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Murder 'could have been prevented'

The murder of a woman in a knife attack by her estranged husband could have been prevented by police, a watchdog has found.

The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) found "a series of serious failings" by Merseyside Police after an investigation into the force's contact with Becky McPhee before she was stabbed to death by Paul Holmes in 2012.

An inspector in charge of the search for Holmes on the day of the killing was singled out for criticism by the commission, but he will not face disciplinary action because he has retired.

Holmes, then 51, was jailed for life and ordered to spend a minimum of 18 years behind bars, after he was found guilty of murdering Ms McPhee, 47, in July 2012.

A jury heard how he smashed his way into her home in Ainsdale, near Southport, before stabbing her 21 times.

The IPCC said today that police logged 17 separate incidents involving the couple between January 2010 and January 2012.

These included an assault in July 2010 after which Ms McPhee said in a statement she believed it was only a matter of time before she was killed by her estranged husband.

Today's report said that Holmes was arrested a number of times and measures were put in place to protect Ms McPhee but Merseyside Police's responses to his repeated breaches of bail conditions were "ineffective and unco-ordinated".

It said: " When his behaviour reached a crisis point, measures to search for him were poorly co-ordinated and ineffective, leaving Becky at risk."

The commission said errors by the force included the failure of officers to follow their own domestic abuse policy and a lack of a co-ordinated response and leadership.

It concluded that this meant opportunities to take more preventative action against Holmes were missed.

The IPCC investigation also found that the case highlighted a lack of understanding or reluctance by Merseyside Police to consider harassment laws which was "a serious failing".

The commission said that officers performed tasks they were not properly trained to carry out, information was sometimes not recorded properly and handovers between different officers were inadequate.

Today's report said that there was a serious failure in the performance of the critical incident manager - inspector Grahame Abram, who was responsible for the police search for Holmes on the day Ms McPhee was murdered.

It said Mr Abram had a case to answer for misconduct but he has subsequently retired and will not have to face a hearing.

As he had served 30 years, neither the commission nor the force had the power to stop him retiring .

The report said that another inspector, who was also acting as a critical incident manager for part of the search, has also been criticised for a series of failings.

The commission said he has been dismissed from Merseyside Police for an unrelated matter.

James Dipple-Johnstone, the IPCC commissioner for Merseyside, said: "Merseyside Police missed a number of opportunities to take action that could have prevented Paul Holmes attacking Becky McPhee.

"Although the couple had been identified as high risk and measures were put in place to try to help her, when events reached a critical stage there was a lack of planning, direction and leadership.

"The behaviour of Paul Holmes matched the classic patterns of someone at the end stages of an escalating cycle of domestic violence, but this was not recognised. When it really mattered she was let down by individual officers and by Merseyside Police's poor training and procedures.

"I am encouraged that Merseyside Police has fully accepted our recommendations and acted upon them. The expectation is that through the steps the force has taken to improve training and processes in response to this tragic case, other victims of domestic violence in Merseyside will be given greater protection than Becky was."

Assistant Chief Constable Ian Pilling said: " Merseyside Police wishes to pass on its sincere condolences to Rebecca's family following her tragic death, for which Paul Holmes was convicted of murder.

"In relation to Rebecca's death, there were shortfalls on the part of Merseyside Police. In particular, there was a failure to recognise the risk posed to the victim by her killer, who had threatened to commit suicide.

"Individual officers appeared more concerned regarding the threat of self-harm on the part of Paul Holmes rather than about recognising the potential for him to pose a real and significant threat towards Rebecca."

Mr Pilling said the force fully accepted the IPCC's recommendations and many of them had already been implemented.

He said the force responds to more than 34,000 calls a year about domestic violence, or 2,800 a month.

"All incidents are unique and many are complex, and an appropriate service should be provided to every victim and their family," he said.

"Merseyside Police is determined to ensure we improve the service we provide in this respect.

"We take a robust approach to such incidents and since May this year we have made full use of the new legislation regarding the issuing of Domestic Violence Prevention Orders.

"These orders give the police new powers, which did not exist at the time of Rebecca's murder, to remove suspects from the marital or family home to give victims the time they need to seek professional advice and support."

Mr Pilling said the force had held a number of training events since Ms McPhee's death and more than 1,200 staff had been briefed.

The officer said: " Merseyside Police also recognises the comments made by the IPCC concerning two inspectors but would like to highlight that this was an independent investigation by the IPCC in which they assessed only one of those officers as having a case to answer for misconduct. The force has no power to prevent a police officer retiring in such circumstances.

"The force fully accepts all the recommendations of the IPCC report and will do all we can to ensure that they are implemented in their entirety."

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