Police could be missing murders because they are still failing to investigate deaths properly nearly a decade after the blunders in catching serial killer Stephen Port, a watchdog has warned.
The risk of homicides not being identified by the Metropolitan Police is “way higher than it should be”, with some officers admitting they are relying on “luck” to identify links between deaths, inspectors found.
History “could repeat itself” if officers do not grasp basic standards of investigation when faced with an unexpected or unexplained death, His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) said.
The watchdog’s report, commissioned last year and published on Thursday, found the force was yet to learn lessons from its “calamitous litany of failures” in the Port case and must urgently improve.
Basic errors by a string of detectives left Port free to carry out the series of murders as well as drug and sexually assault more than a dozen other men.
Anthony Walgate, Gabriel Kovari, Daniel Whitworth and Jack Taylor all died at the hands of Port, who drugged them with overdoses of GHB and dumped their bodies near his flat in Barking, east London, between June 2014 and September 2015.
Inquest jurors found that “fundamental failures” by the police were likely to have contributed to the deaths of three of the men.
Families of three of Port’s victims received payouts from the Met after settling civil claims and the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) is reinvestigating the force over its initial handling of the murders.
Inspector of Constabulary Matt Parr said: “The Met has not learned enough from their failings eight years ago, and starkly, what went wrong there could happen again.”
There were “glaringly obvious” links between the Port murders that Met officers failed to identify.
“Had the police conducted a professional and thorough investigation after the first victim, Anthony, was murdered it’s entirely possible – likely even – that Gabriel, Daniel and Jack would still have been alive: a dreadful failing.
“It is very difficult to explain how such obvious murders, linked murders, were completely missed at the time.”
While there have been some improvements since, Mr Parr said Met police officers still admit they’re relying on “luck to identify links between deaths at a local level”.
On a typical day, the Met is called to attend 30 unexpected deaths in London, amounting to around 10,000 a year, with the force dealing with around two or three homicides a week.
“The vast majority are – as they initially were in Port – discounted and not recognised as a homicide,” Mr Parr said.
Considering the number of unexpected deaths, “it seems to me likely, if not certain, that among the deaths that they do not classify as homicide, that there are some”, Mr Parr said, adding: “Even eight years after Port they’re still not tight enough and the risk of a homicide being misidentified and not recognised is way higher than it should be.”
Mr Taylor’s sisters, Donna and Jenny Taylor, said learning that basic oversights continue is “simply appalling” and they once again feel “so badly let down” as they called for a change in “attitudes”.
In a statement, they said: “Once again we are reading a report which highlights continuing failings in the Met Police which will put lives at risk.
“The reality is that if police had investigated things properly, Jack could still be here with us today.”
Solicitor Neil Hudgell, who represented the families of Port’s victims at the inquest, renewed calls for a public inquiry into the case and for the Government to “step in and oversee proper change across this force”.
“If that doesn’t happen, more serious offenders will slip through the net, and more innocent lives will be lost due to the most basic of policing failures,” he added.
Assistant Commissioner Louisa Rolfe said she was “troubled by the findings” and the Met had “started a process” of reviewing unexpected death cases to make sure “we have not missed things”.
“It is important we look again at this area to see what more we need to do to support families through such difficult times.”
The HMICFRS inspection between May and September last year reviewed 100 death probes carried out by the Met and found evidence of poor training, supervision and handling of property and evidence, “dreadful” record keeping, a “deluge” of confusing guidance and policies for officers as well as “inadequate” intelligence and crime analysis, Mr Parr said.
There was a lack of professional curiosity displayed by some officers and examples of vital evidence only being discovered at mortuaries because officers had “not even looked in the pockets” of somebody found dead.
Some of the problems were down to “laziness”, according to the report.
The force’s “resources are stretched” and there is a young, inexperienced workforce but that “doesn’t absolve the Met of its responsibility to meet, frankly, basic standards of investigation”, Mr Parr added.
Inspectors considered whether homophobia explained why the Met did not investigate Port’s killings properly, but said it was “impossible to reach any definitive conclusions”.
The report did, however, say there “were and still are homophobic officers” at the force and that there was a “lack of understanding of the lifestyle of those they were investigating”.
London mayor Sadiq Khan, said: “Every Londoner – irrespective of sexuality, gender or race – has the right to have their allegations of crime taken seriously by police and the Met must ensure the quality of their initial investigations is of a higher standard.
“Sir Mark Rowley and the new team at the top of the Met have assured me that they are committed to reform and getting the basics right.”
Barking MP Dame Margaret Hodge branded the findings “absolutely depressing”, adding: “It should not have taken this long for the Met to take action.”
The IOPC said it had now completed a “review of a significant amount of documentation” and was not able to comment further but expects to be able to provide an update on its probe “in the near future”.