Police slammed over suicide mum’s disappearance

Barbara Hamilton's body was found in woodland. Picture: Contributed
Barbara Hamilton's body was found in woodland. Picture: Contributed
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The husband of a care worker who took her own life has praised a damning report that found Police Scotland “mismanaged” the inquiry into her disappearance.

The body of Barbara Robertson, 36, was found by a dog walker in Clermiston Woods on June 30 – 24 hours after police officers had dismissed claims she was suicidal.

Her husband, Colin Robertson, was left devastated by her tragic death but wants the report to spark an overhaul of police procedures.

He said: “Hopefully some good for the future will now come out of what has happened. We’re just trying to move on and get over it all.”

The report criticises police for the way they handled the case. It found officers “mismanaged” the missing person inquiry and “erred” in their assessment of the circumstances surrounding her disappearance.

It also found medical assistance should have been sought after officers were first alerted to her deteriorating mental condition. She had previously attempted to take her own life.

Although the report stops short of saying it, failure to act at the outset effectively consigned Babs, as she was known to pals, to a course of action that would lead to her lonely death.

Professor John McNeill, the independent police investigations and review commissioner, has now called for Scotland-wide changes to the way police deal with and handle potential suicide cases following his investigation into the mum-of-four’s death.

The tragedy unfolded on June 29 this year after Mr Robertson, a scaffolder, called police over concern for his wife’s mental health.

Officers, however, judged the husband’s call to be “malicious” after interviewing his wife and her 16-year-old son. The couple were estranged at the time.

Mrs Robertson later left her home in Wardieburn Street East.

Police recovered a suicide note from Mrs Robertson’s home but told their line manager the note contained nothing obvious about suicidal tendencies, and claimed it could have been fabricated.

This judgement, and a failure to recover other critical information, meant the missing person inquiry was not immediately given a “high priority” grading.

She was then found dead at 8.58pm on June 30.

Prof McNeill, who examined the case after it was referred for review by Chief Constable Stephen House, said a full search for the delicate woman should have been immediately launched.

His hard-hitting report also found that the inquiry was hampered by a failure to recover communications data from Mrs Robertson’s phone.

Friends of Mrs Robertson, who has three sons and a daughter, aged between 18 and ten, and a teenage step-daughter, believe the police failed to respond appropriately.

Lainey Thomson, 51, knew Mrs Robertson for 11 years and they worked together as carers at the Leonard Cheshire Disability centre, which cares for disabled adults. Mrs Thomson, who was also her next door neighbour, said: “Babs was a very caring person who always thought of others first. She was a good friend and a great mother. Just before she died she had got a new job as a carer in home support. She loved dancing when she went out, but mostly she was a family person. Family and friends were everything to her.

“She suffered from depression but she was a strong person. I think she got very good at covering it up, but sometimes you got a glimpse of it.

“We saw the family at the funeral and they were devastated. I think it was a real shock because she was such a mother figure for her whole family.”

She added: “I thought that the police would interview us when she went missing to see if we could help, but no-one came. Her disappearance was very strange because it wasn’t like her at all.”

Her partner, John Mills, 58, a retired council worker, said the former Broughton High School pupil will be sadly missed.

He added: “With the note it should’ve been clear that something bad could happen. It was obviously more serious than it was treated by police. Babs was a wonderful friend and she’ll be greatly missed by everyone.”

On her Facebook page, Mrs Robertson posted a poignant final entry on June 28 – two days before her body was found.

It read: “The ones who love you will never leave you. Even if there are a hundred reasons to give up, they will find one reason to hold on.”

Independent Lothian MSP Margo MacDonald said police procedures had suffered a “total failure”. She said: “This shows a shockingly low standard of management of the situation where a potential suicide is presented to the police.”

A Police Scotland spokesman said: “Our thoughts are with the family of the deceased at this difficult time. It is clear a number of learning points exist in relation to this incident and we will study all the evidence provided. We note that the PIRC have made a number of recommendations, which includes investigating the actions of specific officers. This point, alongside all recommendations, will be investigated to ensure Police Scotland provide the highest of standards of service to the public.”

The report will be analysed by the Scottish Police Authority’s complaints and conduct committee, which meets on Thursday.

The professor’s recommendations for police

IN his summary Professor McNeill says: “I have made a number of recommendations both specific to this case and more wide-ranging, particularly in relation to the guidance that is available to officers dealing with incidents such as this.” His recommendations to police include:

Treating all calls and reports of people with suicidal intentions with due gravity until evidence to the contrary is obtained.

Providing additional guidance to officers dealing with people reported to be suicidal and examining the Police Scotland Mental Health and Place of Safety standard operating procedure (SOP);

Reviewing practices and procedures within the E Division (Edinburgh) Area Control Room in respect of missing person inquiries.

Emphasising to all officers the importance of carrying out mobile phone related enquiries at an early stage in high-risk missing person inquiries.

People often leave clues via social media. He said procedures should be updated so officers immediately obtain information such as possible account details, log-on, user names, and passwords when dealing with high-risk missing person inquiries.”

‘Officers must be trained to deal with these situations’

POLICE Scotland should copy the investment made by NHS Lothian and train at least 50 per cent of all key front-line staff in mental health and suicide prevention awareness. That is the opinion of Graeme Henderson, director of services at Edinburgh-based mental health charity Penumbra.

He said the Scottish Government’s Choose Life strategy spelt out the importance of first responders, including the police, being trained and equipped to deal with mental health situations like the Clermiston case.

Mr Henderson said: “They are the ones that turn up and make decisions that can have obviously serious consequences and they need to be properly trained and supported to be able to deal with that.

“We have a crisis centre in Edinburgh. Police Scotland know about it. They could have suggested to this woman that she contact that resource. I think the police are not really equipped to make medical decisions.

“The point about past history is crucial in this respect. That should be taken into account and stressed in any training that’s offered to police.

“There was a target to train 50 per cent of all front-line NHS staff in suicide prevention awareness. There should be similar targets for police because often they’re the ones that turn up and deal with these situations.”

Mr Henderson recommended the Scottish Mental Health First Aid and Applied Suicide Intervention Skills courses as examples of existing training programmes that could be adapted for police officers.