There has been a lot of criticism of the police in the media today in relation to the investigation into the disappearance of the former EastEnders actress, Sian Blake and her two children, Zachary (8yrs) and Amon (4yrs). The Mirror has been particularly critical with a headline (“How did police searching for ex-EastEnders actress miss three bodies in her back garden?”) which implies gross negligence on the part of police, as if they’d somehow managed to ignore three bodies lying openly in the garden. Although only some of the facts are in the public domain, and although some of the facts are not substantiated from official sources, I believe there are some points which should be made.
Timeline: Many media sources have published a timeline of events (such as ITV News). There is general agreement that so far as is known, the last time Sian and her children were seen alive was on 13 December, leaving relatives in the Waltham Forest area. There is also general agreement that the first involvement of police was on 16 December when they visited the home she apparently shared with her partner (Arthur Simpson-Kent) in Erith. This suggests to me that the information about their last sighting alive being on 13 December has been obtained subsequently.
There is also general agreement that the ONLY time the police spoke to or saw Arthur Simpson-Kent was on that first occasion on 16 December.
There is then a suggestion from some sources (such as this article from the Daily Mail) that police returned to the Erith house on 18 December (two days after their first visit) and got no answer. They broke a window and searched the house before leaving.
Sky News reports that Arthur Simpson-Kent (and NOT Sian and her children) was reported as a “high-risk” missing person at this stage. It is unclear exactly when Sian and her children were formally reported as missing, but it seems to have been around this time too and the Independent reports that THEY were NOT classed as high-risk at that time.
There are reports from some neighbours in Erith to the effect that police then returned to the house on two or three more occasions but got no answer.
There are various reports of neighbours seeing Sian loading bag into her car, of text messages being received from her phone, of suggestions that she may have gone to Colchester or Cambridge and that she may have taken the two boys away for a last Christmas alone with them as her motor neurone disease was getting worse. None of these reports appear to be from official sources but I suspect at least some of them will probably turn out to be correct. What IS sure is that the police WILL have been conducting various enquiries across the Christmas period to try to establish their whereabouts and this WILL have involved speaking to family, friends and neighbours and so some or all of this information found by reporters WILL have been found, and followed up as far as possible, by the police too).
On 1 January the Metropolitan Police made their first formal appeal for information relating to the disappearance of Sian and the two children. It was widely reported in the media (such as on ITV News)
The next significant development seems to have been the finding of Ms Blake’s car in Bethnal Green on 3 January. That was plainly suspicious as it did not fit with any of the hypotheses that Sian had gone away with the boys for Christmas and, as the time itself was becoming of concern, this led to the police making the enquiry a homicide investigation.
On 4 January the homicide investigation team took over the case and began a FAR more detailed search of the house in Erith and on 5 January the bodies were found. The bodies were partially decomposed according to several reports (such as Metro) suggesting that they had been there some time. Formal identification has not yet been made and post mortem examinations to establish cause of death were due to take place today.
The Metropolitan Police Service Professional Standards Department is looking at the sequence of events to establish whether any mistakes were made or opportunities missed (this is fairly standard practice in serious cases such as this where it is plain that there is potential for different decisions to have been made at different times in the investigation). The matter has also been referred to the Independent Police Complaints Commission for them to decide whether or not they want to take over the investigation into police actions.
Ironically, the Mirror has published another article on the case in which it highlights what it describes as “six unanswered questions” relating to the case. The unknown facts that they identify undermine the certainty with which they claim in their other article that the police made mistakes. They are also not “unanswered” as far as the police are concerned: the police will know the answers to many, if not all of the questions they raise.
The initial report: Several reports (such as The Sun) say that police were initially contacted by the Samaritans. Some others (such as the BBC) say that a family member reported Sian and the two children missing on 16 December. What is clear is that when police spoke to Arthur Simpson-Kent on 16 December, ALL they had was the initial report of either concerns for HIS welfare or of family members reporting Sian and the two boys missing.
Police Missing Person procedure: The police receive hundreds of missing person reports every day across the UK. If you go to any of the 43 police forces you will find that they have maybe four or five actually open for active investigation at any one time. In city areas that number is very much larger and in the Metropolitan Police you will often find that number open on each of the 32 Borough divisions. The VAST majority of missing persons turn up unharmed within a day or two.
The initial response to a Missing Person report will be by uniformed officers from the Response Team which is on duty dealing with emergency and other calls for assistance. The first officer obtains as much information as possible from the informant (in this context meaning the person making the report) and carries out whatever enquiries are possible and necessary at the scene from which the report is made. This will usually involve a search of the home of the missing person looking for them as an alive missing person. The officers will also check police databases to see if there is anything known about the missing person, or the informant or location which appears to be relevant.
