Mother whose son died after police chase ‘heartbroken’ as misconduct cases against officers dropped

Exclusive: 'They make it feel like we have done it for nothing,' says mother after years of delays between police and IPCC make fair hearing for officers 'impossible'

Jon Sharman
Friday 03 November 2017 13:35 GMT
Liam Albert died a week after the crash in Esher, Surrey. Right, the roundabout turning into Lammas Lane
Liam Albert died a week after the crash in Esher, Surrey. Right, the roundabout turning into Lammas Lane (Submitted/Google Street View)

A mother has spoken of the “heartbreaking” failure of her eight-year search for the truth about her son’s death in a police chase after misconduct cases against two officers involved in the resulting crash and its aftermath were dismissed.

Liam Albert, 17, died a week after crashing a stolen Mazda in Surrey in 2009 following a high-speed pursuit that began in south-west London.

PC John Wills, the passenger in the pursuing Metropolitan Police car, and Inspector Mandy Chamberlain, who arrived at the crash site later, faced gross misconduct proceedings over claims they removed an exhibit from the scene and ordered the deletion of photographic evidence, respectively. PC Wills was also said to have failed to install his car’s video recording system.

The driver of the police car, PC Paul Rogers, retired last year after the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) said there was not enough evidence to bring criminal charges over the crash, so did not face a misconduct hearing. It was claimed Insp Chamberlain had ordered him to delete phone photos of the crash.

On Thursday PC Wills’ and Insp Chamberlain’s request to throw out the cases was granted after senior officers ruled so much time had elapsed that a fair hearing was “not possible”.

Speaking exclusively to The Independent, Liam’s mother Sharla John said she felt her concerns about the crash evidence had been “shoved under the carpet like it means nothing”. She and Liam’s father, Delroy Albert, first filed a complaint to the Met in 2010.

Ms John said: “What we were looking for were answers to how he died, how did the collision happen, what were the events leading up to [it]. Which will not bring my son back but at least gives us some idea.

“There’s so many questions that haven’t been answered, that, deliberately, to us it looks like, they have skimmed past. They’ve just humoured us from the beginning, I believe.

“We look to the police for guidance, for help, for confidence, for protection. That’s just knocked me for six. Emotionally it’s not going to leave us, we’re not going to get a closure.”

Surrey Police first investigated the crash, finding no case to answer against any officer.

A year after Liam’s death his parents filed a complaint with the Met after learning of the phone pictures. Documents seen by The Independent show how it was repeatedly put off until the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) launched its own probe in 2013.

The Met first said it would postpone its investigation to allow Liam’s inquest to take place, a process which did not conclude until December 2011. After the teen’s parents filed a renewed request based on information that came to light at Woking Coroner’s Court, the force twice asked the IPCC for permission to end its investigation, in March and May 2012, on grounds it was “repetitious”.

The second request was granted but overturned by judicial review in 2013. The IPCC began its investigation in May that year — now nearly four years after the crash. However, it did not interview PC Wills or Insp Chamberlain until the autumn of 2014, Thursday’s hearing was told, and only finished its investigation in June 2015 when it handed its findings to the CPS.

Met commander Ivan Balhatchet, leading the misconduct panel, said the delay was “entirely unsatisfactory and completely unacceptable”. On Thursday the commission apologised to Liam’s parents and the officers, saying it had “undergone a substantial change programme and has made significant improvements in the way we work”.

The CPS’ decision not to prosecute came in March last year. In April, the IPCC told the Met to begin the misconduct process — some 18 months before the hearings eventually took place. Cmdr Balhatchet said: “Significant periods of time passed because of disagreement between the Met and the IPCC as to whether the latter had provided proper disclosure of investigation material.”

On 8 July 2009, PCs Rogers and Wills chased Liam from Merton over the county border into Surrey. The teen crashed into another car near a roundabout in Lammas Lane, Esher, at about 4.50am. He was taken to Kingston Hospital but died of his injuries on 15 July.

