Police could be missing murders because they are still failing to investigate deaths properly nearly a decade after the blunders in catching serial killer Stephen Port, a watchdog has warned.
The risk of homicides not being identified by the Metropolitan Police is “way higher than it should be”, with some officers admitting they are relying on “luck” to identify links between deaths, inspectors found.
History “could repeat itself” if officers do not grasp basic standards of investigation when faced with an unexpected or unexplained death, His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) said.
The watchdog’s report published on Thursday found the force was yet to learn lessons from its “calamitous litany of failures” in the Port case.
Basic errors by a string of detectives left Port free to carry out the series of murders as well as drug and sexually assault more than a dozen other men.
Anthony Walgate, Gabriel Kovari, Daniel Whitworth and Jack Taylor all died at the hands of Port, who drugged them with overdoses of GHB and dumped their bodies near his flat in Barking, east London, between June 2014 and September 2015.
Earlier this year a coroner identified basic investigative failings by police after inquest jurors found that “fundamental failures” by the police were likely to have contributed to the deaths of three of the men.
The watchdog inspection – commissioned last year by London deputy mayor for policing and crime Sophie Linden – found the Met had not learned from its mistakes in the case and must urgently improve.
Inspector of constabulary Matt Parr said: “The Met has not learned enough from their failings eight years ago, and starkly, what went wrong there could happen again.”
Describing the Port case as “such an almost bewildering example of Met failings”, that the force must act on the recommendations for improvement “without delay”, he added: “The risk of something like that happening again has to be minimised.”
There were “glaringly obvious” links between the Port murders that Met officers failed to identify.
“Had the police conducted a professional and thorough investigation after the first victim, Anthony, was murdered it’s entirely possible – likely even – that Gabriel, Daniel and Jack would still have been alive, a dreadful failing.
“It is very difficult to explain how such obvious murders, linked murders, were completely missed at the time.”
While there have been some improvements since, Mr Parr said Met police officers still admit they’re relying on “luck to identify links between deaths at a local level.”
On a typical day, the Met is called to attend 30 unexpected deaths in London, amounting to around 10,000 a year, with the force dealing with around two or three homicides a week.
“The vast majority are – as they initially were in Port – discounted and not recognised as a homicide,” Mr Parr said.
Asked if the Met was missing homicides, he told reporters: “I don’t know.”
Considering the number of unexpected deaths, “it seems to me likely, if not certain, that among the deaths that they do not classify as homicide, that there are some”, Mr Parr said, adding: “Even eight years after Port they’re still not tight enough and the risk of a homicide being misidentified and not recognised is way higher than it should be.”
Solicitor Neil Hudgell, who represented Port’s victims’ families at the inquest, renewed calls for a public inquiry into the case as he said the report reveals the “same shortcomings still exist today and similar mistakes could be made”.
“It has become abundantly clear that this force cannot be trusted to make changes and improvements itself and the Government must step in and oversee proper change across this force.
“If that doesn’t happen, more serious offenders will slip through the net, and more innocent lives will be lost due to the most basic of policing failures,” Mr Hudgell added.
The HMICFRS inspection reviewed 100 death probes carried out by the Met and found evidence of poor training, supervision and handling of property and evidence, “dreadful” record keeping, a “deluge” of confusing guidance and policies for officers as well as “inadequate” intelligence and crime analysis, Mr Parr said.
The force’s “resources are stretched” and there is a young, inexperienced workforce but that “doesn’t absolve the Met of its responsibility to meet, frankly, basic standards of investigation”, he added.
The watchdog made 20 recommendations, including calling on Met officers to use more intelligence information when investigating deaths and improving the quality of family liaison support.
Inspectors considered whether homophobia explained why the Met did not investigate Port’s killings properly, but said it was “impossible to reach any definitive conclusions”.
The report did, however, say there “were and still are homophobic officers” at the force and that there was a “lack of understanding of the lifestyle of those they were investigating”.
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