Thursday 31 March 2011

Will the Night Stalker lessons be taken seriously?

Outside Woolwich Crown Court last week Commander Simon Foy rightly apologised for the Met failing to catch Delroy Grant earlier, and promised the lessons from the case would be learnt. My knowledge of the case leads me to believe a new and independent inquiry into the failings over seventeen years must be launched.

As soon as Delroy Grant was arrested in November 2009 the bosses in SCD1, the Met’s Homicide and Serious Crime Command, which had been responsible for the investigation for the past eleven years, wanted to know if he could have been captured earlier. They acted quickly, and appointed a Detective Superintendent to oversee what they described as ‘a search for learning’.

This review began in November 2009 and very quickly uncovered what we are now calling the 1999 mistake – where false assumptions and slack work by a couple of junior officers led to the name Delroy Grant being shown as eliminated on the investigation’s database. The error was reported quickly, officers were spoken to and the matter promptly referred to the Independent Police Complaints Commission. The IPCC mounted an investigation, and as a result recommended ‘Words of Advice’ as the appropriate disciplinary punishment for the officers. This sorry episode featured highly in Commander Foy’s apology and the media coverage of the case after Grant’s conviction.

However, as we continued to prepare the case for trial, and were disclosing documents for the defence, another serious error came to light which began in March 2003 and was effectively repeated several times, even as late as February 2008. This related to a burglary on 8th March 2003 in Sydenham, when the 78 year-old lady victim bravely grappled with Grant as he burgled her home. After she told police what had happened, they called a doctor, and that evening he took scrapings from under her fingernails – a standard practice where there has been contact between victim and offender. For reasons I could not determine, the result of the analysis of these swabs was not acted upon by the team until more than 2½ years later, in October 2005. DNA matching the then-unknown profile of the Night Stalker had been found; the victim must have scratched him and unknowingly collected some of his skin cells.

Now knowing that this was definitely a linked offence, the then-SIO, Detective Superintendent Simon Morgan, with the family liaison officer went to tell the victim in person. While they were there she commented that she didn’t know many black men, but that the only ones she could think of who might be worth looking at were those drivers at the local mini-cab firm, Palace Cars, who used to take her to hospital and the doctors. She gave the officers details of the firm, and her comments were paraphrased and recorded in the Family Liaison log book. Some 3½ months later, in January 2006, this comment was read in the incident room, and an action created to research all black men driving cabs for that firm in 2003. However this action was repeatedly put off as not being a priority – in April, July and December 2006, until in June 2007 it was again put off but some reasoning was given,

“This action remains outside the current priority lines of enquiry as deemed by the SIO of (1) Motor-cyclists SE London, (2) Motor-cyclists Brighton, (3) Single Suggestions from media appeals and Crimewatch , and (4) Refusals.”

So rather than look at 20 or so men who were all working at the same place the team continued to try to get DNA swabs from a list of thousands. And the suggestion of a victim who had actually seen and touched the suspect was not acted upon, while the word of one - possibly unknown - person who had phoned the Crimewatch studio or the incident room would have been.

We now know Delroy Grant did indeed drive for the mini-cab firm in 2003, and had the action been taken then he could and should have been identified. Of course, by the time the DNA result was actually acknowledged by the team 2½ years had passed, which might have made a difference, but the regulation of mini-cabs ought to mean that former drivers remained traceable. In 2003 a DNA result could be obtained in a matter of days; however the practice on the team of putting all forensic result reports into a cardboard box without typing or indexing them on to the database may have had an effect on this and caused the delay – another lesson to be learnt? However there has been no apology, no referral to the IPCC. Nothing, almost as if it never happened.

