A Police Ombudsman investigation has found that police failed to take reasonable precautions to prevent the escape of a man who died after running away from police in Strabane in May 2011.
However, Police Ombudsman Dr Michael Maguire, also found that police had conducted a proper and thorough search for the 22 year-old in the months after his disappearance.
David Colhoun, from Lifford in Co. Donegal, was about to be transferred from one police car to another outside Strabane police station when he made off from officers in the early hours of 22 May 2011.
His girlfriend reported him missing the following afternoon, and despite extensive efforts to find him by police and community organisations, his body was not found until 9 months later, on 28 February 2012. The remains were discovered by a digger driver working on the banks of the River Finn between Strabane and Lifford.
The PSNI referred the incident to the Police Ombudsman’s Office for independent investigation on the same day Mr Colhoun went missing.
Two months later, David’s father lodged a complaint about the police handling of the incident. He criticised the fact David had been allowed to escape, and alleged that police had failed to make reasonable efforts to find him, including failing to locate all available CCTV footage. He also alleged that the PSNI had treated his family less favourably as they were from the Republic of Ireland.
During their investigation, Police Ombudsman investigators interviewed police officers and civilian witnesses, and reviewed police documentation, radio transmissions and CCTV footage.
They established that on the evening of his disappearance, Mr Colhoun had been arrested at Railway Street in Strabane for possession of an offensive weapon. He had a pipe from a vacuum cleaner, and told the arresting officer that his sister had been assaulted and he intended use the pipe to attack her assailant.
Mr Colhoun was with three friends at the time, and gave police a false name when arrested.
His family and friends told Police Ombudsman investigators that he had been socialising in Strabane on the evening of 21 May 2011, and had been heavily intoxicated. They said he had returned home to Lifford, before getting a lift back to Strabane.
Following his arrest, he was placed into the back of a police car, which was driven to the town’s police station and parked outside the front gates to await the arrival of another police car. The second vehicle was to take him to Limavady, where he was to be placed in police custody overnight.
Police had decided to take him to Limavady because the custody suite at Strabane police station was authorised for detentions of a maximum of six hours, which was insufficient time to allow him to recover from the previous night’s drinking and be formally interviewed. In addition, there were no free cells in Derry/Londonderry.
Officers also stated that they had been unable to conduct the transfer from one vehicle to another within the walls of Strabane station, as legislation would then have required them to go through a series of formal custody procedures. These would then have had to be repeated at Limavady, unnecessarily tying up already stretched police resources.
Officers added that Mr Colhoun had not been handcuffed as he had been calm and compliant after his arrest. Evidence indicated that he had been sitting in the rear of the police car beside a police officer, with another officer in the front passenger seat, when the driver got out to speak to officers from the second police car.
As he did so, the driver disengaged the car’s central locking, unlocking the rear doors and providing Mr Colhoun with an opportunity to escape. Police gave chase, but were unable to catch him, and he was last seen running down Bridge Street in Strabane.
Although Mr Colhoun had given police a false name, officers quickly realised he was the person who had been arrested after his girlfriend called at Strabane police station to report him missing the following afternoon. Police launched an immediate missing persons investigation, and deemed him to be at “high risk”.
Police Ombudsman investigators interviewed police officers, divers, search advisors, Family Liaison Officers, dog handlers and members of search teams who were involved in the subsequent search for Mr Colhoun.
Accounts were also obtained from civilians involved in the search, including Community Search and Rescue, Foyle Fisheries Agency, Foyle Search and Rescue and local community representatives.
Police focused their search on the Foyle and Mourne Rivers, as David’s family believed he may have tried to swim across a river to avoid police checkpoints while attempting to return home to Lifford . The search operation was eventually scaled down when no trace could be found, and the last search by police divers took place on 29 September 2011.
The Police Ombudsman, Dr Michael Maguire, concluded that police had conducted a thorough search for Mr Colhoun, deploying all available resources in accordance with guidelines.
He also found no evidence that police had treated David’s family any differently because they were from the Republic of Ireland.
He was, however, critical of the officer who provided the opportunity for David to escape by leaving the car doors of the police car unlocked when he got out of the vehicle. He also found that the officer who had been sitting beside David when he got out of the car should bear some of the responsibility for allowing his escape.
Dr Maguire recommended that both officers should be disciplined for these failings, and disciplinary sanctions have since been imposed by the police.
In addition, while accepting the police rationale for conducting the transfer of Mr Colhoun from one police vehicle to another outside the gates of the police station, Dr Maguire also recommended that the PSNI should review their procedures for such transfers to minimise the potential for further escapes.