Eight Police Service of Northern Ireland officers have been disciplined over their handling of a case where a missing vulnerable man was killed by a train.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) has also issued an unreserved apology to the family of Jonathan Magee who died after being struck by a train at Knockmore Bridge near Lisburn, Co Antrim over three years ago.
In a damning report, Police Ombudsman Dr Michael Maguire found major failings in how the two inspectors, three sergeants and three constables responded to his disappearance and said basic errors meant crucial opportunities to find the 29-year-old were lost.
Dr Maguire said: “Although they were told Jonathan was at ’high risk and suicidal,’ it took police almost seven hours to formally make this assessment themselves and then having done so, they largely ignored it.”
The Ombudsman also criticised the PSNI’s lack of communication and said officers had ignored procedures for dealing with the disappearance of vulnerable adults.
Dr Maguire added: “Minimal inquiries were conducted into Jonathan’s whereabouts in the last few hours of his life. A number of opportunities to find him and return him to the hospital were missed.”
On the day before his death in January 2011, Mr Magee’s sister telephoned the police to say she was concerned for his safety as he was missing, suffered from depression and had tablets in his possession.
Sometime later, Mr Magee contacted police claiming to have attempted to take his own life in a Belfast park. He was subsequently taken to hospital where medics had indicated they would detain him.
But, when he walked out of hospital during the early hours of the morning a nurse’s telephone call to the PSNI was mishandled, according to the Ombudsman.
Dr Maguire said: “This officer did not ask for even the most basic of details, such as Jonathan’s name, address and why he was being treated in hospital. Even this information alone would have allowed him to connect the call to the previous incidents and correctly identify Jonathan as a ’high risk’ missing person and initiate an appropriate investigation.
“Procedures are that when someone is reported as missing police should assess the level of risk that person is to themselves or to others and take a series of actions accordingly. This did not happen.”
The Ombudsman said the police search was further hampered because of a failure to properly check Mr Magee’s home.
“They spent more than two hours waiting for the specially trained officers and equipment needed to force an entry into his home, only to find that the rear door to the property had been open all the time. This undoubtedly slowed things down during these crucial hours,” said Dr Maguire.
In a statement the PSNI said it was taking the Ombudsman’s recommendations very seriously.
Superintendent Mark McEwan said: “On behalf of the Police Service of Northern Ireland I apologise unreservedly to the family of Jonathan Magee for the police failings in this case and how it was investigated.
“This is a profoundly difficult time for Mr Magee’s family. Not only have they suffered the loss of a loved one but they have had to endure the additional trauma of the subsequent investigation into his death”.
The senior officer claimed procedure changes had been implemented since the tragedy.
He added: “This report is significant and challenging for the PSNI and one which we take very seriously. In order to reassure the public I want to make it clear that we have already implemented a number of the recommendations made by the Ombudsman.”