The costly, humiliating lessons that have brought change

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The Independent Online

For West Mercia police the hangings of Errol and Jason McGowan have been a painful, humiliating and costly experience but also a learning one.

Two years after Errol McGowan was found hanging from a door handle at a house in Telford, the force's approach to suspected racial incidents has been transformed.

When Johny Elliot, another member of Telford's small Afro-Caribbean community, was also found hanged five weeks ago, prompting further fears of foul play, West Mercia ensured the death was fully investigated.

If only a similar process had been engaged when Errol McGowan's body was discovered on 2 July 1999, a grieving family would not have been forced to go to the Home Secretary to seek justice and Chief Constable Peter Hampson would not have had to make an embarrassing public apology.

During 21 days of evidence at the Moat House hotel in Telford, a jury heard of a succession of failings by a force unable to come to the aid of a victim of extreme racial harassment and which then refused to regard his death as suspicious. The hearing was told that, when Errol and his Asian friends went to Telford police station to report the harassment, the matter was not logged by police as a racist incident. An officer said at the inquest that this was a mistake.

The superintendent in charge of monitoring racial incidents in Telford admitted he had never heard of the race terror group Combat 18, which had been linked to a nail-bombing campaign in London. And when Mr McGowan made a telephone plea to police a week before he was found dead – saying he was "in fear of my life" – the call was logged as low priority.

Earlier that month, John Burbeck, then an assistant chief constable, had admitted the force's shortcomings in race matters. He had said: "We have individuals who are racist in the organisation and our collective viewpoint can lead to us not understanding or misinterpreting racial incidents and ethnic minority opinions and expectations."

The words of Mr Burbeck were prophetic. Less than a month later, within minutes of the discovery of Mr McGowan's body, police had made a decision that the death was not suspicious. As a consequence, police staff and doctors risked contaminating evidence by not wearing protective clothing or shoe covers at the scene.

Michael Gwynne, the coroner, felt obliged to say: "There has to be the possibility of contamination. The lesson to be learnt is that, in future, when doctors are asked to go into a scene of this nature they wear anti-contamination clothing."

Then, despite pleas from Mr McGowan's family who visited Telford police station on the night of his death to give details of the threats and abuse against him, officers refused to examine the scene scientifically.

West Mercia did not change its stance until the intervention of the former home secretary Jack Straw, after the hanging of Jason McGowan had prompted coverage of the case in The Independent. Experts from Scotland Yard's racial and violent crime task force were called in and made 57 recommendations for improvements.

Mr Hampson apologised to the McGowan family, saying he was "very sorry" that the service they had received was "less than satisfactory". The investigation was reopened with "a presumption of foul play".

Throughout Errol McGowan's inquest, officers – backed by Ronald Thwaites QC – fought hard to defend their actions and emphasise that no new evidence had been produced to undermine the initial assessment of the scene.

But outside experts, produced by the family, argued otherwise. Paul Millen, a scenes-of-crimes specialist who trains officers at the National Police College in Durham, said "too many assumptions" were made and described the failure to fingerprint the immediate scene as "an embarrassment".

West Mercia's approach to racial incidents has now radically changed. Between 2000 and 2001 the number of such incidents reported to the force increased by 450 per cent, partly because of publicity surrounding the McGowan case.