Published Date: 07.03.2008
A Police Ombudsman investigation has cleared the PSNI of any blame for the death of Derry/Londonderry man Harry Jack who went missing in late 2006, but has found "deficiencies" in some of the police's missing person investigations.
Police Ombudsman Al Hutchinson said the PSNI had acted appropriately on the information it received about Mr Jack's whereabouts, after he went missing from Altnagelvin Hospital on 31 October 2006.
In particular, he described as "unfounded" concerns that police had not acted upon a telephone call from a member of the public who spotted Mr Jack on the night he went missing. He revealed that the call was, in fact, never passed on to the police by the hospital.
"Police did search for Mr Jack," said Mr Hutchinson. "In fact when he left the hospital on a previous occasion earlier the same day officers found him and took him back in less than an hour. It is clear they treated the case with due urgency."
The Police Ombudsman added, however, that police had made some administrative errors in their handling of the case.
He welcomed the fact that these errors had been identified by the Foyle District Commander, who ordered an immediate and detailed review of missing persons procedures in his area and took appropriate action based on its findings.
Concerned that the problems in Foyle might indicate wider problems, Police Ombudsman investigators then conducted a review of long-term missing person cases from across Northern Ireland. Of the ten cases they looked at only five had been dealt with properly by police.
Mr Hutchinson has now recommended a review of all long-term missing persons cases in Northern Ireland.
"While the majority of missing persons investigations are quickly resolved, a small number could turn out to be murder investigations," he said.
"It is therefore crucially important that police gather information as quickly as possible, risk assess the situation, and take appropriate action before potential evidential opportunities are lost."
The Police Ombudsmans investigation began following the death of Mr Jack, whose body was found on 3 November 2006, three days after he had walked out of hospital where he was being treated for head injuries sustained in a fall. His body was subsequently found in a field two miles from the hospital. He had died of hypothermia.
The case was referred to the Police Ombudsman by the Chief Constable and Mr Jack's family also lodged a complaint amid concerns that police had failed to respond to a call from a member of the public on the night he had gone missing.
The member of the public was concerned for Mr Jack's safety after finding him walking the streets wearing a coat over his pyjamas. She stayed with him as she contacted the hospital switchboard with a request that they pass this information, her whereabouts and her mobile phone number to police.
After receiving no response the woman called the hospital again to check that her message had been passed to police. She was told it had been. The woman stayed with Mr Jack until he walked off, and expressed frustration that no one had come to help or called her back.
Mr Hutchinson said, however, that the hospital had failed to pass the call to the police.
"Hospital authorities conducted an internal enquiry which showed that while the message was relayed from the hospital switchboard to nursing staff, the message was not passed from there to the police.
"This finding was corroborated by our own investigation, which, far from finding police inaction in this case, showed that police acted quickly and appropriately on any information they did receive," said Mr Hutchinson.
Enquiries established that Mr Jack had left the hospital on three occasions on the day he went missing. On the first occasion he was persuaded to return by hospital portering staff.
On the second occasion he was found by the police who returned him to the hospital within 50 minutes of being notified that he had gone missing.
On the third occasion police conducted a search but were unable to find him. It was sometime later that the member of the public reported that she had seen him.
As well as conducting at least two searches for Mr Jack, the Police Ombudsman's investigation revealed that police had taken a series of other measures as they tried to locate him.
Police records showed that the case was given due urgency with Mr Jack being classified as a "high-risk vulnerable person" by police. They also showed that officers had visited Mr Jack's family, that incoming shifts were informed about the incident, and that officers maintained regular contact with hospital staff.
In addition, Mr Jack's details were circulated to all officers in the area at regular intervals and the police press office issued an appeal for information.
But while police had not contributed in any way to Mr Jack's death, Mr Hutchinson said there had been some administrative failures in the police handling of the case. He said police had failed to conduct a formal assessment of the risks faced by Mr Jack, as required by PSNI guidelines on missing persons cases, and had also failed to complete all relevant paperwork.
Two officers have since received advice and guidance in relation to these failings.
OTHER CASES "FLAWED"
The Police Ombudsman's Office conducted a review of 10 long-term missing persons cases across Northern Ireland (23% of 45 such cases in Northern Ireland at that time).
This revealed that police had failed to satisfactorily progress, maintain or record details in five of those ten cases.
"In four cases no records whatsoever could be found and there was no indication of the officers responsible for progressing those investigations. If anything was being done to progress those cases, there was no record of it," said Mr Hutchinson.
"In another case, police had wrongly classified an absconder as a missing person.
"The remaining five cases were dealt with professionally, with relevant risk assessments and reviews, as well as the involvement of senior officers and exhaustive efforts to find those people.
"Clearly it is unacceptable that in half the cases we looked at there was no documentation available to indicate what investigative steps had, or had not, been taken by police. The public, and more specifically the families of missing persons, are entitled to expect much better from their police service."
Mr Hutchinson has recommended that all police command units across Northern Ireland review their long-term missing persons procedures to ensure that best practice is applied.
And he has also recommended that the PSNI should review all current missing persons investigations and take appropriate action if cases have not been properly progressed.
Note to Editors:
On 21st January 2008 Criminal Justice and Security Minister Paul Goggins, responded in the House of Commons to a question from DUP MP Nigel Dodds about the number of missing persons currently registered in Northern Ireland.
Mr Goggins revealed that, as of early November 2007, 68 people were registered as missing here. He added that only a small proportion of those missing are not subsequently located.