I was recently instructed by Michael Turnbull (name changed), a married family man of exemplary character. Several months before, he had been out shopping when he received an urgent call from his wife to return home. He left the shopping trolley half full and did so immediately not knowing what the issue was.
Upon his return, Michael established two officers from the Merseyside Police Serious Crime Unit were in attendance. Michael was advised that an indecent image of a child had been linked to an IP address utilised by a device or devices at his home, and that they had a warrant to search the premises.
Michael felt bewildered and bemused.
Michael and his wife were told that a team of officers would now attend and commence the search.
Eight uniformed officers then entered the house and a large amount of IT equipment was seized and then bagged up.
Eventually, after approximately three hours, all officers left, taking the seized items with them.
Michael was devastated and he and his wife and children then left the house so as to ‘escape’.
Michael and his family went to a local park. After approximately 30 minutes, Michael’s wife received a telephone call from an officer requesting that they return to the premises.
Michael was terrified a decision had been made to arrest him or his wife and/ or that Social Services would be intervening, and their children might be taken from them.
Michael and his family returned home. A few minutes later, an officer attended and explained that there had been a mistake and that the premises had been misidentified. Thereafter, Michael’s property was returned.
Although it’s not yet known exactly how his premises had been mis-identified, it is understood that investigators made an error when identifying the IP address.
Understandably Michael felt extremely worried about the impact of the raid and the consequences it would have on his life. He worried about how he would have to explain himself and justify his actions. Would anyone believe that this was a case of ‘smoke without fire’?
But Michael’s biggest issue was how the incident had fractured his belief system as far as police and policing are concerned, and that he had lost his faith in the competence and trustworthiness of the law enforcement system.
Prior to this incident Michael had no relevant medical history of psychological symptoms. Michael was a robust and resilient individual, with no predisposition toward psychological illness or disorder.
However, Michael’s immediate experience of the incident included a sense of shock, bewilderment, and disbelief; a sense of unreality; he felt a loss of control. He experienced significant anxiety, about the impact the incident might have on his relationship with his family, his customers and his standing within the community. Subsequently, he became angry about what had happened to him. He questioned core beliefs he held about the world of policing and about himself, such as whether the police can be trusted and whether the police can keep us safe. Finding his worldview seriously challenged by his experience of the incident, he struggled to adjust.
In a recent report that I commissioned from the eminent Psychologist, Dr. Helen Card, she reported on a similar case in the following terms-
“An individual’s view of the world and how they operate within it is usually based on a set of core beliefs or assumptions about the world, the self, and others. It is believed that the world is benevolent and is generally a safe place where more good happens than bad; and that most people have good intentions and can be trusted. It is believed that the world makes sense because it is orderly, just, and logical. Assumptions are made about the self as being worthy, fortunate and lucky, deserving of good things, decent and capable. These personally held assumptions about how the world works allow the individual to make sense of the world and their role within it, helping them to feel safe, capable, and in control of what happens to them. If an individual believes that the world is “just”, they are likely to assume they can protect themselves from negative experiences by behaving in a way that is “right” or “good”. When events challenge or shatter these assumptions, significant distress can occur and the individual can feel anxious and helpless in a world that suddenly seems threatening, dangerous and filled with bad people.”
Michael is now struggling along the road to recovery after just such a wrecking of his assumptions of safety and security, through this horrifying glimpse of just how ‘easy’ it is for an innocent person to face accusations of a heinous crime which, if maintained for any length of time, could seriously blight their future well-being and relationships.
Sadly, this is not the first time in the last year that I have had to blog about the real risk of wrongful arrest posed by IP address ‘data errors’. There is no doubt that those in charge of the machinery of state power must take the utmost care to ensure that innocent people are not crushed within the wheels of justice, particularly by reason of simple ‘admin’ errors in this digital era where a single incorrect number could risk derailing a person’s life. The watchwords, once again, are power and responsibility.