They then carry out a risk assessment process and assign the case to one of three levels: Low Risk, Medium Risk or High Risk. In low risk cases initial police action may be limited to circulating the persons details on the Police National Computer in case they come to the notice of other officers. In medium and high risk cases additional enquiries will be immediately commenced. These are likely to be limited in the case of medium risk cases (perhaps starting to make enquiries with other friends and family or at other places the missing person is likely to be found and perhaps circulating details of the missing person to other officers in areas where they may be so that they can actively be sought by patrolling officers. In high-risk cases, everything possible, including searches of open spaces where the missing person may be, media appeals, use of technical means to track mobile phones, use of social media and bank accounts, etc., will be commenced immediately.
The decision of the reporting officer on how to categorise the missing person case is checked by a supervisor (sergeant and / or Inspector) who can upgrade the case if necessary. As a matter of policy, no Missing Person case involving a child should be classified as Low Risk and so Sian and the boys should have been at least medium-risk. High-risk categorisation is where there are immediate concerns for the health and welfare of the missing person or where they present a threat to the health and welfare of others.
A Missing Person enquiry, even a high-risk one, usually continues to be dealt with by uniformed officers, often from a specialist Missing Persons Unit which many Boroughs and Forces have now introduced to deal with the high volumes of cases they receive although they may seek advice from a senior investigating officer (a detective, usually a Detective Inspector or Detective Chief Inspector) in cases where crime is considered a potential explanation. Cases are only transferred to the Major Investigation Teams (MIT teams, responsible for homicide and other very serious criminal investigations) when there are reasonable grounds to suspect serious crime.
Police powers to search premises: Despite what is suggested by the (often utterly irresponsible) media, the police do NOT have unlimited powers. When they use the powers that they DO have, we often hear choruses of criticism from the media about them using them excessively (e.g. the never ending criticism of police using their stop and search powers or even the arrest of journalist suspects in connection with the phone hacking and bribery enquiries).
The principal police search power available in Missing Person cases is from s.17 Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE). Section 17(1)(e) allows police to enter and search premises if they have reasonable grounds to believe that it is necessary to save life or limb. This power is often used in cases where people haven’t been seen for some time and it is believed that they may be lying ill or injured in locked premises. Note that the officers must have reasonable grounds to “believe” rather than the lower level of “suspect”.
Other than that, the police would not have ANY powers to search premises in the absence of grounds to suspect criminal offences. Once they DO have grounds to suspect a criminal offence there are more powers: they can get a search warrant for the premises from a Court (under s.8 PACE or other Acts) to search for evidence. In order to grant a search warrant, the Court would need to be satisfied that there were reasonable grounds to believe that there is evidence If they are seeking to arrest a suspect they have reasonable grounds to believe is in the premises then s.17 PACE allows entry to search for the person in order to arrest them. Once they have arrested them (but not until they have, and only if it is an indictable (more serious) offence), then s.32 PACE allows them to search the place where they were when arrested for evidence of that offence and, with an Inspector’s authority unless there are exceptional circumstances, s.18 PACE allows them to search any premises “occupied or controlled by” the person under arrest for evidence of that offence or similar or connected offences.
The police CAN search premises with the written permission of the occupier and this is often done in Missing Person cases where the occupiers of the premises are usually seeking to assist the police in any way they can in finding their missing loved one.
In ALL cases, however, PACE Code of Practice B applies to how searches must be conducted and it very tightly restricts the EXTENT of the search to that which is NECESSARY. PACE Code B, paragraph 6.9 reads:
Premises may be searched only to the extent necessary to achieve the
purpose of the search, having regard to the size and nature of
whatever is sought.
Police powers to seize passport from a person: The police have NO general powers which would allow them to seize a passport from a person unless there are reasonable grounds to suspect that that person has committed a criminal offence AND they have been arrested AND the passport is evidence of the offence AND it is necessary to retain the passport as evidence or for examination during the investigation. In such cases there are two powers under PACE allowing the suspect to be searched after arrest (s.32 and s.54), s.19 PACE allows the evidence to be seized and s.22 allows it to be retained.
There is NO power available to the police to seize the passport of a person to prevent them leaving the country unless there are reasonable grounds to suspect them of an offence AND they have been arrested AND they have been released on police bail, either to return to the police station if further enquiries are necessary or to go to Court if they have been charged with an offence. In these circumstances, various provisions allow the surrender of a passport to be made a condition of bail being granted.
In the case of Ghani v Jones (1970) the police had (coincidentally) seized the passports of suspects in a murder case to prevent them leaving the country whilst investigations continued. The Court held that this was unlawful: the passports could only be seized by the police in this way if they were evidence. (The decision of the Court was reflected in the provisions in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 fourteen years later when, for the first time, many police powers were put into a statutory form in an Act of Parliament).
As with searching premises, if a person voluntarily surrenders a passport then the police may retain it but if the person changes their mind and asks for it back then it must be provided to them, so this is a pretty meaningless factor.
