The History of Hydra

Professor Jonathan Crego M.B.E.

25 years ago, I was asked to work with a small team facing with a huge problem.  The Metropolitan Police Service had been heavily criticised in the Stephen Lawrence Enquiry[1] for many things including its lack of professional investigation skills.  I was based at that time in a small office in the senior management corridor at the Peel Centre Police Training Centre, in Hendon North London. The office beside me was occupied by a retired Army Brigadier, Donald Thwaites who was the Force Education Advisor.  Donald recruited me and taught me more about learning than I can do justice to in this piece, it suffices to say, that the man was incredibly well-read in all matters learning.  I would bound into his office with new ideas and he would school me on the literature that supported or refuted the concepts I was developing.  I would meet up with Sue Clisby the Chief Librarian, and ask for obscure books and papers, she would research them and in the pre-internet age, find them.  She would poke her head round my door and smile when she said, “I’ve got it” holding a scruffy paper, or a journal or a book.  I found out later that she had spent days at the British Library or travelled to the Police Staff College at Bramshill and other archives but she never once let-on how difficult it had been.

Opposite my office was ‘Commander Training’ The Occupant was Bert Aitchison, a scary and dour Scot. who mentored me through my PhD, in a firm but loving way. The funding for my research was created by his predecessor John Grieve.  Both men were incredibly influential in my thinking and John Grieve has coached me throughout my career and is a dear friend. We still work together and our 6am texts and breakfasts are delightful. I often have to walk for miles after a meeting with him, to help rearrange all the ideas John has bounced around, my head buzzing, and I find every meeting with him inspirational and exhausting.

The sign on my door said ‘Head of Learning Technologies’ and to be sure of how wonderful this era of discovery really was, we are talking of a time before Microsoft Windows.  A time when everything was new, anything was possible, and so many things were simply magical.

After the Hillsborough enquiry I had created a simulation system called Minerva, working closely with my friends in the Scottish Police College and Insp. Peter Willis.  I had set up the Minerva simulator in the basement of an old Victorian police section house in Beak St, at the bottom of the famous and bohemian Carnaby St, in Soho, London.  Between coding, I would wander Soho streets and sit in Soho park, lost in thought. The system I designed used VHS tapes controlled by computer (later laser disks and finally CDROMS) in separate areas.  These areas represented a football stadium and showed scenes of inside and outside football stadium, the police control room and the city centre.  Police commanders would manage a simulated football match by watching the screens and communicating with other rooms using a simulated police radio system.  At half time we would bring them out of their rooms to talk through their management decisions.  These sessions were facilitated by Ch. Supt. Doughy Hopkins a very seasoned Arsenal match commander, he would convey his wisdom, shout and swear at them and ‘put them right’ nobody argued with Doughy.  Watching the behaviours of the participants during their time in the simulator was fascinating and when I talked this through with John Grieve he suggested that we continue the research and development through a PhD research proposal.  My PhD was to become how to immerse key decision makers in what they would feel to be a high-fidelity simulation, to engender experience and competence. And so, the development of the Minerva system became my fulltime obsession and still is. 

Just as it was becoming a useful tool for developing public order and firearms commanders, the full force of the impact and consequences of the Stephen Lawrence enquiry were being felt by the Metropolitan Police.  I was summoned to the Assistant Commissioner’s offices and tasked (ordered) by AC Denis O’Connor to come up with a solution for the development of Senior Investigating Officers, principally in the investigation of Murder.  

I identified three areas for development.  Firstly, to look at the upskilling of front line officers in their initial recognition of critical incident, a development program to upskill Detective Investigators and a workshop for Chief Officers with engagement of community advisors, external organisations and members of the public.

When I presented the plan, the Assistant Commissioner said to me “if that is what you are proposing, then that is absolutely what I do not want.”  a statement I read back to him on many occasions.  What we did end deliver was precisely in accordance with that original briefing.  During a really difficult press conference, when AC O’Connor was being drilled by Simon Israel from Channel 4 News, on what the Metropolitan Police was going to deliver in the light of the public enquiry findings.  AC O’Conner replied in detail, exactly what I had briefed him.  As the AC left the briefing, he lightly squeezed my shoulder and silently nodded.  Later he spoke to me and said, “this had better work!”

There was resistance to the approach by the police officers.  Their Superintendents Association wrote to the Commissioner Sir Paul Condom and stated that unless it was a ‘lawful order’, Superintendents would not be attending the workshops.  Sir Paul replied curtly that it was, and they came, albeit initially very reluctantly.  I was angrily summoned by the Commander heading up the Counter Terrorism Command to be told that my thinking was not the way of policing.  He said through gritted teeth that “Investigators don’t write it down” a position later, even he retracted, when he saw the depth of the thinking we were trying to establish. The organisation was hurting, bruised from the Stephen Lawrence enquiry, their professionalism and integrity had been questioned and found wanting, and they were being forced to engage with the community and community advisors.  The early days were very difficult for both myself and the organisation.  All the while John Grieve was by my side supporting my efforts and advising me on the direction of travel.  John and I would meet in art galleries and stare at masterpieces.  He would make links from the problems we were faced with and the art.  Looking back, I realise now how creative this approach was, at the time I struggled to find the links.  Not once did John Grieve give up on me, patiently unpicking the problem.  He would draw mind-maps on paper napkins, he shaped my thinking and built on my ideas and gave me the  space to develop my own.  He was then and remains now, my teacher, my mentor, my guide and a dear friend.

