Rethink on missing person investigations needed: Police Ombudsman

Published Date: 31.08.2017

The Police Ombudsman, Dr Michael Maguire, has said police need to rethink how they handle missing person investigations.

The comments follow an investigation by his Office into how police responded to reports that Geng Feng Shi, a 23-year-old Chinese national, was missing. His body was found on 27 March 2015 in the River Lagan at Belfast Harbour.  

Mr Geng Feng Shi.Mr Geng Feng Shi.

It is the latest such investigation from the Office. Between 2010 and  2016 it investigated the police handling of six separate missing person reports and recommended that a total of 55 officers be disciplined for failings.

These included failures to properly assess missing person reports, failures in supervision, failures in searches and missed evidential opportunities. 

“I am aware that the PSNI get on average 13,000 reports of people missing each year, very few of which are referred to my Office.

Yet some of the failings we identified in 2010 were still happening in 2015, which represents a real risk to public confidence in the way police deal with missing persons investigations.

"Some of the failings identified in 2010 were still happening in 2015."

Many of the officers we spoke to have talked of difficulties in balancing the resources needed in responding to missing person reports with those for other urgent enquiries.

Police officers have to carry out proper risk assessments in each case if there are to be effective investigations.

It is also important that police ensure these investigations have the necessary resources which are then properly allocated and tasked.

I have made a number of recommendations which might help improve things. These include that the PSNI should consider establishing a central resource which would offer specialist assistance to officers across Northern Ireland.

My investigation has also identified many instances of recording juveniles missing from residential homes as ‘concern for safety’ issues.

I have recommended that police consider reminding officers of police guidance, which states that anyone whose whereabouts are unknown must be recorded as a missing person and not as a ‘concern for safety’ or ‘suspicious’ issue, ” said Dr Maguire.

This latest Police Ombudsman investigation was started after it received information which alleged police had not dealt properly with reports about the whereabouts of Geng Feng Shi. The PSNI also referred the matter to the Office for independent investigation.

Investigators established that although it was likely that Mr. Shi was no longer alive by the time he had been reported missing, the way in which police responded to concerns about him included some common failures.

It is likely Mr Shi was no longer alive by the time he was reported missing.

They established that on 3 March 2015 police received a phone call from staff at Milltown Cemetery in Belfast reporting that a man, who was later identified as Geng Feng Shi, had entered their offices, sat down, closed his eyes and was refusing to communicate.

Police officers and paramedics went to the scene.  Geng Feng did not respond, but was identified from his passport.

He was taken by ambulance to Royal Victoria Hospital to be assessed by a psychiatric doctor.  Later that evening he was deemed fit to be discharged to an address in Killyleagh.

However, in the early hours of the next morning, 4 March 2015, police received a call that a man was lying in the in the road at Rockview Street in Belfast, shouting and singing. 

On arriving at the scene, they identified him as Geng Feng Shi. He complained of chest pains and was taken to the RVH.

He was last seen leaving the hospital on foot at around 6am.

The following day, 5 March 2015, police received a phone call from a family in China which reported that they could not make contact with one of their relatives - Geng Feng Shi whom they knew to be in Northern Ireland.

Geng Feng’s family said their last conversation with him was via Skype while he was in hospital on 3 March and they had not been able to contact him since. They said they feared his mental state was ‘not normal’ and were concerned for his safety.

Unknown to his family and to the police, Geng Feng was no longer alive. It’s believed he had entered the River Lagan the previous day.

The person who took the family’s call made the connection with the man police had dealt with over the previous days.

She said she logged the call as a ‘Concern for Safety’ issue, planned to have police check if Geng Feng was at the known address in KIllyleagh and if not, have the issue upgraded to one of a ‘Missing Person.’

“This decision was a fundamental failure, given PSNI guidance. It resulted in an unacceptable delay in police undertaking proactive and robust enquiries.

Geng Feng was most likely dead by the time he was first reported as missing, but a more focused investigation may have led to an earlier recovery of his body” said Dr Maguire.

A more focused investigation may have led to an earlier recovery of the body.

Later that afternoon - 13 hours after police had received the call from his family - Geng Feng was recorded as a  ‘medium risk Missing Person.’

Despite this re-categorisation, police did not fully comply with what was required of them in the missing person procedures.

They did not contact his family in China to obtain information to progress the police investigation, nor did they try to establish if his movements were caught on CCTV from the time he was known to have left the hospital.

Investigators found that although police supervisors directed that particular actions be taken, they did not check if these were carried out.  This contributed to a lack of progress.

On 20 March 2015, police contacted Geng Feng’s family in China, 15 days after he had first been reported missing.

The family said they believe he was depressed and that he would normally have kept in regular contact with them through the internet.

As a result of this conversation, police changed Geng Feng’s status to that of a ‘high risk Missing Person.’

“This re-categorisation should have happened much earlier, given the family’s initial concerns, given police knew something of Mr Shi’s medical history and given that he was still missing,” said Dr Maguire.

Having been categorised as ‘high risk,’ the case was then passed to detectives in the Criminal Investigations Department.

Further inquiries were then carried out which led to the recovery of CCTV footage which showed Geng Feng near Lanyon Place, close to the Waterfront Hall and the River Lagan at around 7am on 4 March. His body was subsequently recovered from the river. 

The investigation recommended 14 officers be disciplined for issues ranging from failure to correctly risk assess the missing person report to failures to record and review subsequent police actions.

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