Delroy Grant of course has now been convicted, and there is still time for this and other errors to be reported and acted upon. We can be happy of course that a Detective Superintendent in the Metropolitan Police will be a man of integrity, and will do his duty diligently. But I maintain - as I did back in Novemeber 2009 - that it is daft that the Detective Superintendent in question is Simon Morgan. He is responsible for reporting the learning from the whole SCD1 investigation, for which he alone was responsible for eight of its eleven years. How difficult must it be for a person objectively and critically to review his own decisions, and for such a public and important purpose? It is not fair to him personally, and neither in the interests of the Met nor the Police Service generally, for any ‘learning’ report to have even a suggestion of bias or lack of openness. Irrespective of the thoroughness of his work, it probably means any report will always be so tainted, and it really is crucial for the Met to get it done properly – independently - if they are to start to rebuild the public trust and confidence that the Night Stalker case has so badly damaged.

Thursday 24 March 2011

Sorry, again? For what, exactly?


The two presumably deluded jurors who thought Delroy Grant had a point have made their stand; fortunately they served just to delay his conviction by 24 hours.

Tomorrow one hopes he will be weighed off with more porridge than even a City wholefood eaterie can sell in one breakfast, and we will never see him again. Which is, obviously, a good thing.

It meant though that, once more we have a Met Commander apologising live on all news channels, repeated in case you missed it at 6, 6.30 and 10. At least Simon Foy ventured away from the revolving sign and down to Woolwich to meet real people, real victims, and say sorry in person. But I imagine I am not alone in asking, in these circumstances - "What for? What went wrong? Who messed up?"

For possibly the last time, I am on this occasion in an excellent position to answer those questions for you, to expand on the Commander's words and explain what I think the Met, absolutely correctly in my view, might have apologised for.

The second Minstead offence, in 1998, was linked to one six years earlier by DNA left at both scenes by the suspect. The investigation was then given to what was probably then called the Area Crime OCU and is now known as the Homicide & Serious Crime Command, but which for simplicity we will call HSCC. HSCC deals almost exclusively in murder; the occasional serial rape or similar might be taken on but murders are their staple diet. And very good at investigating murder they are too - detection rates are invariably above 90%, often higher. Having led a murder team in London for 8 years, I think I know why this is. I had a skilled, experienced team of around 30 people to throw at each new offence, backed up by as much expert and scientific help as I wanted. Since most murders were unplanned, even spontaneous, the killer had given no thought to DNA, to fingerprints, to fibres and trace evidence, to CCTV or to telecoms data. So, in most cases it was simply a matter of turning up, doing our usual stuff and arresting the murderer a few days or weeks later. This was the principle which was applied to Minstead, for 11 years from 1998 to 2009. We had a DNA profile, and although we didn't know who it belonged to if we threw enough experience, enough detective savvy and enough science at it we would catch him.

Well we didn't did we. And in May 2009 when I first went across to Lewisham to 'have a look, see if there is a way of solving it' (as was my brief) it was pretty obvious that we never would. As I later learned from the decision logs, virtually everything for the past 11 years had been based on DNA. Even when on occasion some creativity or lateral-thinking was employed, it was getting scientists to try to discern ancestry or physical characteristics from the DNA profile. It was all about the DNA.

Essentially, the theory was that we knew some things about our man - gender, race, approximate age - and some other facts might be assumed from witness testimony - rides a motor bike (which Grant didn't), has a connection with Brighton (which Grant did), had his mother die in 2000 (which Grant didn't). Add to that detective nous - he must be able to be 'unseen' in the street, must do reconnaissance during the day, and a little behavioural psychologist profiling - will have previous convictions for burglary (Grant didn't), won't be married (he was, 3 times), will be a loner with few friends (he certainly wasn't) and it would be easy. From the overall pool of suspects, all the black men in south-east London born between 1945 and 1976, apply the above criteria and then you'll have a list of people you need to get DNA from, one of whom will be your suspect.

