Failings identified in how the MPS handled missing persons reports for murdered sisters
The Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) has been advised to apologise to the family of Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry for failings identified by an Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) investigation, into the way it handled missing persons reports about the sisters.
We found the level of service provided to their family and friends over the weekend following their disappearance was unacceptable.
As a result, an MPS inspector and a civilian staff member must undertake unsatisfactory performance procedures to address and improve their professional capabilities. A call handler will also receive management action after they referred to a missing person as a ‘suspect’ and appeared dismissive during a call with a friend of one of the sisters. The caller contacted the MPS for advice after a pair of glasses had been found close to the area where their bodies were subsequently found.
Between the evening of Saturday 6 June and Sunday 7 June last year (2020), family members and friends reported Nicole and Bibaa missing and informed the MPS this was completely out of character for them. They had not been seen since Friday, 5 June, when they attended Fryent Park, Wembley, to celebrate Ms Henry’s birthday.
Shortly before 9pm on 6 June the first call was made to the MPS from a friend of Ms Smallman, asking if the police had any information on her whereabouts. At 9pm another friend reported Ms Smallman missing to the MPS, after which a missing person investigation was started. A third call was made at 10.24pm reporting both women missing. Family and friends were advised police would deploy resources to conduct enquiries into their whereabouts.
However, a decision was taken by the duty inspector to close the police logs, and police resources were not deployed until mid-morning on 7 June. We found that the duty inspector’s decision was influenced by information from a family member regarding Ms Henry’s believed whereabouts, which was recorded on a police log by a civilian staff member working in the force control room. The information provided was not accurately recorded by the civilian staff member. Following on from the decision to close the police logs, the staff member did not update family members that police were no longer attending Ms Smallman’s home to carry out a room search.
A search by the sisters’ families and friends of the last known location where the sisters were together, led to the discovery of their bodies at 1.18pm on 7 June in Fryent Country Park.
We established that the duty inspector did not progress the missing person report for Ms Smallman and did not allocate actions to officers during the evening of 6 June. A missing person report was not created in respect of Ms Henry until 7 June, even though she was classified as missing on the police log. This prevented action being taken to find her, which was a breach of the MPS’ missing person policy.
We also found there was confusion around who had responsibility and oversight of the missing persons investigation between the initial risk assessment and when the next assessment would have been due 24 hours later. This led to inadequate record keeping on the missing persons report, which hampered officers beginning their shift on 7 June.
Our investigation explored whether the police response to reports the sisters were missing was affected by their ethnicity or where they lived. We questioned the officers about this, checked police radio transmissions for any relevant discussions and to identify if any stereotyped assumptions had been made or informed decision-making. We studied the officers’ previous records, and conducted comparator analysis to see if there were any indications of potential discrimination in the approach to handling and prioritising the missing persons reports. While failings were identified in the handling of the missing persons reports in this case, the evidence did not indicate that this was a result of stereotyping or biased assumptions based on the sisters’ race or where they lived.
Regional Director for London Sal Naseem said: “Once again my thoughts and sympathies are with the family and friends of Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry.
“Their deaths caused unimaginable heartache, loss and grief, feelings which were heightened by the inadequate service the family and friends received from the Metropolitan Police when reporting the sisters missing.
“Had the MPS focused on progressing the missing persons investigation it may have prevented the further distress caused to Nicole and Bibaa’s loved ones, who made the harrowing discovery after organising their own search party.
“As well as identifying three individuals whose performance fell below the standards expected of them, this investigation also identified failings in the service provided, for which we have now advised the MPS to apologise to the family.
“It is vital that the force addresses these shortcomings and effects long-lasting change and improvement to help restore public confidence in the MPS.”
As a result of our investigation, we have recommended that the MPS reviews the processes and separate systems used by call handlers, and considers whether further training ought to be provided to ensure all terminology is correctly understood. Further learning recommendations have also been identified and are ongoing.
We concluded our investigation in July 2021 when we passed our investigation report and findings to the MPS.