extraordinary. The thing about working for an organisation as huge as the Met Police (it has more staff than the Royal Navy – true) is that there are many different roles you can perform – cops don’t have a job description. Outside of coppering, I love working for QI of course as I get to hang out with the absolute cream of British comedians plus a few from other countries. But, in some ways, I get a bigger kick from working on its sister show on Radio 4 – The Museum of Curiosity – as the guest list is more eclectic. We’ve had Nobel laureates, brain surgeons, authors, pop stars, comedians, hermits and even Buzz Aldrin on the show. I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to have met people like that. Oh, and I’d never be a milkman again. That was Hell. Mind you, they seem to be an endangered species now anyway.
How did you end up working for the police?
I’d like to give some noble answer about public duty or a sense of civic responsibility, but the truth is that it was for a bet. My dad – a homicide detective – bet me £50 that I couldn’t last six months as a cop. I took the bet and six months became 30 years. Shrewd bloke my dad. He knew that I’m fascinated by people and he knew that the regular wage would hook me in.
When did you and your colleagues at Scotland Yard have that ‘Eureka’ moment about problem solving?
For me, I’d always thought that policing in London had everything arse-about-face. All the effort was going into catching bad guys when logic told me that we should be preventing crime and not letting the bad guys be bad guys. After all, if you ask people if they’d rather (a) be burgled but we catch the bad guy or (b) not be burgled, I’m pretty sure which answer they’d give. I struggled with this for some time and did cause myself some career grief by arguing the toss and not doing what my bosses told me to do (i.e. put all my efforts into building up arrest figures).
My Eureka Moment came when I read Professor Herman Goldstein’s ground-breaking book ‘Problem Oriented Policing’. Here was an academic with the weight of years of research behind him saying exactly what I’d been saying all along. Police chiefs listened to him. And things started to change. I was in a position to catch the wave, as it were, and ended up in Scotland Yard’s Problem Solving Unit.
Without wishing to sound like a Job interviewer, describe one of the problems you were able to creatively solve…
Many problems can and do get solved using traditional policing methods. But many don’t. They require something a little different from the norm. Our unit specialised in finding those kinds of new ways of working. Or sometimes we’d adapt a solution seen elsewhere in a different area of work. For example, pink lighting is used by dermatologists to highlight skin blemishes, so adding pink lighting to an underpass doesn’t restrict access but does deter loitering teens whose skin may be less than perfect. (That’s not a solution I prescribe to, incidentally.) Far too much effort goes into alienating and moving kids on and far too little goes into helping them to find meaningful pastimes or making places for them to hang out. A simple youth shelter gives them a focus – a place of their own and yet every proposed site for one is opposed by adults. Search the net for ‘objections to youth shelters’ and you’ll find loads – but all before one is due to be erected. There’s almost no objections after they’re up; in fact, what you’ll find is mostly very positive results in terms of reduced crime and disorder.
Were there any cases you weren’t able to crack at the time?
The one failure that still grates on me today is the issue of drinks spiking. We were asked if we could do anything to protect young women – and occasionally men – from drug facilitated sexual assault (DFSA). The problem was that, despite months or research, observation, interviews etc. we could find no evidence for widespread use of narcotics. Drinks spiking and DFSA was happening, but the drug concerned was alcohol. And, to complicate matters, the drinking culture we currently have in the UK means that many potential victims were already drunk before spiking occurred. The reason that we couldn’t impact upon the problem was that any option we came up with that involved less drinking or installing someone or something as a guardian was opposed by various pressure groups who insisted – quite rightly – that it’s the predatory male who is at fault and that the effort should be focussed on him. In the long-term, that should be the aim. Of course it should. But there’s still the here and now. Things aren’t going to change overnight. You’d need to get everyone on board – education, entertainment, publishing etc – and you would need to have a degree of control over internet content too. In an ideal world, every woman should be able to go out, drink what she wants and walk home naked knowing that no one has the right to touch her. In that same ideal world, every man would respect the fact that touching a woman isn’t a right, it’s a privilege. But we don’t live in that world – we never have done and I doubt we ever will. No one can afford to completely abrogate responsibility for their own safety. So, no, I made no difference to the issue at all and it pains me to admit it. I have daughters and a granddaughter. I want them to be safe. I want everyone’s daughters and granddaughters, wives, girlfriends, mothers, sisters, aunts and nieces to be safe too.