But the practice was very different. First, the unfiltered pool was populated by many whose experience of contact with the Met Police was less than satisfactory. That is just a fact of history - they were not treated very well by the Police in the 60s, 70s & early 80s. [Perhaps the Met shpould apologise for that?] Which meant that many refused as a matter of principle, or out of mistrust. Every time this happened a decision had to be made - arrest or not? On the basis the real suspect might well also have declined, this was a tricky choice which had to be justified in every case, but also one which sapped the energy and time of the team.

The task of getting a DNA sample from each of more than 20,000 men was made more difficult, more hopeless, by two other crucial factors. First, the prioritisation of who to swab first was, it seemed, ever-changing. Imagine a deck of cards, dealt out one by one until the King of Hearts was turned up. Only this deck had 21,000 cards, and the King of Hearts was missing, I don't know, perhaps lost down the back of the sofa. Every few months whoever was in charge at that time would see a new possibility - perhaps from a recent offence, perhaps from some other wise old Detective's suggestion - and call all the cards back, shuffle them again and begin once more to deal. In my first week 'looking at' Minstead all the supervisors on the team were again led through this by the Senior Investigating Officer. Except all the time Delroy Grant wasn't just hiding down the back of the sofa, he was burgling, raping, assaulting and robbing the elderly.

The second thing which appalled me in May 2009 was the size of the team. Or, more precisely, the lack of size of the team. MInstead had been culled in 2004 when officers had to be plundered from HSCC to bolster Safer Neighbourhood Teams. Having already cut 3 murder teams, when Sir Ian came calling again Minstead felt the knife and was halved in size. Effectively in May 2009 there were 8 people trying to get all these DNA swabs. In my first week they returned with one solitary swab. As we then had 5,200 men on the priority list the arithmetic was striking - at that rate it was 100 years of work.

Added to this, every time there was a new offence the same handful of officers had to respond, to do the initial enquiries, the house to house, the CCTV retrieval - everything that a murder team would do, with not even a third of the staff. And a murder team would usually take one investigation at a time and then not be given another for 6 weeks or so; Minstead sometimes had 3 a night, often 2 and once even 5. They simply could not cope, and thus a fiction had evolved, whereby offences which were plainly part of the series were discounted on pernickety and often spurious grounds, left to be investigated by the Borough. Which also meant they were not part of the official Minstead statistics, not part of the crime pattern analysis and most crucially not available to be cited as a reason for increasing resources. So the circle continued.

I reported these things upwards pretty quickly; why it took so long for them to be changed is another question and one I cannot answer. It was not, though, through lack of trying on my part. (The same goes for some individual instances of malpractice and inappropriate behaviour I found and reported - that is a related but different story.) What is undeniable though is that once we acted less like a murder squad and more like a burglary squad, once we forgot DNA and remembered observations, once we were looking for the Nightstalker on the streets at night and not in a database during the day time, we got him. The tragedy is that it took so long.

I haven't yet mentioned the missed opportunities being spoken of all over the media, so I must do briefly. The 1999 event is headlining because it was referred to the IPCC, and it is shocking because not only did a Minstead officer fail to do his job correctly but so did the Borough. Minstead or not there was a burglary with a registration number and a therefore a named suspect which was never properly investigated. Am I alone in thinking that a mistake which has the wholly unforeseen but wholly unacceptable consequences of letting Delroy Grant escape and offend for a further decade is deserving of a sanction more serious than 'Words of advice'? Unless those words advise the location of the local Jobcentre perhaps.

The 2001 opportunity is discounted by some, but for the wrong reasons. It may well be that the suspect suggested by a member of the public in 2001 was not the Nightstalker Delroy Grant, nor the 'wrong' one concerned in the 1999 error, but a third man of that name. It really doesn't matter. The point is that the research on that occasion was conducted by the ever-reliable PC Tony Briggs, whom I name because he did the right thing, as usual. He reported that he could not be certain that the Delroy Grant named in the phone call was the same man as the one in the 1999 incident. I should have thought that sufficient to alert the decision-makers to the need for a review of the 1999 action, and that is the missed opportunity.

