Police officers 'shared images of person who died by suicide'

By Mandy McAuley
BBC NI Spotlight

  • Published
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The father said he remains "physically sick" about how his son's death was treated

Two NI police officers have been investigated for more than three years over allegations they manipulated a person who died by suicide's body and shared photos and a video online.

One of the officers has been suspended with full pay while the Police Ombudsman investigates.

It is part of a wider investigation encompassing 11 separate but related incidents spanning several years.

Several arrests have been made, the police ombudsman said.

Warning: Graphic content

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"There are multiple suspects, including police officers and civilians, in Northern Ireland as well as in England," Police Ombudsman Marie Anderson added.

The investigation is looking at a range of possible offences including misconduct, harassment and the suspected supply of drugs.

Ms Anderson said the allegations around the two Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) officers were harrowing.

At a Northern Ireland Policing Board meeting on Thursday, PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne apologised to the family, adding that he "just cannot imagine how harrowing this might be".

The victim's sister told BBC NI Spotlight that her brother's genitalia had been exposed in one of the photographs.

"No family should have had to endure the pain and suffering that has been caused by these images," Ms Anderson said.

The family of the man who died by suicide from Belfast has spoken anonymously to BBC NI's Spotlight team about the alleged actions of the two officers, who were at the scene after their loved one's body was discovered in 2017.

They said the allegations have worsened their trauma, while the family's lawyer compared the case to that of the two Met Police constables jailed for taking and sharing photographs of murdered sisters Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry.

The man's father said he was "physically sick to this day" over the allegations.

"Those police officers were in the house while I was there - asked me to leave the room - and I done everything they asked me to at the time.

"And all that keeps coming back to me is why did I leave the room, because that must have been when they done it, when they took the photographs."

Deputy Chief Constable Mark Hamilton told the policing board that suspension was a "neutral act in employment" and that the PSNI had to abide by the law.

He added that they are "sometimes caught on a rock and a hard place in trying to get that right".

Full details drip-fed to the family

The father was first informed of the allegations by Police Ombudsman investigators 18 months after his son died.

"They informed me that two police officers had been questioned regarding my son and photographs that might have been taken of my son," he told BBC Spotlight.

He said the family was told "it was a very serious affair and we weren't to discuss it".

The full details of what was alleged to have happened at the scene were drip-fed to the family over a number of meetings.

The man's sister told Spotlight the two officers allegedly moved the body around the room in certain poses for pictures and for a video.

The family also heard they added to pictures "an exclamation bubble coming out of my brother's mouth making fun of the way that he was".

The sister added that, during one meeting, the ombudsman and a Scotland Yard officer told her that her brother's genitals had been exposed in one of the photographs.

The same officer also allegedly photoshopped a speech bubble onto one of the photographs of the body and shared it on social media.

She also said she believed the word "taig", a derogatory term for Catholics, was among the language used in the speech bubble.

The sister added that she could not comprehend why anyone would be so cruel as to mock someone who had died by suicide.

The chief constable said: "There is no place not just for behaviour like this but for the added insult if you like of sectarian comments which would almost make your stomach churn if the issues in terms weren't bad enough."

Investigation delay 'unacceptable'

In the five years since the suicide, no charges have been brought against the two police officers but a file has been sent to the Public Prosecution Service (PPS).

The family's lawyer Pádraig Ó Muirigh said the five-year wait for justice was unacceptable.

He pointed to the case of Metropolitan Police officers Deniz Jaffer and Jamie Lewis who were jailed for two years after they photographed the bodies of Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry, and shared the images on WhatsApp.

"I appreciate some investigations are more complex than others but we're five years on," said Mr Ó Muirigh.

"We've had a similar case across the water in similar circumstances and that case has moved on."

Image source, PSNI
Image caption,
The PSNI said it expected "the highest standards of professionalism and integrity" from its officers and staff

He added: "There will be huge public interest in this case and I think the family and the wider public has a right to know why someone has been suspended so long on full pay."

Investigation given 'meticulous attention'

Northern Ireland's Police Ombudsman said it was "vitally important that every aspect of this case is fully and thoroughly investigated".

Ms Anderson said the incident was part of a "much broader and more complex case encompassing investigations into 11 separate and related incidents spanning several years".

"Many of these matters became apparent between 2017 and 2020, either through new complaints or as a result of enquiries by my investigators. The most recent relevant complaint was received in 2020."

She added that:

  • The potential offences under investigation include computer misuse, data protection breaches, misconduct in a public office, harassment, the suspected supply of illegal drugs, and the suspected theft, possession and supply of prescription drugs
  • There are multiple suspects, including police officers and civilians, in Northern Ireland and England
  • The investigation has included a number of arrests and searches, with more than 30 hours of interviews conducted and more than 60 electronic devices seized
  • The ombudsman's investigation is now complete, with a file sent to the PPS

"After the criminal aspects have been concluded, I will consider recommendations to the chief constable in terms of disciplinary action," Ms Anderson said.

"All of those impacted by these incidents can be assured that we have given this case the priority and meticulous attention that it deserves, and we will continue to do so."  

BBC Spotlight has contacted the solicitor representing the police officer suspended on full pay for comment.

'Breaches will be investigated' - PSNI

PSNI Deputy Chief Constable Mark Hamilton confirmed an officer had been suspended while the investigation was ongoing.

"We expect the highest standards of professionalism and integrity from all of our police officers and staff in accordance with the standards contained in the Police Service of Northern Ireland's code of ethics," he said.

"Breaches of the law and the code will be thoroughly investigated and robustly dealt with in accordance with the procedures laid out in our conduct regulations.

"I would encourage anyone who suspects a member of our service of abusing their position, in any manner, to report it to us, or to the ombudsman's office.

"You can be assured that the matter will be investigated thoroughly."

Image source, PAcemaker
Image caption,
Deputy Chief Constable Mark Hamilton confirmed an officer had been suspended

The man's sister said she had lost all confidence and trust in the PSNI because of the way the case has been handled.

"I couldn't even lift the phone and dial 999 now if I was in an emergency. I wouldn't want them near me or my family because they can't be trusted."

These latest revelations about alleged police misconduct follow a BBC Spotlight investigation, Police, WhatsApp & Whistleblowers (currently on BBC iPlayer), which brought forward allegations made by two PSNI whistleblowers.

They alleged serious misconduct and neglect by some officers in one of the largest police districts in Northern Ireland.

Listen to Mandy's interview with the family on BBC Sounds here.