Posts Tagged 'Stephen Lawrence'

All the things I should’ve said that I never said, all the things we should’ve done that we never did…

Christmas can be a busy period for our Family Liaison Officers but what exactly is their role?

In this specially written article marking the start of our Christmas Drink Drive Campaign, WMP Family Liaison Officer Mick Jennings gives an overview of a role that I believe is one of the hardest an officer can hold. Following a fatal road accident or similar, Family Liaison Officers are sent out to make contact with the families of the deceased. Tragically Christmas can be a busy time for them.

“Police said Family Liaison Officers had been appointed to support the families of those involved.”

You may have heard this, or similar, in relation to road deaths or murders, but what does it mean? Who are these Family Liaison Officers and what exactly do they do?

Well firstly, it’s a misnomer to say Family Liaison Officers (FLO) ‘support’ a family. FLOs, as they are commonly referred as, are not counsellors and it is not their role to provide emotional support to a grieving family.

The concept of family liaison has been in existence for many years, but it was events during the 90s that really galvanised the role into something that we can identify with today.

One of the main drivers for effective family liaison was the MacPherson Report into the investigation of the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993 which made several recommendations in relation to the training and deployment of Family Liaison Officers.

The primary role of any FLO is an investigator, tasked by the Senior Investigating Officer to develop a professional working relationship with the victim’s family. All enquiries and communication with the family will be made through the FLO, thereby minimising as much as possible the intrusion into the family at this traumatic time.

The FLO should aim to develop a relationship through trust and honesty but, especially in the early days of a deployment, their role will be very challenging, particularly where there maybe a mistrust of the police, or where police involvement may have been a factor in the death. Whatever the situation, one overriding principal is that the police will never close the door on contact with a victim’s family.

The role of FLO is voluntary and there is no expectation that any officer must become one. Those that do undertake the training can, at any time, decide that the role is not for them after all and even a trained FLO can turn down a deployment if they feel that they cannot give it the commitment that it deserves. This might be for a variety of reasons, for example, if the FLO was already heavily committed with another investigation or was due to go on leave in the next few days.

The Family Liaison Officer Training Course lasts for five days but is designed to draw upon the officers’ previously acquired skills in their area of business and it is not recommended that they volunteer too early in their career.

The content of the course is compatible with the national training programme and features a variety of topics to test the suitability of the officer for this role. Once an officer has completed the training, it is expected that they will be first deployed with an experienced FLO to act as mentor.

In any investigation the aim should be to deploy FLOs in pairs or as part of a team, dependant on the circumstances of the incident under investigation. That way should anything happen that necessitates a new FLO being deployed, the continuity with the family, and therefore the relationship, is maintained.

In addition, in the early days of an investigation the FLO maybe spending several hours at the family home and may need the support of a colleague, even if its just an extra pair of hands. Anyone in this family environment, even if just assisting the lead FLO, should be trained and know what to expect.

Before meeting a family, the Family Liaison Officer can expect to receive a full briefing about the incident under investigation as it is essential that they know exactly what has happened, where it happened, to whom and what is expected of them by the Senior Investigating Officer. Where possible, it is recommended that the FLO visit the crime or collision scene to familiarise themselves with it should family members wish to go there themselves.

When first meeting the family, it may not always be possible to answer all the questions they have, either because of operational reasons or purely because the FLO doesn’t know at that time. Other than for those reasons, the FLO will never intentionally keep the truth from the family, no matter how upsetting it may be. The art of effective family liaison is honesty, tactfully delivered.

Every investigation will have standard tasks for the FLO such as arranging a formal identification of the deceased and taking lifestyle statements, but he/she should not become complacent as every investigation is dealing with the untimely, and often unlawful, death of a loved one, and every deployment should be as professional as the last, treating families with respect and dignity.

Over time the demands on the FLO in the investigative sense may subside but he/she will remain in contact with the family for as long as the Senior Investigating Officer requires, updating and informing at key stages, even accompanying them to any subsequent court hearings.

Eventually, though, the time will come when the FLO deployment will come to an end. Known as an Exit Strategy, the FLO will have been preparing the family for this final visit, after which, as the investigation has ended, there will be no further contact. Some families may become very attached to what they see as ‘their FLO’ but, whatever the case, it is important that the family are allowed to move forward and the FLO will be deployed to another family who have lost a loved one in tragic circumstances.

Ever day, dozens of Family Liaison Officers are being deployed around England and Wales as part of investigations into unlawful killings, suspicious deaths and child abuse, to name but a few.

The officers are proud to perform the role, often without any additional remuneration, and are proud of the difference their professional behaviour can make to a family at such a dark hour. But above all a Family Liaison Officer is proud to be an investigator seeking the truth of what happened.

About Mick:

Mick Jennings has featured on this blog before and is a trained Family Liaison Officer in both Crime and Roads Policing. As well as teaching new to role FLOs in his own force, Mick has trained officers from across the country. In 2008 he assisted the National Policing Improvement Agency in devising the National FLO Development Programme and has spoken at several conferences in relation to Family Liaison. To follow the life of a traffic cops trainer, or to just ask a question, he can be found @PCJenningsWMP.

