It must be amongst the very worst nightmares of any parent: to be informed by the police that sexually explicit photographs of your child are being circulated in a paedophile network. But what if you learned of this when you arrived home one day to be met at your house by police officers who informed you that they suspected YOU of having perpetrated the abuse and then took you to the ground, handcuffed you in front of your children and then dragged you away from them as they screamed for you, and to the police car waiting outside, in full view of your neighbours?
The amount of hurt and confusion that this would cause to you, when you knew yourself to be entirely innocent, would be immense.
Sadly, this is exactly what happened to my client A B (name withheld for privacy reasons) and her partner on 6 February 2014.
A returned to her home in Essex from a routine trip to be arrested by officers of Essex police on suspicion of making and distributing indecent images of her 2-year-old daughter. She heard her daughter calling out in distress for her, but was forced to lie on the ground by the police officers and was handcuffed. She describes how, before she was taken outside to the waiting police car, a female officer chillingly said to her “You’ll never see your children again after what you’ve done to them.”
A simply could not understand why this was happening to her. She was extremely concerned for the well-being of her partner (who was also arrested) and her children. Although she knew she had not abused her own children, the police were telling her that there were indecent images of her daughter in circulation, and therefore she was now terrified by the thought that somebody else, probably somebody known to her, has abused one or both of her daughters.
At the police station, A saw her partner being “booked in” and was searched and then locked in a cell. Such was her emotional distress she was weeping and hyper-ventilating in the cell. After making numerous requests for information about her children she was advised that they would be spending the night in care and would probably be split up. As well as her 2-year-old, A had another daughter then aged 6 months old). She had to give her consent to her children being physically examined for evidence of abuse. She then had to provide her own fingerprints and DNA as she was catalogued as a suspected criminal.
Finally, after 4 hours in custody, suffering what can only be described as mental anguish, A was interviewed by police officers, and the interview lasted…a mere 6 minutes.
In the interview, a photograph was produced (thankfully ‘sanitised’) of the child said to be the victim of abuse. It was immediately apparent to A, and apparently also to the interviewing officers given how fast the interview was then concluded, that the victim was not A’s daughter.
After this very short interview, A was returned to her cell and spent a very long night there, still not knowing what was going to happen to her, before at around 8.00 am the following morning, approximately 14 hours after she was arrested and dragged from her home, an officer visited A in her cell and informed her that she and her partner had been wrongly identified, and they would now both be released.
As a result of A’s arrest, her children had been taken into temporary foster care by Social Services. She was reunited with them later than day, although it was not until September 2014, some 7 months later, that she received final confirmation from the police that her daughters had not been subject to intimate medical examinations whilst she was in custody.
Instructing a Solicitor to Sue the Police
A understandably wanted answers, and restitution for what had been done to her. She contacted me in within days of her arrest having identified me as a specialist in this niche field and after investigating her case and gathering evidence I submitted a claim on her behalf to Essex Constabulary for false imprisonment, assault and trespass, and breach of the Human Rights Act (the right to liberty and security and the right to private and family life, as enshrined in Articles 5 and 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights).
I obtained medical evidence in relation to the serious psychological effects which this incident had upon A and her family. It was established that A was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. She lost trust in the police, and suffered flashbacks and nightmares about what happened which ruined her sleep. Her family home – which should be the safest and most comfortable place in the world for each of us – was associated with memories of that terrible day and she felt unsafe there, worried about the police returning with more false charges and began to hate living in her home. She became over-protective of her children, and her relationship with her partner was so badly damaged by the fallout from their arrests, that they eventually separated. She was also tormented by understandable thoughts that her neighbours, having witness the police cars at her house, would think “There is no smoke without fire.”
In response to this, I helped to arrange psychological therapy for A to try to manage and reduce her psychological symptoms and anxiety.
I also obtained confirmation from Essex Police that the only basis for the arrest of A and her partner was the following email sent by an officer of Kent Police to an officer at Essex Police:
We have intel that a 23-year-old female is offering her two-year old daughter to be abused. She stated her name L B (redacted but same last name as my client) from Essex. I have conducted Open Source and have tracked a Facebook account in the name of A L B (Redacted but same first and last name as my client) and there is a photo of her with a child…..the same child in the image she has shared with us to abuse! She also has a sister called L (redacted), maiden name B (redacted- the same last name as my client).
The email went on to request –
Could you research both names of A L B and L B at the above address and see if there is anything of interest etc.
