Alice Gross: Don’t be too harsh on the Met

Chris Hobbs /   June 29, 2015 at 8:39 PM 1,185 views

Chris Hobbs is a retired Metropolitan Police officer who has lived in West London’s Hanwell for most of his working life. Below he shares his perspective on the tragic death of 14 year old Alice Gross and the huge policing operation that has, at times, proved controversial.

Hanwell

The sad disappearance and death of 14 year old Alice Gross has propelled the hitherto virtually unknown area of West London known as Hanwell and its inhabitants into both national and international prominence.

Sandwiched between the world famous predominately Asian town of Southall and the remainder of the ‘Queen of the suburbs’ London Borough of Ealing, there is little that is endearing about Hanwell to those passing through it on West London’s arterial Uxbridge Road. The ‘High Street’ known as Hanwell Broadway, which forms a small section of the Uxbridge Road, is a generally unprepossessing, dishevelled selection of shops, the highlight of which is a popular Lidls supermarket.

Street drinkers irritate the less compassionate sections of the Hanwell populace, yet behind the façade of the drab but slowly improving Hanwell Broadway, the area has much to commend it and it is indeed many of these attributes that were to prove challenging to the police in their search for Alice.

Various ‘urban villages’ with accurately descriptive titles such as Golden Manor, Hanwell Village, Poet’s Corner and Olde Hanwell are much sought after places to live with their excellent schools and good communication links. Hanwell’s most pleasing feature however is West London’s ‘green lung’, Brent Valley, which is only briefly visible from the Uxbridge Road but sweeps north to south through the entire area. Included within it are the Grand Union Canal and the River Brent together with a collage of parks, golf courses, playing fields and natural habitats that are a delight and hugely appreciated by the local residents.

It was and indeed is these areas that became the focus for police in their search for Alice and the subsequent investigation which is attracting much critical comment from the media and indeed from some generally supportive local residents.

Early days

Alice was first reported missing on Thursday the 28th of August and as is usual in such cases, the report was dealt with by the Ealing Police Missing Person’s Unit. By the next day, Alice’s disappearance was very much in the public domain and for the next three nights Hanwell residents were only too well aware of the Met police helicopter working assiduously overhead doubtless looking for a heat source that could have revealed the presence of an unconscious Alice.

The investigating officers, doubtless by speaking to the family, were soon made aware of her health problems linked to anorexia and this coupled with Alice’s zest and energy understandably made the initial concern one of health and the real possibility that Alice could be lying unconscious somewhere in the area. By the weekend, the marvellous Missing People charity were active in Hanwell and elsewhere in the borough as were Alice’s friends. Posters began to appear and volunteers were out in Ealing Broadway shopping centre raising awareness as concerns began to grow. Much has been made of the fact that it took five days before the investigation was handed over to the Met’s homicide command, but it should be remembered that missing teenage girls are an all too common occurrence, and to virtually escalate each incident into what amounts to a murder enquiry shortly after the initial report would soon result in the relevant force running out of officers. The fact is that most return or are located within a day or so, and there is absolutely no doubt that there would have been significant communication between officers involved in what would be known as a ‘misper’ enquiry and the Homicide Command well before the official handover that took place somewhere between the 2nd and 3rd of September. The other simple fact is that despite the horrendous incidents of child abuse and grooming that have taken place across the UK, forcible abductions of children by strangers from the street or other public space are a merciful rarity.

Police operations and searching

Few Hanwell residents would question the commitment of the officers they have seen working diligently in their own neighbourhoods. Steve Pound, the popular local MP who lives close to the family and knows them personally, has confirmed the view of those residents that the police have ‘thrown everything’ at the both search and the investigation as did Dyfed Powys police back in 2012 in their hunt for April Jones. This included utilising the expertise of other more rural forces such as Devon and Cornwall and Gwent together with officers involved in the 2012 April Jones investigation.

