The family of a vulnerable black teenager who disappeared and then was found dead have been abandoned by the Metropolitan Police when they needed them most, the police watchdog has found.
The desperate family of 19-year-old Richard Okorogheye were told by a call handler: ‘If you can’t find your son, how do you expect us to? which the Met accepted was unresponsive.
Okorogheye was reported missing on March 23, 2021. Police were told he had sickle cell anemia and had left his west London home without his medication. A fortnight later his body was found in a lake in Epping Forest.
Sixteen months later, the Met was asked to apologize by the Independent Office for Police Conduct, which concluded that the police had not taken the matter seriously enough and that the lapses had increased the family anxiety.
Richard’s mother, Evidence Joel, said she would refuse the apology and was disappointed that none of the three officers and three staff members responsible faced disciplinary action. Instead, they will receive enhanced training. The IOPC Fund considered that the threshold for a charge of misconduct had not been met.
The Guardian understands that of the officers and staff, four were investigated for potential misconduct, three were questioned and one provided a written account.
The IOPC discovered that a call handler had incorrectly recorded sickle cell anemia, a condition more common in African or Caribbean communities, as anemia.
The IOPC Fund said its investigation concluded that Okorogheye should have been treated as missing sooner and that his case had been classified as low risk for too long, taking four days to be classified as high risk. This decision affects the resources Met puts into a search.
Two other call handlers did not tell an inspector that the missing teenager had sickle cell anemia, unaware that there was a significant difference between it and anemia.
The inspector failed to follow instructions and was found to have kept an inadequate record of decisions made, and a police officer failed to add the GP’s concerns to the missing persons report. Okorogheye regarding the high danger posed by his health condition.
Joel said: ‘In the darkest time of my life I was fired by several Metropolitan Police personnel at all seniority levels and my son’s disappearance was not taken seriously . I deeply regret that, although the IOPC Fund and the Metropolitan Police have concluded that the performance of three police officers (including one inspector) and three telephone operators fell short of the expected standard, no one will be subject to misconduct lawsuits. Therefore, excuses are not accepted.
Joel believes racial bias contributed to her receiving poor service. The IOPC Fund said it found no evidence of this when it reviewed the cases of other missing persons.
It was not the first recent case where the Met ran into a family of color as it searched for loved ones. The IOPC Fund also found failings by the Met when two sisters, Bibaa Henry, 46, and Nicole Smallman, 27, were reported missing. In this case, the sisters were found murdered in the park where they were last seen, as the police did not search for them. Also in this case, no officer was sanctioned.
Met Deputy Deputy Commissioner Bas Javid apologized and said: “We challenge ourselves to react better when someone reports a missing person. We’re also introducing a new way to assess all the missing person reports we receive every day.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan said: ‘The Mayor will ask the Met to respond to any issues raised by the IOPC Fund report to ensure the same failings do not happen again.’
The IOPC Fund said parts of its report on whether police misconduct caused or contributed to Okorogheye’s death would not be published due to an ongoing investigation scheduled for 2023.