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A Brief History of Scotland Yard

Investigating London's famous police force and some of its most infamous cases

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Earlier in Wensley's career, he did minor detective work on the infamous case of Jack the Ripper, which had gripped London's East End. Jack the Ripper was the self-proclaimed alias of the serial killer (or killers) responsible for five murders between 1888 and 1891. The officers of Scotland Yard were assigned to apprehend the suspect who was responsible for 11 attacks on prostitutes in the largely impoverished Whitechapel area. Police determined the killer's pattern—he would offer to pay for sex, lure the women away and slice their throats—but struggled to track down the criminal.

Without modern forensic technology, the officers of Scotland Yard, namely Inspector Frederick Abberline, relied on anthropometry—or identifying criminals by certain facial features, such as brow thickness or jaw shape. More than 160 people were accused of the Whitechapel murders, ranging from Alice in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll to painter William Richard Sickert. The force received many letters from people claiming to be the killer; two in particular gave detailed facts and were signed "Jack the Ripper." Still, in 1892, with no more leads or murders, the Jack the Ripper case was officially closed.

The Yard Today

Since its inception, Scotland Yard has always held a place in popular culture. The officers have appeared frequently as characters in the backdrop of mysteries, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories. On television and in magazines today, Scotland Yard "bobbies" can be found standing stoically behind the royal family and other dignitaries that they are assigned to protect.

In 1967, the force moved once again to its present location, a modern 20-story building near the Houses of Parliament. The CID has become well-known for its investigative methods, primarily its fingerprinting techniques, which have been borrowed by the FBI. Today, Scotland Yard has roughly 30,000 officers patrolling 620 square miles occupied by 7.2 million citizens.

Currently, Scotland Yard's reputation is in jeopardy, just as it was 130 years ago. On July 22, 2005, during the investigation of the 2005 London bombings, police officers mistook Brazilian electrician Jean Charles de Menezes for a suicide bomber and fatally shot him. Menezes lived in one of the flats the police were staking out, wore bulky clothing that day and, according to police, resembled an Ethiopian suspect that was later arrested for the bombings. Earlier this month, members of the Metropolitan Police Authority, Scotland Yard's watchdog, denounced Commissioner Sir Ian Blair for "not knowing where the truth lay." The commissioner has repeatedly stated he will not resign over the killing.

Correction appended, October 2, 2007: Originally this article compared the British Home Secretary with the U.S. Secretary of Defense. This should instead be the Secretary of the Interior.

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