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Police must give replacement phones to complainants in domestic violence cases


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Mother was killed while her mobile was taken for analysis.

Katrina O'Hara (right) and daughter Morgan O'Hara

Police will provide temporary mobile phones to people at risk of domestic violence whose own phones have been taken for investigative reasons.

The decision comes following the murder of Katrina O'Hara by her ex-partner Stuart Thomas in Blandford Forum, Dorset, on January 7 last year.

Married Thomas, 49, stabbed Ms O'Hara, 44, at the salon where she worked days after being arrested on suspicion of harassing her.

Officers had taken Ms O'Hara's mobile phone on December 30 in 2015 to investigate the alleged harassment by Thomas.

The mother-of-three was left "afraid and vulnerable" by not being able to contact police immediately if she needed to, the police watchdog said.

Following a report into contact between Dorset Police and Ms O'Hara, the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) described this as a "serious issue".

It has issued a recommendation, accepted by police chiefs, to all police forces in England and Wales to prevent the situation from occurring.

The IOPC also made recommendations to improve Dorset Police's response to domestic violence and harassment.

Graham Beesley, operations manager of the IOPC, said: "Our investigation identified serious concerns with the service provided to Ms O'Hara.

"On a number of occasions when she contacted Dorset Police, officers failed to take appropriate action in a timely manner and did not take her specific needs and vulnerabilities into account.

"We also found instances where police did not properly consider the seriousness of non-violent risk factors, including the escalating nature of the incidents between Ms O'Hara and Stuart Thomas in the months leading up to her murder."

Father-of-four Thomas had waited for Ms O'Hara to leave her work at Jock's Barbers, and chased her back into the salon where he stabbed her in the chest.

He was convicted of murder following a trial at Winchester Crown Court, where he was jailed for life with a minimum term of 26 years.

Dorset Police were in contact with Ms O'Hara and Thomas on numerous occasions before her murder, with an initial report of a physical altercation between them on November 10 in 2015.

Thomas was arrested on December 30 following an incident four days earlier in which he threatened to kill himself and Ms O'Hara.

He was interviewed and released on bail, on the condition that he did not contact Ms O'Hara. Ms O'Hara contacted police reporting potential bail breaches on January 1 and 4.

"Investigators identified a serious issue when looking into the fact that Ms O'Hara was left without a means of communication after her phone was taken by police on 30 December 2015 as they investigated alleged harassment by Thomas," the IOPC said.

"In response, the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) has written to all chief constables and domestic abuse leads across the country urging them to address the recommendation in their local policies and practice.

"The College of Policing has also agreed to revise its recently published domestic abuse advice to include text for forces to make arrangements to protect domestic abuse victims when their phones have to be seized for policing purposes."

Dorset Police accepted three IOPC recommendations, including a system to provide temporary replacement phones to people at risk, whose own phones are unavailable for policing reasons.

An acting sergeant was found guilty of misconduct for failing to investigate Ms O'Hara's report that Thomas had been harassing her and failing to risk assess and put in place suitable safeguarding measures for her.

That officer was given management advice.

Misconduct was also proven for a detective constable for not taking prompt and appropriate action following a report that Thomas may have breached his bail conditions.

The officer was given a written warning.

A detective inspector and a police constable were dealt with for unsatisfactory performance, while three further constables, a sergeant and a member of police staff had no case to answer for misconduct.

Mark Callaghan, assistant chief constable at Dorset Police, said: "We have taken careful account of the recommended organisational learning, which has already been incorporated into our processes and training.

"We have also noted the findings and recommendations to all agencies of the domestic homicide review and will ensure that we continue to work in collaboration with our partners to minimise risks to victims of domestic abuse."

The force implemented a process for recording and processing all types of bail breaches, and changed call handling procedures following the death.

Ms O'Hara's children said they were "deeply upset by the failings identified" in both the IOPC report and Dorset Community Safety Partnership's Domestic Homicide Review.

"For us, they highlight that our mother's death could have been prevented and this only makes our grief even harder to bear," Kyle Stark, 27, Dean Stark, 25 and Morgan O'Hara, 18, said.