PC Wills was later accused of failing to install an in-car ProVida video system before the chase, failing to provide an appropriate commentary during it and removing an item from the crash scene without permission. Insp Chamberlain withheld evidence from Surrey Police and ordered the deletion of photographs, it was alleged.

But Cmdr Balhatchet ruled the eight-year time gap between the crash and the hearing had resulted in prejudice against both officers. Also on the panel were assessors Superintendent Tony Josephs, of the Met, and Yvonne Taylor, from the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime. The legal advisor was Jonathan Swift QC.

Insp Chamberlain was only notified her conduct was under scrutiny in January 2014, denying her the chance to reflect on potentially material matters and so causing prejudice, the hearing was told. And the passage of time had put PC Wills at a disadvantage due to possible problems in speaking to his statements and actions of eight years ago, it heard.

At an earlier hearing PC Wills’ lawyer, Kevin Baumber, said that while Liam's death was “tragic” PC Wills faced no allegations blaming him for it and there were no circumstances which justified the delay in misconduct allegations being brought forward.

Hugh Davies, counsel for Insp Chamberlain, added that all evidence against her was available by mid-December of 2009. In the intervening time, Insp Chamberlain believed she was only a witness and may have disposed of evidence that could help her case now, while her memory of her two hours at the scene of the crash would have been “compromised” by the passage of time, Mr Davies told the earlier hearing.

Andre Clovis, representing Ms John and Mr Albert, told The Independent: “Despite knowing of the disturbing conduct issues in this case from very early on, the MPS delayed and then actively opposed this investigation commencing, such that no steps were taken by them between 2009 and 2013.

“The IPCC’s inability to make coherent submissions to the misconduct panel for the unexplained delays since 2013, and their open concessions of fault, is considered by Liam’s parents to be nothing short of an embarrassment and a disgraceful waste of public funds.

“This outcome was foreseeable and confirms all that is wrong with the complaints system. Lessons seem not to be learnt and so it is almost impossible to hold police officers to account for alleged misconduct.”

Ms John, 48, a facilities manager, added: “Another family is going to sit here and have this interview next year, next month. Nothing has changed. I don’t think it’s fair that the ex-police investigate the police in any case. It’s establishment against establishment.

“It’s not going to give any other family the incentive to take the IPCC on. I would probably be put off. But you’ve got to try. We had to try. It’s been a slog, it’s been a long eight years. It’s not for nothing but they make it feel like we have done it for nothing because they haven’t put any effort in. It’s heartbreaking to listen to.”

The panel concluded on Thursday that “the disciplinary charges should be dismissed on the basis that it is not possible for there to be a fair hearing of them”.

Cmdr Balhatchet added: “The conduct of the investigation into the complaint made by Liam Albert’s parents was entirely unsatisfactory and completely unacceptable. It must not be allowed to happen again. Situations such as this do nothing but harm public confidence.

”The delay that has occurred has betrayed the trust of Liam Albert’s parents. The complaint that they made should have been investigated promptly. I have not seen a case that comes close to this case in terms of the length of time to investigate.

“We cannot see that there was any sense of urgency."

Richard Martin, the Met’s deputy assistant commissioner for professionalism said: “It is crucially important for public confidence that police officers are held to account and the sad death of Liam has been investigated twice, through a managed and then independent IPCC inquiry, and fully scrutinised during an inquest.

“However, it is also very important that officers are treated fairly and in the exceptional circumstances of this case the panel determined that could not happen.

“While there are often some unavoidable delays in arranging misconduct hearings, we will review what happened in this case and I would like to express our regret to Liam’s family if there are things we could have done better.”

IPCC commissioner Cindy Butts apologised to Liam’s parents and PC Wills and Insp Chamberlain.

She said: “While our investigation was completed within two years, we recognise that, at eight years, this process has taken far too long.

“Since this investigation concluded, the IPCC has undergone a substantial change programme and has made significant improvements in the way we work to prevent similar delays occurring. This includes the introduction of a quality assurance process to highlight issues before unnecessary delays can set in and a more streamlined investigation process.”

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