I know for a fact that the officer in charge of the day to day running of the operation, a personable Detective Chief Inspector, has been working 14 to 16 hour days without a day off since early September. Whilst there is a ‘murder manual’ for these types of investigations, the initial lack of a crime scene differentiated this from the usual Met murder or suspected murder enquiry. Being in day-to-day charge means that numerous plates have to be kept spinning at the same time and make no mistake, the ordeal of this investigation will remain with this popular officer for the remainder of his days. Another point which should be noted by critics is that the Met’s murder squads have a spectacularly successful record in solving murders which include notoriously difficult gang killings where hostility and silence frequently radiates from both the victims side as well as that of the perpetrators. The most strident criticism emanating from the media is in relation to searching and the length of time it took to recover the bodies of Alice and the main suspect, convicted Latvian killer Arnis Zalkalns. The stretch of river where Alice’s body was recovered had been previously searched by police frogman hence the criticism. According to press reports, the body was deliberately concealed using plastic sheeting and heavy logs. More information will doubtless emerge over time and at the inquest, but anyone viewing police frogman going about their task could have nothing but sympathy for them carrying out a fingertip search in demanding conditions. The demands on these officers, who will all too frequently conduct searches for bodies, should be obvious even to the most ardent police critic. To conduct such a search for a child, especially given the fact that most of these officers will be fathers themselves, is particularly exacting. Their emotions will vary from wanting to bring closure to the family and the investigation to hoping against hope that someone, somewhere else will find Alice alive. The officer, who previously searched the area of the river where Alice was found, will now know exactly who he is and will be devastated. His first thoughts will be for the family and the fact that perhaps, just perhaps, his omission may have handicapped the investigation. At the back of his mind will also be whether the Met, so often vindictive to its employees, will compound his misery by taking action against him either officially or unofficially. In his defence, I doubt whether any member of the police, media or public would have believed that the body would have been deliberately concealed in this way. Police frogman, searching of course for evidence as well as a body, would understandably have expected that body, perhaps weighted, to have been simply thrown into the river or canal where its discovery would have been much more a matter of course. The discovery of the body of Arnis Zalkalns is more problematic given that he was found dangling from a tree in an area which had previously been searched. More information has since emerged that the area is especially ‘densely wooded’ and council gardeners, working recently in the immediate vicinity, failed to spot anything untoward. Ex-Met detective Peter Bleksley, speaking on 5 Live, may well have been spot on when he suggested that officers were perhaps so intent on looking down at the ground for evidence, including ground disturbance which might indicate a shallow grave, that they missed the obvious that was above them. Mistakes will have been made but mistakes can occur in any field, even where the individual or group held responsible for such mistakes is nevertheless giving 100% effort. Lessons will be learnt, as they are from any murder investigation, and it is to be hoped that where errors are discovered the Met won’t adopt its usual tactic of ‘circling the wagons ‘and quite possibility looking for a scapegoat. The fact that areas were searched more than once and in some cases as many as four times shows that human error was factored in to the police operation.

Community spirit

Senior officers have heaped praise on the Hanwell community for its efforts and support during such a traumatic time. Hanwell, perhaps due in part to its close proximity to Southall and Heathrow, is a harmoniously multiracial community and every element of that community were involved in the quest to find Alice.

Posters were displayed in shops, offices, restaurants and private houses. They appeared in both English and Polish and in premises that ranged from Halal butchers to Polish delicatessens, from pubs that as a retired police officer I wouldn’t dare set foot in, to Chinese takeaways. It became impossible to walk more than a few yards without encountering yellow ribbons which became the poignant symbol of Hanwell’s desire to find Alice. At the time of writing grief and support are being expressed in the bunches of flowers, candles and messages which have been placed in sublime profusion around Hanwell’s most well known landmark, the Hanwell Clock Tower.

Engagement and communication

The one almost universal local criticism of the police operation in respect of Alice was the lack of regular communication with the public as to the progress of the investigation. I and indeed many others can vividly remember the case of April Jones back in 2012 where the community again responded in outstanding fashion.

