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.

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