"Our faith in policing has been shaken to the core, and of course we're disappointed that Dorset Police haven't taken stronger action against the officers involved.

"But we're speaking out not to criticise the police, but to call for change in how all police forces and other agencies handle domestic abuse.

"We're victims of police cuts. Every force needs to have the funding to be able to deliver the right training to all officers and support staff, and to then assess how effective that training actually is, otherwise there will be more avoidable deaths."

The family said they hoped Ms O'Hara's murder would serve as a "wake-up call" to "not brush domestic violence issues under the carpet".

They described grandmother-of-three Ms O'Hara as a "pillar of the community" and said she was "everything a Mum should be".

Karl Griffin, a legal adviser at Hudgell Solicitors, said the family would now take time to "digest the findings" of the reports.

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This is very sad but when I read alot of these reviews I default to the question of 'despite the recommendations, would it have prevented the incident in question?'

Unfortunately in my opinion most if the time the answer is No.

I've read of cases where officers missed an opportunity to arrest an offender for a low level matter prior to a domestic homicide. Officers lose their jobs or are disciplined but once you work in the system you realise that the offender would almost certainly have spent in the region of 12 hours in custody before being released with a court date...free to carry out any actions they had planned.

Even from those at the very heart of the CJS there seems to be a deliberate ignorance to the very real fact that we can't stop people from doing terrible things most of the time. We can take steps to disrupt their opportunities, target harden the victim and complete harm reduction safety planning but we don't yet have the ability to see into the future and instantly imprison people before they commit horrendous acts.

In the immediate case - the headline is the provision of a mobile phone but the reality is that a police officer attending from the point of the victims 999 call would likely be 15 minutes or greater. So in terms of the wider preventability of the case it ranks quite far down on the list of factors.

Similarly, whilst still a failing in hindsight, the acting sergeant's inaction probably didn't affect the outcome to any great degree.

The largest factor, I might suggest, would be the breach of bail conditions which depending on the risk assessment level and circumstances of the breach might reasonably have led to the ability for an arrest and remand application. Even then, I would query what proportion of bail breaches result in a remand to prison as opposed to simply an overnighter in police custody?



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Quite agree. 

We have all this safeguarding stuff we talk about, but fundamentally we can't actually stop someone going to an address and doing something. 

We can give advice, phones, bail conditions etc etc. But none of that actually stops a committed person going to an address and doing something wrong. 

Bail conditions are worthless on several fronts, they don't deter and even breached, don't lead to a remand. 

But the hindsight police are very well staffed and always catch their man. 

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This may sound harsh, but were neither Miss O'Hara nor her immediate family in a position to buy her a £10 PAYG temporary phone?

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I can see the reasoning behind this suggestion though. I think if a phone has been seized from a victim then they are likely to be traumatised already, for the victim to have to go sourcing even the cheapest option would, I think, be unfair. The way I read it they would be loan phones so not ongoing expenses.    

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I agree with David, if we've taken their phone then some arrangement ought to be made either to keep them safe while it's downloaded quickly or to replace it temporarily. The job don't actually pay for TecSOS phones anyway, I believe they're grant funded, so it's not creating much of a financial burden.

Just giving people phones for the sake of it though when they're perfectly capable of buying their own should only ever be done in exceptional circumstances.

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I know we don't have all the facts and local policies may vary but I can't see why they seized the victim's phone in the first place for a harassment/ threats to kill case. We just take photos of text messages or call logs and record voicemail. We then advise them to save them.  CPS have never asked me to download a phone for that.

Edited by Sierra Lima
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Already done for victims of sexual offences who voluntary hand over their phones, can't see why its a headline,

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Tragic case but I would question whether having a phone would have prevented this?

Edited by DB11
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Tragic case but I would question whether having a phone would have prevented this?

I don’t think it will have prevented it, however it would have certainly mitigated the risk a bit. I’m sure that’s all they’re after. As if a replacement mobile phone was in place there’s reason to believe the alarm could - COULD - have been raised early enough to prevent a fatality.
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