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Errors made during MISPER inquiry ‘did not contribute’ to victim’s death

Force had 63 live missing persons cases at time mistakes were made during search for Gaia Pope-Sutherland

A Dorset officer who received a final written warning for mistakes made during the Misper search for Gaia Pope-Sutherland has since left the force it has now emerged.

Gaia, aged 19, was reported missing by a family member on 7 November 2017 in Swanage, Dorset. Her body was discovered in dense undergrowth on a cliff top by police search teams on 18 November 2017, after a walker found discarded clothing nearby.

The jury at an inquest into Gaia’s death which ended last week returned a narrative conclusion and in relation to Dorset Police recorded a number of failings admitted by the force. The inquest also concluded these errors did not cause or contribute to Gaia’s death. She is believed to have gone missing while suffering a mental health crisis.

An IOPC investigation into how the force handled the incident found the police search should have been better organised and co-ordinated - particularly in the first 24 hours - and that Gaia’s disappearance should have been given a higher initial risk assessment.

In relation to the missing person investigation, the IOPC found one officer, an acting sergeant at the time, had a case to answer for misconduct over allegations that they: failed to inform their supervisor that Gaia was missing; failed to task the night shift officers with carrying out any enquiries; and failed to update the police log. The officer received a final written warning at a misconduct meeting held by Dorset Police and has since left the force.

For 14 other officers and staff the IOPC highlighted performance issues around the importance of using Police Search Advisers (PolSAs) in high-risk cases, liaison with other agencies, and the handling of the arrests after Gaia’s disappearance.

In their search for Gaia, Dorset Police carried out physical searches, media appeals, hospital checks, house-to-house enquiries, vehicle stop checks, enquiries with people known to Gaia and people she might have encountered after going missing, online research, financial checks, premises searches, a CCTV trawl and analysis of mobile phone data.

At the time Gaia was reported missing, the force had 63 live missing person cases, 11 of which were reported on the same day as Gaia’s disappearance. Of this 11, four were assessed as high risk, and five as medium risk. Dorset Police received a further 18 missing person reports between 6.15pm on 7 November 2017 and midnight on 9 November 2017. Eight of those were assessed as high risk, and three as medium risk. In the ten days that followed, Dorset Police received a further 137 missing person reports. Of these, 41 were assessed as high risk and 61 as medium risk.

Dorset Police, DorSAR, Dorset and Wiltshire Fire and Rescue Service, and HM Coastguard covered 2.5 sq kilometres (km²) of ground on foot during the search for Gaia, and National Police Air Service (NPAS) and drone searches covered a further 40 km² of open ground. HM Coastguard searched 15km of coastline, and specialist dive teams searched ten bodies of water. The search also covered 4.5km of railway lines, and 25km of tracks and footpaths. It was estimated that more than 1,000 individual officer hours were spent searching for Gaia

The IOPC says that its investigation has led to significant changes to Dorset Police’s missing person policies and procedures.

Regional Director David Ford said: “My thoughts continue to be with Gaia’s family and friends, and I hope the information from our investigations has helped provide them with some of the answers they have sought.

“Our investigators obtained accounts from more than 100 witnesses and reviewed a substantial amount of evidence which showed the scale of the search for Gaia.  We also obtained expert advice from the Police National Search Centre (PNSC).

“While our investigation found several aspects of the search should have been better, particularly in the first 24 hours, we did not identify any evidence to suggest that a more concentrated approach would have resulted in Gaia being found alive.

“Dorset Police have advised that they have adopted our recommendations and findings in full and have made significant changes to their policy and procedures on missing person investigations, including implementing joint training on searches with other emergency services and volunteer rescue organisations.

“While we appreciate police resources are limited, we also know from many missing persons cases we have reviewed that it is really important that forces have strong local policies on escalation and missing person reviews by supervisory staff.

“The most successful missing person investigations rely on good communication between police officers and staff, as well as accurate records of all available information, decisions and rationale. These factors were critical early on in the search for Gaia.

“While we found police shortcomings over the initial period, it should be acknowledged that a large number of people, including police officers and staff along with others from the emergency and rescue services, devoted huge time and effort to finding Gaia and they are among the many who have been affected by her sad death.”

During the investigation, the IOPC says the PNSC expert advised that:

In November 2018, while the investigation was still under way the IOPC also recommended that the force:

At the end of its investigation it made the following recommendations:

The second IOPC investigation looked into complaints from Gaia’s family about how Dorset Police dealt with an earlier allegation of rape, made in December 2015. It found performance issues for four officers but found no case to answer for misconduct for any police officers or staff members.

But it found that, following Dorset Police’s decision to finalise the rape investigation as ‘no further action’, Gaia’s family should have been advised of the Victims’ Right to Review (VRR). The closing code used to finalise the investigation on police systems did not tally with search terms used by the Victims’ Bureau to identify cases suitable for VRR. Consequently, the Bureau did not write to the family to inform them of their right to request a review of the decision to take no further action in respect of the rape report.

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