Federation criticises ‘appalling’ treatment of officer cleared of gross misconduct

Sussex Police Federation has criticised the “appalling” treatment of an officer who faced a three-year criminal and disciplinary investigation after his car was involved in a fatal collision with an elderly pensioner.

Jul 17, 2020
By Paul Jacques
Matt Webb

Police Constable Richard Harris was responding to an emergency call in Brighton in August 2017 when the car he was driving collided with 79-year-old pedestrian David Ormesher, from Poole in Dorset, who later died.

It was alleged that the 29-year-old Sussex Police officer’s speed as he drove through Brighton was “not necessary, reasonable or proportionate in the circumstances”, and during the ‘blue light’ run he had narrowly avoided collisions with two other vehicles.

PC Harris, who is based at John Street police station in the city, faced five allegations of gross misconduct when he appeared at a four-day hearing this week at Sackville House in Lewes. It was alleged that he breached standards of professional behaviour relating to duties and responsibilities, all relating to the manner of his driving on August 25, 2017.

However, the independently-chaired panel found that where he had breached standards of professional behaviour, they amounted to misconduct and not gross misconduct, which may have led to his dismissal from the force.

Having considered the evidence and heard a number of submissions and statements in PC Harris’s defence, the panel decided on Thursday (July 16) that three out of the five allegations were proven, amounting to misconduct, and that he should receive a final written warning.

Matt Webb, chair of Sussex Police Federation, said: “The stated outcome at this hearing means our colleague PC Harris can now finally get on with his career, having been investigated over this incident for the past three years. It’s no exaggeration to say that this ordeal has had a significant impact on him.

“Police officers have no issue with being held accountable for their actions – we are the most accountable of public services. And it is only right that following a tragic death the circumstances are fully examined.

“But how can it be just or justified to have a police officer’s life put on hold for so long? This should never have been looked at as potential gross misconduct – why was it treated as such? Sussex Police and the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) need to be asking that question today.”

Mr Webb added: “At this hearing, PC Samantha Cooper, who was a passenger in the police car that night, said PC Harris had been treated “appallingly” throughout the criminal and subsequent disciplinary investigations and labelled his treatment “disgusting”. We fully concur.

“The Police Federation has consistently been arguing for the need for time limits on such investigations. The negative impact of this prolonged uncertainty on a police officer, their families and their colleagues cannot be underestimated.

“As a society, we must give police officers the support required when they carry out these roles, even if the worst sadly happens.

“We must pay credit to our colleague PC Harris for maintaining his professionalism and dignity throughout the extremely stressful process. We also thank his legal team for their hard work.

“Our thoughts remain with the family of David Ormesher, who sadly lost his life as a result of the tragic accident in August 2017.”

The incident was investigated by the IOPC, which referred a case to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) in August 2018 to consider criminal charges. In September 2019, the CPS advised that it would not press charges and two months later, Mr Ormesher’s family exercised their Victim’s Right to Review (VRR). In April 2020, the VRR was completed by the CPS, which again ruled that no charges would be brought.

The IOPC shared its report with Sussex Police and it was agreed that there was a case to answer for gross misconduct, where the threshold for bringing disciplinary action was lower than those of criminal charges.

Sussex Police Assistant Chief Constable Jayne Dando said: “Our thoughts are with Mr Ormesher’s family and friends who have had to wait nearly three years for this matter to be resolved and I would reiterate our profound and deepest sympathies for this tragic incident.

“PC Harris was understandably extremely shocked by the incident and we accept that he was seeking to do his job and was en route to deal with an emergency. However, the panel has found that his actions were not in keeping with the very high standards that we set all of our officers and staff, especially in such circumstances where we expect them to adhere to the high levels of training that we provide.

“Every single day, we look to our officers and staff to make rapid decisions and perform to the very high standards that we expect and train them to carry out. Every single day, hundreds of them do so, but on this occasion events conspired to bring about this desperately tragic result.”

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