Is problem solving something you still apply in the present?
Very much so. I approach most issues with the same analytical eye. A good example is how I got to do what I’m doing now; I knew that I wanted to write. And I knew that I would like to get involved in TV and film. So I ‘problem solved’ the issue: how does an ex-cop aged 50+ with almost no qualifications get to do that? I worked out who I needed to know, where I needed to be, the skills I’d need to learn. Four years later I have three books in print, two on the way, and I’m writing scripts for two of my favourite BBC shows. The system works!
You mention on the Unbound site that the book might help readers with finding their own solutions? How?
‘Why Did The Policeman Cross The Road?’ is semi-autobiographical. It traces my career path and how I got to work in the Problem Solving Unit. Along the way you get to hear some great stories about brilliant problem solving, but not just in the police. You’ll see how Brighton Council is addressing homelessness with shipping containers, how bees are helping to patrol elephant migratory routes, how celebrity faces help dispose of chewing gum and how the phantom bus stops of Dusseldorf keep dementia patients safe. You’ll meet advertising gurus, military tacticians, psychologists and call girls. Oh and Tim Minchin who provided some brilliant material. The book also contains lots of hints, tips and tricks for problem solving that people can apply to their lives, just as I do.
Why did you choose Unbound? And where, how and why should people pledge?
The publishing world has become very unstable in the past 7-8 years. Unless you’re a celebrity or an established biggie, it’s very difficult to get anyone interested in your work. J K Rowling proved that or us last year; writing under a pen name there was no interest at all in her book. Once she revealed that she’d written it, huge bestseller. The public, as a whole, are seduced by celebrity. And publishers want safe bets. Also, the huge advances demanded by celebs (or their agents) has now made it almost impossible to earn from traditional publishing. My first book came with an advance that allowed me to feed myself and pay my bills for the six months I needed to write it. Two years later, the advance I was offered for book two was barely a month’s wages. As it happened, Unbound came along around that time. And it helped that two of the founders are QI ‘elves’ so I knew what they were hoping to achieve. Saying that, they wouldn’t have taken on my books if they didn’t believe in them, or believe that the public would want to read them. That’s how Unbound works; in most respects, it operates exactly like a traditional publisher – they select projects they like, publicise them and, when it gets to that stage, they design, edit, copy read, proof, print and distribute the finished books. The difference comes with funding; instead of them putting up the advance and the costs of production, the public do so. Crowd-funding allows the reading public to select the books that they want to read by pledging money. The more you pledge, the more treats you get, like invites to launch parties, deluxe editions, signed copies or dinner with the author. But no matter how much you pledge, you get to see your name in the back of the book as one of the people who made it happen – you become a patron of the arts. And you get access to the author’s ‘shed’; a blogging area where you can swap messages with the author during the writing process. It’s a much more democratic way of publishing. It’s certainly attracted the great and the good; Unbound has published books by Terry Jones, Robert Llewellyn, Katy Brand, Jonathan Meades, Simon Napier-Bell and many more. And they’re fairer to the author too who shares 50% of profits with them; much more than you get with other publishers.
Crowd-funding was the norm many years ago; most of Charles Dickens’ works were funded by public subscription. And you may help a new author achieve great things – two Unbound books have performed spectacularly recently: Shaun Usher’s ‘Letters of Note’ was a number 1 bestseller and Paul Kingsnorth’s ‘The Wake’ is in the Man Booker Prize long list. I won’t reach those heady heights! But if you like the kind of books that Malcolm Gladwell or Jon Ronson write, or books like ‘Freakonomics’ or ‘The Devil and Sherlock Holmes’ you’re probably going to like ‘Why Did The Policeman Cross The Road?’ So why not pledge? A hardback edition costs the same as a Chinese meal for two but will last a lot longer!