Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 19 April 2014

A dreadful list of errors, 13 officers criticised, yet the PSNI refuses to say what action it has taken

Mother of man in botched case demands details

Mrs Fenton called the police handling of the case ‘horrific’
Mrs Fenton called the police handling of the case ‘horrific’

The PSNI is facing growing demands to reveal the disciplinary action taken against a number of police officers who blundered their way through a missing person investigation.

Thirteen officers were singled out for criticism in a damning report by the Police Ombudsman for a "persistent failure of professional duty" during an investigation into the disappearance of 22-year-old James Fenton from a hospital ward where he was being treated for depression.

The Bangor man's body was discovered 10 weeks later – just 40 metres from where he was last seen alive. Due to the length of time that had passed, a post mortem was unable to establish how James died.

Following Police Ombudsman recommendations, the PSNI launched misconduct proceedings against the 13 officers. It is understood that one officer has since successfully appealed.

Despite requests from Mr Fenton's family, the PSNI has refused to disclose details of the disciplinary action taken.

Mr Fenton's mother Janice said she deserves to know how the PSNI has reprimanded the officers who made "mistake after mistake".

And members of the Northern Ireland Policing Board have criticised the PSNI for its "cloak of secrecy" and said it is in the public interest to reveal the information.

However, the PSNI last night insisted that individual sanctions recommended by the Police Ombudsman cannot be discussed as it is personal data.

"The Police Ombudsman's office made recommendations in respect of 13 officers. The PSNI, having received the file and considered the Police Ombudsman's recommendations, have implemented all the misconduct recommendations made. We can't go into further detail on this matter as it is personal/sensitive data," a spokesman said.

Three PSNI Constables, four Sergeants and six Inspectors/Chief Inspectors were subject to misconduct proceedings for a catalogue of failings, including a failure to ensure an adequate search, failure to identify lines of enquiry and being rude and unsympathetic to Mr Fenton's worried family.

The Ombudsman is now believed to be reviewing the policy of not revealing details of disciplinary sanctions imposed on officers.

"It is important for us to know how seriously the PSNI has taken this. It is not a witch hunt, but they do not seem to realise the devastation and destruction that has been caused by their failures in this case. We do not understand why the police will not tell us what action has been taken," said Ms Fenton.

SDLP Policing Board member Conall McDevitt said it is an issue of public confidence.

"This is something that the Policing Board is going to have to engage with the PSNI about. They should be able to give a fuller picture to the public in cases like this without compromising individual officers. It is not right that there is no information available. There should not be a cloak of secrecy," Mr McDevitt added.

Ross Hussey, UUP Policing Board member, said he can see no reason why this information is not made public.

"This is something that the PSNI is going to have to review. In most other jobs people would know the level of disciplinary action taken, whether it was a reprimand, a demotion, a reduction in wages. In these circumstances, in such a public case, there is the public interest there to reveal this information," he said.

And DUP board member Jonathan Craig added: "This is about accountability."

"I understand that there is an appeals mechanism and the PSNI may not want to divulge this information in case it should change on appeal.

"But once the appeals mechanism is exhausted I cannot see why the public should not be made aware of action taken. The public has a right to know."

In her own words: Janice Fenton tells why she needs transparency and closure

The least that we deserve is to know how the PSNI has dealt with the officers who let us down so badly.

We have been advised that level of information will not be revealed to us, but that is unfair. We need to know just how seriously the PSNI has taken this. It should not be a secret.

I have not received any apology from the PSNI. On February 7, I received a letter from Chief Superintendent Nigel Grimshaw saying that he was aware the Police Ombudsman report was due to soon be released and that it would represent an important development for me and my family. He said that if I felt it would be of any assistance to discuss it with him he would make himself available to meet with me.

That is not an apology and to me it was more than two years too late. We will never, ever, get any closure on this but a proper apology would be nice and some understanding of the devastation and destruction that all of this has caused.

The way they handled this case was horrific. We could have found James ourselves if the police had only been honest with us from the start. They told us that the area had been thoroughly searched and we believed them. But they had not searched thoroughly. If they had only been truthful we would have been out there ourselves looking.

At one point my father was standing just 10 metres away from where James was lying. I cannot put into words how much that thought tortures me every day and night. My poor son was lying so close and we didn't know.

Nobody can understand how I'm haunted every day thinking of my son lying there on his own, so cold, with no cover or shelter for 10 weeks. That is my life sentence and I will take that to the grave with me. It is my living nightmare.

From start to finish mistakes were made by the police and they refused to listen to me. It was so frustrating when they wouldn't listen to me when I told them that James would not have stayed away for so long.

We also had to organise our own media and put up our own missing posters. We were told that they could not get any media interest in our case as there were more important things on the news at that time and the media didn't have enough airtime or space to do anything.

We had no idea that the media had asked the police if they could interview us. When I found out that the police had turned down interview requests without speaking with us I was very angry. We had been left to believe that nobody really cared about what we were going through.

We were brought up to believe that the police are there to help you. I believed they would do everything they could to help. But when we needed them, when we asked for their help, they let us down. I have no confidence in the PSNI any more.

It would help a little if they would just be open and let us know what happened to those 13 police officers recommended by the Police Ombudsman for disciplinary action.

Disciplinary action could mean anything. Those officers need to realise how seriously all of this has affected us as a family and the damage that has been done.

We are reliving this all over again now and we are all so very upset. The only thing is, the PSNI has said that lessons have been learned from our case so at least no other family will have to go through what we did if one of their loved ones goes missing.

As told to Deborah McAleese

Police handling of interview requests blasted as 'outrageous interference'

By Deborah McAleese

The PSNI has been heavily criticised for refusing requests from journalists to interview James Fenton's family, despite the family's desire to make public appeals through the media.

The executive director of the Society of Editors, Bob Satchwell, said it was an "outrageous interference" by the PSNI to decline media requests without consulting with Mr Fenton's family, especially as they had made it clear they were keen to engage the media in the investigation.

In a complaint to the Police Ombudsman, Mr Fenton's family said they believed police had failed to provide proper media support during the course of the missing person enquiry. They said they had to create and distribute their own posters and arrange their own media interviews.

During the Police Ombudsman's investigation into the police handling of Mr Fenton's disappearance it emerged that police declined media requests to interview the family and did not explain to the family about the approach they had taken.

Mr Satchwell said this appears to be "a very extreme case of interference between members of the public involved in issues of this kind and the media".

He added: "The police have been making their own decisions for whatever reason but not explaining them to the family. That is not the job of the police and it is outrageous they should interfere in this way."

Mr Satchwell also warned there is "a danger in this kind of interference".

"The media will go around the police and knock on people's doors at a time when that might not be the most helpful thing for the people involved or the police.

"The police should look at what they have done in this case. It is not their job to interfere between a family and the media.

"The police should be doing what the family wants and trying to help the media do its job," he said.

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