Published Date: Oct 2014
Possessions belonging to a woman who took her own life, including a smartphone containing photographs and other personal information, were destroyed following an error by a police officer, a Police Ombudsman investigation has found.
Police Ombudsman, Dr Michael Maguire, said the destruction of the phone had caused her family unnecessary distress at a time of great sorrow in their lives.
“The phone contained photographs, videos and other information that are now lost forever, and that is something I know has caused significant pain and anguish to the family,” he said.
The officer, who has expressed regret over what happened, was disciplined after the investigation found she had authorised the destruction of the items once they were no longer required in relation to inquest proceedings.
The investigation also concluded that the officer’s decision to inform the family by phone was insensitive.
A lawyer representing the family said they had been expecting a call about when they could collect the phone, and were totally unprepared to learn of its destruction.
Officer had never dealt with such a case before, and said she believed the phone would have been returned to her.
The phone and other items were destroyed after the investigating officer, who had never dealt with such a case before, informed a PSNI Property Manager in June 2013 that the case was closed and the personal effects could be disposed of.
When interviewed by Police Ombudsman investigators, the officer said she believed that “disposed of” meant the items would be returned to her as the Investigating Officer.
When they were not, she contacted the police Property Store and said she was surprised to learn that the items had been destroyed. She believed the Property Manager would have checked with her before doing so.
She also stated that she had sent an email to a locally based officer who had been working with the family to ask that he contact them to explain what had happened.
It was only in September 2013 when she received a message to contact the family that she learned the Family Liaison Officer had been on leave.
The officer said she realised that ideally, she should have explained the situation to the family in person, but said that given her workload and the fact she worked a considerable distance away, it had not been possible to do so.
Officer recognised phone call was not ideal and expressed regret over family’s distress.
Dr Maguire expressed concern at the officer’s suggestion that the term “disposal” would mean the items would be returned to her, and said it was unrealistic for her to have expected the Property Manager to check before implementing her instructions.
“While the officer is remorseful about the distress that has been caused, the fact remains that she failed in her duty of care to this family,” he said.
The PSNI has since disciplined the officer in line with a recommendation by the Police Ombudsman.