A force was “lulled away” from appreciating the seriousness of a killer escaping from hospital detention by the experience of receiving regular calls about missing mental health patients, a report has said.
Northumbria Police did not initially conduct a risk assessment when Phillip Westwater absconded from St Nicholas Psychiatric Hospital, Newcastle on January 2 – more than 20 years after being detained.
Westwater was nicknamed “the Black Dog Strangler” after he killed a fellow patient in hospital.
It took 12 hours to recapture him. Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) Vera Baird said a timelier risk assessment could have ensured he was recovered more quickly.
In her report on the incident, she noted that the force control rooms typically received one report each day of voluntary patients going missing from hospitals. Mrs Baird (pictured) said this experience lulled officers into dealing with the incident with less urgency.
When the hospital dialled 101 to report Westwater missing, the call handler asked whether he was “a regular” – a patient who often disappears and needs to be tracked down for their own well-being rather than representing a risk to the public.
Force intelligence incorrectly showed Westwater was allowed unescorted visits outside the hospital. An officer later sent a message via Airwave clarifying this was not the case but the intelligence was not amended.
He was recorded as a “missing person” in the incident log of his disappearance, despite the hospital giving information about his past suggesting that he was potentially dangerous.
A senior officer, unconnected to the enquiry, reviewed the log three hours later and changed the entry to “unlawfully at large”.
But a risk assessment was still not conducted because the force claimed there was a lack of information – despite commendeering Westwater’s records from the hospital.
It issued a press release with no details of Westwater’s past or photo, advising the public only that he was dangerous and to call 999 if they saw him.
Once a photo was eventually issued, a member of the public recognised him within two hours. He was drinking in a gay pub and was detained without resistance.
Mrs Baird said his presence in the pub was significant as the patient he killed and another man he had paralysed in an attack before his detention were both gay.
In her report on the incident, the PCC said she agreed with a force internal review suggesting that officers and staff should be trained to recognise the difference between voluntary psychiatric patients and those detained by court order.
The internal report also recommended training for all relevant officers and staff in risk assessment.