Avon and Somerset Police detective sacked after allowing schoolgirl on sex offender visit

Detective Sergeant Nicola Coutts will now be barred from policing.

A “highly reckless” detective has been sacked after a schoolgirl was allowed on unauthorised work experience, which included her being taken to the home of a registered sex offender convicted of paying to watch child abuse online.

Detective Sergeant Nicola Coutts arranged for the teenager to shadow an officer on a routine home visit to the sex offender which “put temptation in the way of someone who is a serious risk to the public”, according to Barrister Charles Apthorp who was representing the force.

DS Coutts also allowed the 17-year-old family friend into the highly sensitive Violent and Sex Offender Register Office (Visor) at Avon & Somerset Police headquarters where confidential information about criminals and others who pose a high risk to the public is stored.

The officer lied to bosses that the youngster, who cannot be named for legal reasons, was at university studying criminology and had clearance, when she was actually doing A-levels and had no permission to be there.

DS Coutts admitted gross misconduct and was dismissed without notice at a police misconduct hearing chaired by Chief Constable Sarah Crew.

The officer, who was based at HQ in Portishead and had an otherwise unblemished 27-year record, will now be barred from policing.

Mr Apthorp said: “DS Coutts allowed Miss A to become aware of confidential information which included that the registered sex offender had been convicted of paying to watch child abuse online and obtaining indecent images of children and was subject to a sexual harm prevention order.”

He told the officer: “Miss A was a child and you exposed a vulnerable person to the details of serious child sex abuse.

“This is an extremely serious data breach for any person who doesn’t have a policing purpose.”

Mr Apthorp said colleagues in Visor raised concerns and “shock” about the work experience and that the officer told them: “I snuck her in.”

He said information on the Visor database, including names, addresses, bank accounts, phone numbers, car registrations and national insurance and passport details, was so sensitive that no member of the public should ever have access to the office, let alone a teenager who was unauthorised and also unvetted.

Staff in the office are trained to make sure no one is looking over their shoulder at the computer, even police employees, and not to work near windows, Chief Constable Crew heard.

DS Coutts went ahead with organising the work experience day despite “clear instructions” from a detective inspector to call it off, and she then avoided calls from them on the day, the hearing was told.

In a text message, the DI told her: “We will talk about this later but I’m not happy and you will remove this person from HQ!”

DS Coutts replied: “Sorry, Miss A is a university criminology research student.

“She’s already been cleared to do prison work as part of her studies and she’s very aware of the confidential nature of offending management, otherwise I would never have agreed to it.

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you, I didn’t think it would be such an issue.”

Mr Apthorp said this was completely untrue and that she “deliberately misled” her supervisor.

He said there was an hour between DS Coutts’ text reply and the visit to the sex offender but that she made “no attempt to protect Miss A coming into contact with a man who was a potential threat to her”.

The officer told Chief Constable Crew: “I removed her as soon as I could.

“I knew she had to go, I just couldn’t do it quick enough.”

Asked why she did not stop the home visit, she said: “Because I wasn’t thinking straight.”

DS Coutts said her intentions were not malicious or out of personal gain.

She said: “I wanted to help her. She had approached other forces to ask about work experience and had not had a response.

“I decided to help her so she could have a positive experience to help her aspirations of joining in the future.”

The officer admitted 13 of 15 alleged breaches of professional standards of behaviour.

Chief Constable Crew found that the two she denied – telling a colleague that she would contact a senior manager about Miss A’s presence at Visor when she had no intention of doing so and avoiding contact with her supervisor – were also proved.

Head of professional standards Supt Mark Edgington said afterwards: “This was a serious incident in which a child was allowed access to the restricted Visor office, as well as being allowed to shadow an officer on a routine visit to the home of a registered sex offender.

“This posed significant safeguarding concerns, as well as a data breach risk.

“DS Coutts’ line manager had specifically asked her to halt the placement and take the teenager out of headquarters prior to the home visit taking place, but this direction was ignored.

“The officer who conducted the home visit didn’t know the teenager’s age and believed all necessary vetting and security considerations had been carried out.

“The teenager was not left alone at any time, and the visit was cut short after the officer was contacted by phone and told to return to headquarters immediately. 

“DS Coutts’ actions in arranging and facilitating the placement were highly reckless and demonstrated poor judgement and a significant lack of professional care.”

Credit: Adam Postans, Local Democracy Reporter