ANALYSIS: As I said at the start, there are limited facts in the public domain and there are a variety of different unsubstantiated facts in various media reports). I don’t engage in speculation but there are some comments that can legitimately be made. I do NOT make these suggesting that they actually happened, just that they are possibilities based on the facts and reports which are in the public domain:
- It is very unclear how this investigation first came to the notice of the police. There appear to be two possibilities:(a) The family of Sian Blake reported her and the two children missing and, as a result, they went to the address in Erith and spoke to Arthur Simpson-Kent; or
(b) A third party, possibly the Samaritans, reported concerns for the welfare of Arthur Simpson-Kent and / or Sian and the two boys and, as a result, they went to the address in Erith and spoke to him.
In neither of these scenarios would the police at that time appear to have had ANY grounds to suspect any harm had come to Sian or the boys and hence they would appear to have had NO grounds to suspect Arthur Simpson-Kent of any crime and so there would be no power (or reason) to arrest him, search his premises (other than with his consent) or to seize his passport.
- If, as Sky News reports, Arthur Simpson-Kent was treated as a high-risk missing person from the start himself then this strongly suggests the second option, with the fact that Sian and the two boys were missing too being something which was subsequently established and actioned.
- The lack of a media appeal in relation to Sian and the two boys prior to 1 January suggests that the Independent may well be right in reporting that they were initially treated as medium-risk themselves. The various information about texts being received, potential travel to Colchester or Cambridge, the possibility of them going away to have a last Christmas together, etc. would, if it had become known to the police, tend to support that classification, especially if the whole incident had begun with concerns for the welfare of Arthur Simpson-Kent.
- The reason for the police trying to contact Arthur Simpson-Kent again after 16 December are unclear. But it does appear sure that on 18 December they forced entry to the house in Erith and carried out a search. As this was still a Missing Person enquiry (in relation to Sian and the two boys) and / or a “concern for welfare” issue in relation to him, that search would by law be restricted to looking for live human beings or those who had collapsed and were ill, injured or dead. The law would NOT permit officers to carry out a more thorough search, lifting floorboards, digging up gardens, etc. at that stage.It seems from the photographs of the police activity in the garden that the bodies were found towards the end of the garden and that it contained a variety of lawn, flower beds and trees. Even the final search which DID locate the bodies is reported to have followed indications made by a dog specially trained to indicate human remains and so it doesn’t seem that the graves were immediately obvious such that they would arouse suspicions.
- If Sian and the two boys were classified as medium-risk Missing Persons over the Christmas period, then concerns would start to rise again after Christmas passed and New Year approached. It seems that the police were alert to this escalation in concerns as they issued a major media appeal for information on 1 January. This suggests that the case may have been re-classified as high-risk at this stage.The finding of the car, in a inexplicable location, on 3 January would be evidence of possible crime and I am not surprised that the case was transferred to the Major Investigation Team the following day.
- Having now got grounds to suspect a crime, the police were in a far stronger position in relation to their powers to search the Erith premises and, I suspect on a warrant issued under s.8 PACE, they carried out a far more intensive search of the premises, using specially trained officers and dogs, resulting in them rapidly finding three bodies suspected to be Sian and the two boys.
- The main issue concerning the Professional Standards Department and / or the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) will be the actions taken in relation to Sian and the two boys and / or Arthur Simpson-Kent. They will know EXACTLY what information the police had at each stage and they will therefore be able to make a proper judgment as to whether the right decisions were made.
It is a matter of professional judgment, based on the best possible information available at the time, as to how to classify a missing person investigation and what lines of enquiry to pursue at which stage. Old detectives (like me) will tell you that “you can only go on what you know” – a pithy saying which draws a distinction between decisions made with the benefit of hindsight and those made on the basis of the available information at the time.
Conclusion: Overall, on the face of the facts available in the public domain at this time, I have a favoured option as to what will transpire to have happened but it would not be right to share that. A number of different explanations are available and the enquiry must keep an open mind and only exclude them when the evidence is there to do so. I suspect that the police will already have significant amounts of evidence – from technical enquiries on mobile phones, from the post mortem examinations and elsewhere – which will enable them to do that.
I do not immediately see anything which shows that the police have made any mistakes – there are facts and reports of facts which could well justify the actions taken as I have explained. But it is necessary to know ALL the facts before making a judgment on that and that is not a mater for the media or the public at this stage.
What IS sure is that the police officers, from the constable(s) who dealt with the original report(s) to their supervisors and managers who made decisions in relation to the Missing Person enquiries, will have their decisions reviewed in great detail by the PSD and / or IPCC. If they are found to have erred then they will be considered for criminal or disciplinary action.
That is in great contrast with the media – especially the Mirror – who, based ENTIRELY on hindsight, have already found them guilty of gross negligence and stated that they failed to use powers they simply did not have available to them. Such inaccurate reporting, especially of the powers available to the police which are well-known to the media and readily available to any competent journalist or editor, causes serious damage to public confidence in the police and cannot be justified by the facts as known. Such ill-informed and inaccurate reporting is appalling. If only there were some meaningful way of holding them to account for their plainly-evidenced incompetence…