A feature of the Dyfed Powys police operation was the almost daily press conference which was not only designed for journalists but provided a regular briefing for the local community. Of course, the public will acknowledge that for sound operational and legal reasons police may decline to reveal aspects of their investigation and would expect the police to say as much when being questioned. Decisions in respect of matters such as press conferences and briefings are conducted at the very highest levels of the Met and in this case the only conclusion is that it was decided that Dyfed Powys style press conferences would not be held. Indeed, a Met spokesperson somewhat irascibly stated that they would not be providing a ‘running commentary’ on the investigation. I know I am not the only resident to have felt more involved and engaged with the April Jones investigation that took place 163 miles away in Machynlleth than with the police operation on our own doorsteps. Occasional one-to-one interviews involving a senior officer with a TV journalist took place and of course the Met will point to the Crime Watch programme, the reconstruction, the release of CCTV footage and the sad announcement that Alice’s body had been found, as examples of the public being informed. Apart from that heartbreaking early morning statement in respect of Alice, these were examples of the Met quite properly requesting information rather than providing it. We were all left scouring the newspapers and internet for additional snippets of information rather than it being provided with a properly controlled briefing via a regular and well-organised press conference. One advantage of regular scheduled press conferences is that the police can clearly show the considerable efforts being made in terms of actions, deployment and resources. Another major advantage is that inaccurate conjecture and comment can be swiftly dealt with before they become headline news. This would have been the case in respect of ill-informed criticism concerning the alleged failure of the Met to obtain a European arrest warrant for Zalkalns. There are still many missing pieces of the jigsaw and unanswered questions that are troubling the Hanwell community. Whilst some will still need to be investigated by the police and others will need to remain unanswered until the inquests, the Met should release what information it can at properly conducted press conferences which will serve to inform and update the entire community. Linked to this issue of communication is the fact that the community were waiting for some sort of announcement in respect of volunteers being required or otherwise for a full scale search. Thousands would have turned out in any weather should any form of request have been made. Of course, thanks to the various CSI series on TV, those same potential volunteers would have been aware of the fact that they could end up trampling all over a crime scene hence possible police reluctance. Equally, properly briefed and with a police officer at intervals of every ten volunteers, much ground could have been speedily covered. Whatever the reasons for not utilising volunteers, which could also have included health and safety issues, an explanation at an above mentioned press conference would have been welcomed. It is also to be hoped that concerns expressed by former colleagues that the hostility and communication difficulties between police and the media which have been created as a result of the Leveson enquiry and subsequent events did not contribute to the Met’s media policy in relation to Alice.

Zalkalns and borders

Criticism in relation to establishing Arnis Zalkalns as a suspect also featured in the media coverage and, as has happened elsewhere in this enquiry, the exact timeline has yet to emerge into the public domain. Certainly when Zalkalns was reported missing to police, he would have been a low priority given the fact that he was an adult. His given address was in another part of Ealing and clearly the priority of the Ealing ‘misper’ unit was Alice.

It has yet to be established exactly what triggered the Met’s interest in Zalkalns; was it was the fact that he used the same canal side route as Alice or did a search of the Met police crimint intelligence system reveal that he had been arrested but not charged in relation to an indecent assault on another young female, or a was it a combination of both that set alarm bells ringing? Almost certainly, as laid down in police procedure, a check would have been carried out with the Latvian police via Interpol and any police officer deputed to carry out a check through Interpol will receive his instructions with a sinking feeling. It can, through no fault of the Interpol office in London, be a nightmare process emeshed in bureaucracy and ineptitude. Results can take days, weeks or even months to complete and sometimes no result will ever be received. It seems the result was, in Interpol terms, received by the Met in reasonable time but there is clearly a huge need here for there to be a quick ‘one stop’ system whereby a simple non-contentious enquiry in respect of convictions will receive a response within the hour. Europol, quick to publicise its own achievements in relation to international organised crime, would seem the ideal location to establish a European Central Intelligence Hub (ECIH), which would consist of representatives from law enforcement agencies of each member country complete with immediate access to their own databases all of which would be based in one location. They would be expected to ‘turn around’ most requests for basic intelligence within the hour. This unit would also prove invaluable to UK border control officers and indeed to police forces across Europe when they are dealing with an arrested foreign EU national. The ease with which Zalkalns entered the UK and indeed could have left it had he so desired once again highlights the ‘chocolate teapot’ nature of UK border controls. Whether this will stir the Home Secretary into remedial action however is doubtful.

No apologist

Although, apart from communication issues, much of the above is generally supportive of police engaged in the operation, I am no apologist for the Metropolitan Police. It is frankly an organisation that has its dark side as illustrated by the appalling treatment of its own people. This was aptly demonstrated by the recent smearing of Police Constable Carol Howard just the day after she won an employment tribunal case against the Met.

The most recent staff survey of the Met shows a complete lack of confidence in those at the top of the organisation and this despite the fact that many officers refuse to complete the online questionnaire due to mistrust in relation to the guarantee of anonymity. The most precious assets of the Met are those rank and file officers who work at the sharp end and who, despite constant vilification by the current government and their lack of confidence in the organisation’s hierarchy, still strive to do their best in the most difficult of circumstances. The extent of the inevitable mistakes made during this complex and emotionally draining investigation have still to be determined but the prodigious efforts of all officers ‘out on the ground’ throughout Hanwell should not be overlooked or forgotten.

And finally

As the months slip by, life will return to normal in Hanwell, yet Alice will be etched on the conscientiousness of the entire community for decades to come. Residents will walk past the Clock Tower and will remember it being covered with flowers and other tributes. They will walk alongside the River Brent and pause for thought at the spot where Alice was found. They will recall the depths of evil to which mankind can sink and they will remember how a community was bound together in kindness and compassion. We will never forget Alice.

Courtesy of Chris Hobbs

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