In 2003, quite simply, a victim of Delroy Grant told officers that she thought her assailant might be a mini-cab driver from the local office she used. At that time Delroy Grant did indeed work at that firm. This was written up for action, to research the drivers at the firm, but a decision made not to proceed with the line of enquiry because officers were, and I paraphrase, too busy trying to get DNA swabs from black men with licences to ride motor cycles. This is not 20:20 hindsight, but a simple matter of investigative acumen. What was more likely to return a result, and quickly - looking to swab many hundreds if not thousands of men, one of which may or may not be the suspect, or looking at 20 or 30 men who work at a firm, where a victim who has actually seen the suspect at close quarters, thinks he might work? I believe it was a missed opportunity every bit as shameful as the 1999 episode.

Where do we go from here? What is important is that this is all never to happen again. For me, top of the list is that those who are the decision-makers in major investigations realise that an unknown DNA profile is conclusive evidence of presence, and so often of guilt, but that it is a very blunt, unsophisticated and ultimately unsuccessful means of identifying a suspect from a large population. Mass screenings seldom work, often deflect focus and always cost the earth.

I hope the Met learns other lessons, there are many, many things within Operation Minstead to consider, and which would make this already lengthy blog post intolerably hard work for all of us. However, I worry that the credibility of their internal search for enlightenment will be hard-won. Unless they have changed things since I left in November 2010, the officer in charge of reporting on the learning from Minstead is the officer who was its Senior Investigating officer from 2001 until I took over in October 2009. I don't think that is healthy either for him or the Met, but my observations fell on deaf ears. I really don't want to see them apologising again.

Monday 7 March 2011

Police don't criminalise people, people do

Many years, indeed a whole career ago, I made an important decision. Despite my choice of A-levels, university and degree all being aimed at a career in the law, I chose instead to join the Police. Instrumental in this decision was my experience in working for a firm of solicitors, and the strange, illogical and almost perverse pleasure I encountered in some lawyers when they used their undoubted skill, training and experience to engineer acquittals when even an 18 year-old view of the world thought it obvious that the community would be far better off with someone locked away. It was a side of the line where I knew I could not in all conscience have been happy.

Every now and then a member of the Bar or a solicitor does me the favour of reminding me how that decision was so correct. The latest, according to the Guardian website, is Ruth Hamann of Hodge,Jones & Allen - a firm which evidently specialises in the law of protest. Essentially, the firm are claiming that the Metropolitan Police are criminalising students by issuing an 'excessive number' of cautions for aggravated trespass, arising from the recent tuition fee protests. It has always been my perhaps simplistic view that Police don't criminalise people, people do (with apologies to Goldie Lookin Chain). The law is there, you choose to break it, you're a criminal. The police just clear up the mess - or at least a percentage of the mess, I suppose.

But more than this, I am shocked and a little disappointed that Ms. Hamann is quoted thus:

"This may dissuade some young people from attending subsequent protests for fear that they might be charged with an offence and required to attend court".

Now, if we start on the premise that cautions can only be administered where the cautionee admits the offence, then we must presume mustn't we that each caution results from a committed offence. In which case the excessive number of cautions might be two or more per offence, but just the one would seem to me to be about right - and certainly not excessive.

Adult cautions for offences were introduced in the 1980s not only to take cases out of the over-burdened courts system, but also to give first-time offenders the chance to appreciate the advantages of mending their ways without going to court and getting a proper conviction. If, as Ms. Hamann observes, students who find themselves cautioned then refrain from committing further offences, or indeed find themselves dissuaded from attending events such as these marches where the likelihood of offending seems to be increased, then is this a Bad Thing? Or is it just the cautioning system working as it was designed to? And therefore a reason for a solictor - 'An Officer of the Court' - to celebrate a feature of our creaky, over-sophisticated, under-resourced criminal justice system that actually works as it was meant to, rather than carp about it.