To tackle the development of Senior Investigating Officers I needed to seek out expert investigative advice and guidance.  My simulation system, Minerva was fast time and tactical. Investigations were protracted and complex.  I had to rethink the approach and create slower time, strategic management and critical incident decision making methods.  Two Detectives were influential; Det. Sgts Terry Webster and John Jackson.  I took Mick Crick (the grumpiest of men, who was absolutely loved by all) from my CALT team that was working on the Front-Line product ‘On-Scene-and-Dealing,’ to work alongside me and we all worked like dogs.  Relentless sixteen-hour days were not uncommon.

Right in the middle of all of this, I was called to New South Wales Police, Australia, to advise on the building of their simulation centre for the 2000 Olympic games.  Sir Peter Ryan their commissioner had worked with me in the UK with Minerva and wanted to use it in preparation for the games.  So, I worked during the day for the New South Wales Police and during the night for the Met. Police and at 23:50 on 31st December 1998, Mick sent me the latest designs for the exercise with requirements for new functionality in the system.  He signed his email with the words “probably the last email this year, speak to you next year.”  24-hour Hydra development on both sides of the world, it was unbelievably exciting.

So my new system was to be called Hydra after Hercules labours[2].  This stepping back from the problem became the central philosophy of the new approach. The new world of decision making was recognising critical incidents, making strategic decisions and looking at the wider picture of family liaison, community engagement and public confidence.  The first exercise was a riot of activity.  The Detectives worked on a murder case for a week, meeting with the family of the bereaved and attending press interviews, whilst directing their investigation. All the while coached by seasoned and highly credible facilitators.  They loved it! and often refused to leave their syndicate rooms to attend plenary sessions.  They would not go home at the end of days and had heated arguments about matters such as disclosure, CPS and interview strategies.  All the while they recorded their thinking in decision logs, the very logs that were seen to be an anathema to open and transparent investigation techniques.

A visit was made to the detective training at the Crime Academy at Hendon, with its HYDRA computer programme simulating all the pressures of real critical incident management. This training is highly professional and thorough. It is comforting to know that it is now almost impossible for a Senior Investigating Officer or his Deputy to be as incompetent, unimaginative, and promoted beyond ability, as were the two men in charge of the initial Stephen Lawrence murder investigation.

Stephen Lawrence Review, an independent commentary, to mark the 10th anniversary, of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, by Dr Richard Stone

About this time, I was joined by a highly talented PC Geoff Williams.  Geoff was a dyed-in-the-wool educationalist.  He has worked by my side ever since, developing radical new techniques and solutions. He was instrumental in helping me evolve Hydra to deal with the new demands of chief officer training.  

The final part of the puzzle was to develop a solution for Chief Officers. Geoff joined me when I attended their first workshop.  The unprecedented approach designed by Grieve and Griffiths, was to train senior teams, chief officers alongside members of the independent advisory groups, members of the public and the press.  The first workshop was a bear-pit of hostility, with incredible scenes of anger and resentment.  It was undoubtedly, the most dangerous learning environment we had ever witnessed, it was unsafe, and counter-productive.  I suggested that we make my new Hydra system mobile (a prospect that Mick Crick grunted at and said was impossible and then worked tirelessly to generate magical technical solutions that we loaded into the van) and generate a Hydra suite in hotel conference rooms.  The exercise was called SMoCIT, Strategic Management of Critical Incident Training.  The event was headed by Deputy Assistant Commissioner Bill Griffiths. Grieve, Griffiths and myself redesigned the exercise to run in the simulator.  Mick Crick and the CALT team, wired up the hotels and we ran and evolved the event over 85 workshops right across the country.  It was very well received and mainstream journalists from the broadsheets and the media took part in simulated public meetings that were part of the scenarios.  Family liaison officers worked with the simulated bereaved families and independent advisors engaged in the investigation process.  This two-day workshop began to heal the wounds with the communities, allow the chief investigators to develop and hone new skills and started the post Lawrence learning that the police service so desperately needed. 

I continued to develop Hydra and it has been adopted by every police region in the UK and the Fire Service.  Today we have over 80 centres across the world, in Universities, UK Immigration and Border Forces, USA Homeland Security and centres as far away as Australia and Ireland.  All are supported through the Hydra Foundation ( I founded to support the collaborative community of ideas they represent.  Hydra is free for the UK Fire and Police Services and will always be provided at no charge, other centres fund the Foundation and allow us to continue to develop the methods.  The latest version of the system called Hydra in the Cloud has been developed by Adam Crego, my son, a computer scientist. Two generations developing the methodologies and capabilities which now includes, virtual reality, Hydra in the Room and a whole host of other methods.  There is much of Mick Crick in Adam.  Any request for any new method to be incorporated in Hydra, is met with an immediate reaction of grumpiness and mention of impossibilities, followed by incredible magic and delivery.  The new generation of Hydra possibilities developed by Adam and Emlyn Cox are very exciting. Steve Butterworth enables even the most challenging of installations to happen and is brilliant at integrating new technologies.


[2] According to legend, Hercules had to slay the Slay the nine-headed Lernaean Hydra.  The problem was that when he severed one head, two grew in its place.  According to the legend, with the help of Iolaos, he applied burning brands to the severed stumps, cauterising the wounds and preventing the regeneration