Weak become heroes…

Gary Dobson and David Norris - today sentenced for the murder of Stephen Lawrence

Yesterday David Norris and Gary Dobson were found guilty of Stephen Lawrence’s racially motivated murder in Eltham in 1993. Today they have been sentenced to life imprisonment – Norris for a minimum of fourteen years and three months, Dobson for a minimum of fifteen years and two months,

I wanted to use this post to reflect on both what the case has meant for me as a police officer about to end my first two years in the job and also a little on what the legacy of the trial ought to mean.

In the wake of the murder, the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, led by Sir Macpherson, branded the Metropolitan Police to be ‘institutionally racist’.

The damning conclusions reached by Macpherson suggested that because of racist attitudes within the Met, they had been unable to conduct an effective investigation appropriate to Stephen’s murder and that justice had suffered as a result.

A major change in attitudes was clearly needed.

As a direct result of Stephen’s death and the campaigning of his family, changes for the better have been achieved and continue to be achieved.

In legal terms visible examples include the overturning of the double jeopardy rule and the passing into law of the Race Relations Amendment Act which places upon public bodies a duty to eliminate discrimination and promote equality.

In terms of police training, much of the legislation we are taught when we first join the job is set against a background of how in the past errors have been made and what the lessons are.

Showing how importantly this consideration – the desire to learn from history so to avoid its repetition – is taken, the first week of the eighteen week course is dedicated to looking at issues surrounding diversity and discrimination.

Past cases are discussed – the Brixton Riots, Toxteth, Lawrence, Climbie, Baby P to name a few – and the learning points discussed so that new officers understand the consequences of previous failings.

One of the most important things I’d taken away from looking at such tragic examples was a stark reminder that when I applied to be a police officer, I didn’t apply to offer protection to only some members of society. I didn’t apply join a service in which public confidence in ability to do our job varied according to the colour of someone’s skin, their background or where they come from.

Appreciations about racist and hate crime of course don’t end with the finish of training school and actively permeate throughout the police force, be it in the regular training inputs available or in the practical way in which we tackle crimes involving a hate element.

Hate crimes in particular attract specific attention from specialist evidence review teams whilst cases are still with the police to ensure the highest quality of investigation and then once they reach the courts, a perception of a hate motivation qualifies for the passing of tougher sentences.

As for the legacy of the trial, it’s taken eighteen years to bring those responsible to justice. The strain on Stephen’s family who had campaigned tirelessly ever since his death is unimaginable and it may be tempting to see the conviction of Norris and Dobson as ‘case closed’.

This I think would be the worse possible outcome – Stephen’s legacy is something that lives on, that continues as a force for positive change and that is, and always will be, an important lesson on how we police.

As Mark Easton writes on the BBC News website, “Problems still exist but Britain is much more at ease with its racial diversity than it was two decades ago. And that tolerance, in no small part, is the legacy of a teenage boy: Stephen Lawrence.”

The evidence before the court is incontrovertible, there’s no need for the jury to retire…

Exhibit LH/5 - The jacket Stephen Lawrence had worn on the night he died. The outcome of the case may come down to the continuity of exhibits like these.

For anyone who’s been following the developments in the Stephen Lawrence retrial, the importance of correctly handling exhibits is quite clear with much of the argument of the defence being based upon the reliability of DNA evidence relating to exhibits collected as part of the original case.

Gary Dobson and David Norris are both accused of having participated in Lawrence’s murder. The prosecution are claiming that fibres, blood and hair found on the clothing that was seized from them at the time links them to the scene and proves that they took part in the attack. Their defence council deny this saying that the evidence found is nothing more than evidence that their clothing had been contaminated at a later point.

How then do we as police officers try and ensure that exhibits are treated in such a way that we can rely on them in court?

When we seize items as part of an investigation – be it CCTV footage, clothing or anything else – we commence an audit trail so that we can account for the item’s movements right up to its eventual appearance in a court room.

This means that first of all we’ll write a statement explaining when and where the item was found, what it is and we’ll also give it a reference number so that it can be told apart from other items seized. We also detail what we did with the item after collecting it, for example that exhibit RJS/01 was then transported to Walsall Police Station when it was booked into detained property.

Along with a statement, we’ll also attach an exhibit label which is to be signed by anyone taking control of the item. Once booked into the property system the exhibit’s movements are then logged by the property computer and it will be locked away, again so that we can ensure its continuity.

Whilst keeping a track of an exhibit is important, so too is properly packaging it and taking care to ensure that an item does not become contaminated.

Locard’s Principle is important here – that every contact leaves a trace and that by touching one item and then another, a trace of the first item will likely to transferred across to the second.

This is why when we are investigating a rape, for example, the same officers who have been speaking to the victim will not then go and arrest the suspect as the defence would then be able to argue that any evidence found on the suspect was there because officers had transferred it to him or her from the victim.

As can be seen from the details emerging as the trial progresses, protecting the continuity of evidence can often be very difficult, especially when proving the case comes down to the presence of microscopic fibres on an item of clothing that has been sitting in a property store for eighteen years.

Still, it is principles such as those mentioned above that make the difference in many trials and hence why officers put the time in to ensure that when a case goes to court, they can be confident that they can rely on their evidence.


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