Almost 500 human body parts kept by police forces

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Police forces in England, Wales and Northern Ireland have stored almost 500 body parts and organs that are no longer under inquiry, a study has said.

The samples were kept from murder investigations and suspicious deaths from as far back as 1960.

The report from the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) said many investigations "failed" to record why samples had been kept.

Brains, hearts and human limbs were among the samples.

The sister of a victim said families would find the news difficult to deal with

The audit was sparked following a series of inspections by the Human Tissue Authority in 2009 which led to the temporary suspension of the post-mortem examination licence in Cardiff.

It found that the Police Service of Northern Ireland kept the most samples with 71 items, West Midlands kept 30, Metropolitan Police 39, Merseyside 37, Cambridgeshire 35 and West Yorkshire 31.

Thirteen other forces said they did not hold any body parts. Scotland was not included in the audit as it has a different legal system.

The report said police were in the process of "sensitively dealing" with the human tissue and informing next of kin where appropriate.

'Duty of care'

Analysis

The Acpo report has disturbing echoes of two similar scandals.

At Alder Hey hospital in Liverpool organs of 800 children were retained.

And at some of Britain's nuclear power plants the body parts of dozens of workers were taken without permission.

Although there may well have initially been good reasons why police forces kept the 492 human organs and body parts identified by Acpo, the report makes clear there was no longer a "criminal justice purpose" for retaining them.

It suggests that some investigators simply "assumed" the body parts were disposed of by medical staff.

And some cases pre-dated the 2004 Human Tissue Act, when there was less understanding of the issues.

However, the disparity between forces - some stored no parts; others dozens - suggests that good practice was not being widely shared.

Deputy Chief Constable Debbie Simpson, from Acpo, said it had a "duty of care" to families of those who died in "suspicious circumstances or in homicide cases".

She said each death was "fully investigated" but there might be "particular reasons why a tissue sample may be taken and then retained".

She said: "It is clear that this is an area where the police service needs to work with criminal justice partners including coroners, pathologists and defence experts to ensure that we adopt and follow good practice.

"Colleagues across the country have had to put officers in place to ensure the upset and trauma that we know we will cause as a result of undertaking this audit is dealt with appropriately.

"We clearly apologise to families that have been further upset and traumatised by the particular audit that we've completed."

Dr Roy Palmer, of the Coroners Society of England and Wales, said families were likely to have faced "renewed upset" at the news.

"This review is an important step in assessing and understanding the current picture nationally and provides police services, pathologists and coroners with an opportunity to learn how to improve our processes," he added.

In Northern Ireland, a helpline has been set up for the families of victims whose body parts were retained.

The family of one victim, Anthony Butler, said they had started legal action against the police.

Another victim, Nigel Evans, had his brain retained by police without his relatives' knowledge after he died in Bristol in 2003.

His sister, Anne Bundy, said families would find the news difficult to deal with.

Nigel Evans Nigel Evans' brain was kept by police investigating his death in Bristol in 2003

"All the families that are involved in this... are probably absolutely devastated," she said.

"For families to have to go through another funeral for the body part is very upsetting."

Reacting to the Acpo report, Julie Middleton, whose son Regan's brain was kept in a jar after he died from cot death in 1999, said there would be a "ripple affect" and many more people would be affected.

"I'd say you're not on your own and there's a little bit of comfort in it, and I just want a sorry or an answer now," she said.

Acpo said there may be a "legal requirement" to retain samples until "convicted prisoners have served their sentences".

The report added in some cases officers had not said which powers were used to seize and retain the samples.

Picture of cot death victim Regan Six-week-old Regan, who died from cot death, was buried in 1999

Police forces can retain samples after a post-mortem examination.

The report made a series of recommendations including a debrief at the end of each suspicious death or murder inquiry to decide what should be done with any retained tissue.

In cases which involved a post-mortem examination but the death was not deemed suspicious, there should be a "clear process" to ensure material was suitably dealt with, it said.

The samples included in the report were kept when there was a murder investigation or when the coroner dealing with the death thought there were suspicious circumstances.

The audit did not include samples from ongoing criminal cases or ones which were still being investigated or were subject to appeal.

Smaller tissue samples and a small number of samples held in museums were not included in the study.

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