As a result of this, I carried out further investigations with Kent Police and received the following explanation from them –
The Open Source research was conducted by DC S who is a Kent Police Officer as a result of which a link was made to a female in Essex, who I believe it transpires was your client. At this point Essex Police were contacted to request local checks in an attempt to confirm the accuracy or otherwise of the Open Source research. DC S made this contact and also shared the information Kent Police had gathered.
The same day DS N also a Kent Police Officer contacted DC M at Essex Police who was the forces Victim Identification Officer, to advise him of the investigation. DS N was also contacted by DS Mc from the Essex Police Child Protection Team with who he shared the information Kent Police had. This information sharing process was by way of emails and telephone calls. Within the emails the documents containing the specific enquiries Kent Police had conducted in an attempt to identify the offender and the child. DS Mc was advised by telephone that the research completed by Kent Police was Open Source and therefore not supported by factual evidence. DS N further advised that any action based on the information gained so far should be postponed until the RIPA results for communication data was received which would not be that day. It is Kent Police POLIT (Paedophile Online Investigation Team) policy not to act upon Open Source information unless it is supported by at least one piece of factual information. DS N was given to understand that Essex Police intended to act upon the intelligence supplied by Kent Police and as such he again cautioned against this course of action. He also contacted DC M and raised the same concerns.
DS N declined to provide evidential statements linking the various Open Source information findings as he could not guarantee their accuracy.
On 7 February 2014 DS N was made aware by DS Mc of the arrest of your client the previous day. Throughout that day DS N provided Essex Police with the results of the RIPA enquiries which enabled Essex Police Officers to locate and arrest the correct suspect.
The said letter from Kent Police concluded – It was very clearly conveyed to two Essex Police Officers on more than one occasion that the information provided should not be acted upon until at least some confirmation as to its accuracy was received.
RIPA refers to the Regulation and Investigatory Powers Act 2000.‘Open source’ investigation is trawling the internet for photographs and names on social media which might link to an investigation – no more than that. In my opinion, the policy of Kent Police not to act on ‘open source’ information was entirely correct. A’s arrest happened because one person thought that a photograph of her daughter on Facebook resembled that of the abused child. Especially taking into account the young age of the children involved here, when faces have not yet developed the distinct characteristics of growing maturity, it was surely extremely reckless to take the draconian step of sweeping in to arrest A in front of her family when the much more accurate method of tracking an offender’s email address through technology, principally the IP address had not been completed.
As it was, the accurate IP tracing of the correct offender was completed on 7 February, and the offender quickly apprehended. All of A’s ordeal could have been avoided had Essex Police only delayed their arrest 24 hours and followed the investigative procedures recommended to them by their colleagues in Kent.
Despite this, in response to A’s claim for compensation, Essex Police were initially prepared to offer an apology in word only, and not deed, refusing to admit that their arrest of A had been unreasonable and unnecessary, and causing me to have to commence County Court proceedings against the Chief Constable.
The police sought to argue that their arrest of A was justified despite it being based only on the impression of one person in another force (Kent) who was comparing the photographs of two very young children. There was no evidence offered that the officers in Essex who made the decision to arrest, and who effected the arrest of A, had actually seen the photographs themselves to make their own judgment. Rather, they decided to initiate the arrest on the word of a third-party, and without waiting for the simple and effective technological enquiries as to the real abuser’s email address to be completed, a simple step which could have saved so much harm. Indeed, let us not forget that when officers from Essex Police actually did compare the children’s photographs in the interview it was apparently so obvious to them that A’s daughter was not the abuse victim, that the interview terminated within minutes. I think we may rightly ask ourselves how was this allowed to happen ?
I applaud the conduct of Kent Police in that regard, which was sensible and measured even taking into account the seriousness of the crime under investigation, but feel A was entirely right to feel deeply let down by the actions of Essex Police who so clearly ‘jumped the gun’.
Finally and fortunately, I am pleased to report that shortly after my client had taken the robust step of issuing Court proceedings against the Chief Constable, Essex police finally agreed to compensate her substantial damages (although still without any admission of legal liability).
As you can imagine, A intends to spend those damages for the good of her family, and to try to put some of the massive hurt of the last 2 years behind them, but would gladly give every penny of that money away if she could rewind the events of that day, for Essex Police to have not made such a reckless decision to arrest her.
I also hope that the senior officers of the Essex constabulary will reflect long and hard on the facts of this case and put in place the sensible –and simple – precautions and processes which other forces such as Kent have to prevent this ‘nightmare scenario’ happening to other innocent families.