IPCC publishes findings from investigation into Essex Police contact with Christine Chambers prior to her murder
Aug 22, 2012
The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) is today issuing its findings from an investigation into Essex Police contact with Christine Chambers and her family prior to her and her young daughter’s murders in June last year.
The investigation found that a catalogue of incidents over a two year period involving Ms Chambers and David Oakes were treated largely in isolation by officers and there were failings of systems within Essex Police’s response.
Ms Chambers and two year old Shania were brutally murdered by David Oakes, Shania’s father, on 6 June 2011. They both died in their own home in Braintree, as a result of shotgun wounds. David Oakes was convicted of their murders at Chelmsford Crown Court on 11 May 2012 and was sentenced to whole life imprisonment.
The investigation found that against a backdrop of 16 incidents and ongoing child custody proceedings:
• there was a failure by police to recognise any pattern or connection between the events being reported, and, in particular, there was a failure to identify or act upon the evident escalation in the number of Ms Chambers’ calls to the police during the two months prior to the murders - at a time when officers had been told her relationship with David Oakes had ended;
• Ms Chambers’ fear of Mr Oakes was not taken into consideration by police as a potential motivation for her not pursuing complaints against him;
• important information about David Oakes’ violence towards Christine was known to agencies involved in the child custody proceedings, but either not known by police or not taken sufficiently into account in their risk assessments;
• there was little focus by police on Mr Oakes himself and inadequate action taken to arrest him at the earliest opportunity, when reports were made of him breaching a non-molestation order;
• despite consistent warnings to Essex Police, specialist domestic abuse investigation teams were poorly resourced, and there remained a substantial backlog in inputting domestic violence forms on the force intelligence system;
• the case should have been dealt with by a multi-agency risk assessment conference, but was not referred to one, in part because the level of risk had not been assessed accurately so it did not meet the threshold for referral, but also because of a lack of information sharing to enable the full picture to be exposed.
IPCC Commissioner Rachel Cerfontyne said: “The deaths of Christine and Shania Chambers are shocking to us all. It is impossible to say with any certainty whether if individual officers or the force had done things differently Ms Chambers and Shania would still be alive today. While individual police officers could and should have done things better, this is not essentially a failure of individuals, but a failure of systems. The investigation identified a lack of adequate training, insufficient resources allocated to domestic violence cases and poor oversight.
“This is a tragic and disturbing case and the investigation has identified several key issues which apply to many other cases where domestic homicide is the outcome. Many women are reluctant to pursue criminal proceedings against abusive partners, sometimes even to seek help at all. There are many reasons for this, and often it is fear that they will exacerbate the situation and increase the danger they face.
“Undoubtedly this poses significant challenges for the police and other agencies, but it is essential in these situations that all possible is done to protect the victims and their children. Unwillingness to seek help or give evidence against the perpetrator is often due to fear and can be a sign of vulnerability, not culpability, and this must be recognised when a risk assessment is completed. I am very grateful to the members of a community reference group I established in July 2011 for their domestic violence expertise in relation to this and other Essex domestic homicide cases.”
The IPCC has discussed its investigation findings with the force, and Essex Police has produced an interim management review report identifying the organisational lessons learnt from the deaths of Christine and Shania Chambers. As a result Essex Police has now completed or put in place a number of actions to strengthen its response to domestic abuse incidents. The investigation found the actions of any individual police officers did not amount to misconduct. Five police officers have been debriefed on the investigation findings by a senior officer to inform their future actions in such cases. The roles and responsibilities of other agencies involved are being addressed separately by a Serious Case Review and Domestic Homicide Review.
The IPCC investigation covered 16 interactions between police and Christine Chambers or David Oakes between March 2009 and June 2011. The investigation examined police logs, statements from officers, family members and neighbours, and considered domestic abuse practice and policies within the force. The investigation also addressed a number of specific concerns expressed by Ms Chambers’ family.
The IPCC has urged Essex Police to reinforce training to officers around use of domestic violence forms and in particular the need, in accordance with national policy, to ask additional questions of a victim where stalking and harassment is identified. In a specific recommendation, the IPCC has asked Essex Police to work with Chelmsford County Court and Essex County Council, to put mechanisms in place for better information sharing in cases involving child custody proceedings. Ultimately, domestic violence forms are only a tool to assist in risk assessment, and information sharing contributes to this process by providing a fuller picture. However, it is vital that the police understand the dynamics of domestic violence, including the patterns of behaviour and the risk factors to assess the danger and reduce the risk of domestic homicide. Effective training and ongoing supervision, as well as formal procedures are vital to ensure that police officers have the appropriate levels of knowledge and skills to do this.
An IPCC summary investigation report is available here.
For media enquiries please contact the IPCC press office on 0207-166-3239.
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