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Unexplained death investigations to change following Port murders

All deaths must be treated as suspicious, as part of changes in response to the case of serial killer Stephen Port.

Unexplained deaths must be treated as suspicious until clear proof is established.

The change is part of the formal response by the Metropolitan Police, College of Policing and National Police Chiefs’ Council to the killing of four young men by Stephen Port.

Investigators across the country will have to use one of four new classifications for unexplained deaths “so as to provide absolute clarity”.

These are “expected deaths” – where there is a medical diagnosis; “unexpected death investigated and not suspicious” – where evidence shows “no third party involvement”; an “unexpected death under investigation” – where further investigation is required; and “homicide” – where it is likely there was third party involvement.

The changes will be presented to the Front Line Policing (FLP) Chief Officer Group (COG) and the Met said they aim to embed them across the force by 30 June.

The new approach been made as part of the response to an Action to Prevent Future Deaths statement in a coroner’s report on the deaths of Anthony Walgate, Gabriel Kovari, Daniel Whitworth and Jack Taylor.

They were drugged with gamma-hydroxybutyrate (GHB) and murdered by Stephen Port in East London between 2014 and 2015.

Port is now serving a life sentence for the rape and murder of the four men plus the rape and drugging of others.

The report, by Sarah Munro QC identified a “large number of very serious and very basic investigative failings” by police, including a “lack of professional curiosity” about their cases.

The coroner raised five issues of concern for the police service including leadership and the use of databases to record lines of inquiry.

Sarah Munro warned: “There are risks that future deaths could occur unless action is taken to address those risks. In these circumstances, it is my statutory duty to report my concerns to appropriate persons who may be able to take remedial action.”

She heard how Mr Kovari’s death was classed as “unexplained but not suspicious” within five hours of his body being discovered, despite an inspector later admitting they had no idea how he had died.

And Mr Whitworth’s death was also classed as non-suspicious on the day he was found, even though investigators had not properly checked that a fake suicide note found with his body was genuine.

The National Police Chiefs’ Council said: “These new classifications are intended to ensure that there is clarity around the correct and necessary approach to death investigation; namely all unexpected deaths should be investigated and treated as suspicious until the police investigation has established it is not suspicious. This approach is intended to remove ambiguity that may lead to differing responses to death investigations.”

Another issue raised by the coroner was concern over who was leading the investigations; the local team asked the Met's homicide team to take over as the cases were "complex".

Port was only brought to justice after a parks police officer identified him in CCTV footage.

The College and NPCC said: “Regardless of how such investigations are resourced and led, it is important that there are clear decision making criteria as to which investigation units take primacy for particular death investigations.

“The learning from the inquests is being used to update national policing guidance and will be shared with forces so that they can review, and where required, update their own force policies for death investigation.

The NPCC national lead for homicide investigation will be writing to all Chief Constables, detailing this specific aspect of learning from the investigations into the murders committed by Port.

Forces must also ensure those leading death investigations “understand their responsibilities”.

The IOPC is assessing whether to reopen — either in full or in part — its investigation into the way the MPS handled inquiries into the four deaths.

The families of the four victims say they believe homophobic attitudes were a factor in the approach taken by the Met.

The force - in its response - told the coroner it is already making changes: "The MPS has outlined our approach to the IOPC which includes broad consultation to understand the needs and expectations of London’s LGBT+ communities.

"There are a number of elements that will need to be explored including responsibilities for community engagement, support for victims, provision of advice to MPS colleagues (e.g. investigators, leaders and
neighbourhood policing), reviewing processes and how this is resourced, supervised and performance managed."

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