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Monday, 08 January 2018

Police to give replacement phones to complainants in domestic violence cases

Written by Claire Hayhurst

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.

Copyright (c) Press Association Ltd. 2018, All Rights Reserved. Picture (c) Niall Carson / PA Wire.