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M9 crash deaths prompt urgent review of Police Scotland call handling

BY Libby Brooks – GUARDIAN 
Sunday 12 July 2015 

Scottish justice secretary launches review after officers from force centralised in 2013 and since subjected to severe cuts failed to respond to report of crash

Chief Constable Stephen House’s assertion that Police Scotland’s error was down to ‘individual failure’ will come under intense scrutiny.

The Scottish justice secretary has launched an urgent review of all police call handling in Scotland in response to the deaths of two young people after officers failed to respond to a report of a motorway crash for more than three days.

Shortly before the review was announced on Sunday, a prominent human rights lawyer said Police Scotland faced its greatest crisis since its creation over the force’s handling of the incident.

Lamara Bell, who had been placed in a medically induced coma after suffering a head injury and broken bones in the crash and kidney damage as a result of dehydration, died on Sunday morning at the Queen Elizabeth University hospital in Glasgow.


Bell, 25, who has two young children, lay undiscovered from early last Sunday until Wednesday morning next to the body of her boyfriend John Yuill after the couple’s blue Renault Clio left the road on the M9 southbound near junction nine at Bannockburn.

Police Scotland is facing a barrage of criticism after it emerged that a call reporting the crash on the morning it happened was not entered into its systems.

The failure was immediately referred to Scotland’s police investigations and review commissioner (PIRC), which has begun an investigation.

Scotland’s justice secretary, Michael Matheson, said that he had formally directed Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland (HMICS) to undertake a “thorough and speedy” review of all police call handling.

The head of Police Scotland, Chief Constable Sir Stephen House, described the catastrophic error as the result of “individual failure” in a statement on Friday in which he publicly apologised to both families.

Serious questions have been raised, however, about whether the failure was the result of deeper and more systemic problems within Police Scotland, which was centralised into a single force in 2013 and has since seen severe cuts in control room staff.

The Glasgow-based lawyer Aamer Anwar cautioned against scapegoating control room staff. “This is an issue that impacts not just on the families of those involved but also on the wider public. The [police] unions in this country have been saying for some time the cutbacks, the redundancies that have been taking place, the centralisation of the system may lead to the loss of life,” he said.

Anwar, who is currently representing the family of Sheku Bayoh, a Sierra Leonean man who died in police custody in May, added: “The concern that I would have, although I cannot speak on behalf of the families, is whether Stephen House’s indifference to cutbacks to call-handling service and the centralisation of the system has deprived the victims of their right to life.

“That’s a very serious question that has to be looked into, whether Police Scotland acted with deliberate indifference or gross negligence in delaying the search. Then I think Police Scotland and the chief constable faces the biggest crisis since its birth.”

It was only on Wednesday morning, more than three days after the crash, that police discovered the couple still in their vehicle in a field beside the motorway after another report that a car had left the road.

John Yuill and Lamara Bell Facebook Twitter Pinterest
John Yuill and Lamara Bell. Photograph: Police Scotland/PA
Concerns are being raised about the accountability of the force and whether PIRC has sufficient powers and resources to carry out an inquiry on the scale required.

Noting that the PIRC’s resources were already deployed to the Sheku Bayoh inquiry, Anwar said: “PIRC is not up to the job. They are already stretched to the limit.”

“What I don’t want to see is PIRC itself become the scapegoat when Police Scotland and the government themselves need to realise that there are fundamental questions that need to be addressed, and that those who are responsible for call-handling have been asking for some time that they be addressed. There is no point in individual police officers or call handlers being scapegoated.”

Willie Rennie, the leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, has written to Matheson, calling for a wider and independent inquiry to investigate the impact of police control-room closures, workload pressure, reports of a targets culture and low staff morale.

Rennie was contacted a month ago by a police officer who detailed a catalogue of failings in Police Scotland’s handling of emergency calls. In the email, which Rennie shared with the Sunday Times, the whistleblower wrote: “It saddens me that Police Scotland is about the implode, such is the level of crisis it is in. The morale is at its lowest and nobody with the organisation is tackling the problems.”

Scottish Labour’s justice spokeswoman, Elaine Murray, said Bell’s death reinforced the need for an inquiry that looked “not just at what went wrong in this specific case, but also assess wider issues like the impact of cuts to services on the ability of the police do their job properly”.

Following confirmation of Bell’s death by her brother Martin, John Yuill’s family said that their thoughts and prayers were with her family. In a statement, they said: “We are devastated by the sad news this morning. The families have messaged each other this morning and our thoughts are with John and Lamara’s children at this very sad time.”

It is believed that Yuill, the co-owner of a caravan recycling business near Stirling and father of two young sons, did not survive the impact of the crash. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

In a series of emotional posts, Martin Bell described his sister’s deteriorating condition. After surgery on Friday to deal with a buildup of fluid around her brain and further scans on Saturday, the family was told that “the front of her brain is basically shutting down”.

“She is fighting it until the end,” Bell wrote. “[It] is hard to believe she could get worse … you can start down at her pinky toe and work your way up to her head and you will find a cut, bruise, graze or broken bone on every part of her body … She has been giving it her all for a week now and the first three days she had no medical care whatsoever. It was a miracle she was still alive when she was found on Wednesday.”

On Saturday, he reported that she was receiving treatment for a head wound that had become infected. “She had difficulties with her breathing through the night but it’s ok … Can’t see her coming off the ventilator for another while … She has been taken off the ward and put into a room because her wound on the back of her head is badly infected, but she is getting antibiotics.”

Bell said he had chosen to make his posts public so the media and the police could read what his family were going through: “I want them to see how a huge error by a senior officer has absolutely devastated us. It feels like we have had our hearts ripped out; any time I see her my heart sinks to the bottom of my stomach and it’s not getting easier.”

He thanked the public for their support. “It’s not just been local support, it’s been over the full UK … I actually can’t say thanks enough for that and when Lamara wakes up and is able to read the love, I know this will make her smile so much.”

Anwar said that crisis engulfing Police Scotland was the result of an ongoing failure to respond adequately to public criticism.

“There is a public perception based on the way that Police Scotland has conducted itself. There seems to be lack of accountability, transparency and a pig-headed attitude that they can do no wrong.”

“They have been continually tested and continually failed when people have tried to hold them to account, whether it’s been the case of [police carrying] guns on the street, stop and search or simply being asked to answer questions in the case of Sheku Bayok, their kneejerk response is to circle the wagons.”

Bayoh, a gas engineer and father of two, died of suspected asphyxia after he was detained by up to nine officers who were responding to reports he had brandished a knife and attacked cars in Kirkcaldy, Fife.

Anwar said: “Police Scotland is the most powerful organisation in Scotland. Why shouldn’t it be held to account?”