Waikato police could have prevented an escaped mental health patient murdering her neighbour, a report by the police watchdog reveals.
The Independent Police Conduct Authority has identified a series of police system failures that resulted in the death of 53-year-old Hamilton woman Diane White.
In 2010, Ms White was bludgeoned to death with a hammer by Christine Morris, who had escaped from the Henry Rongomau Bennett Centre.
Before Ms Morris left the mental home, she told a health nurse that she planned to kill Ms White that afternoon. The nurse contacted the police and two officers were dispatched to Morris’ home.
However, the officers failed to protect Ms White, who was mowing her lawn, instead asking her to call them if Morris turned up.
Morris did turn up, borrowing a hammer from a neighbour and making further threats that she was going to commit the murder.
Further errors were made by the police, including ignoring a call from another neighbour that Morris was making threats.
The report says a dispatcher “mistook the information from this call as a repeat of the information from the first call” and did nothing.
Police received two more calls from the same neighbour – the first advising that Morris had left her address and the second that she’d returned with blood on her face.
Morris was located by police, pleaded guilty to the murder and sentenced to life in prison.
The police handling of the initial threat and the dismissal of the subsequent phone call has been slammed by the authority as “failures”.
“The authority has formed the opinion that the failure of the attending officers to conduct more extensive enquiries at the time of the first house visit; and the communicator’s poor handling of the second call to police were unreasonable and unjustified,” it states.
The report listed a number of police ‘inadequacies’:
- The initial response to the notification of Morris’ escape;
- The lack of thorough questioning of the Henry Bennett Centre nurse during the first call, particularly in relation to known risk factors such as Morris’ profound deafness, her current mental state and the exact details of the threat to kill;
- The dispatcher’s failure to advise the attending officers of the name of the person being threatened;
- The failure to notify the sergeant on duty and all units in the area about the threat;
- Inadequate area enquiries by the attending officers and their failure to seek more information about the person under threat;
- The poor handling of the second call, including a lack of questioning on particular risk factors, and the recording of inaccurate and misleading information, which then led to the key failure to dispatch officers to apprehend Morris;
- The failure to consult a duly authorised officer mental health professional.
The report concludes that “police could have prevented the death of Diane White”.
In the wake of the incident, “remedial action” has been taken against the several staff involved – the report doesn’t state if there have been any dismissals.
3 News understands two officers resigned after the incident.
Police apologise to family, accept report’s findings
A statement has been released by the police acknowledging they failed Ms White and could have prevented her death if they responded properly.
Assistant police commissioner Allan Boreham met with Ms White’s family and apologised to them.
“The sequence of events that occurred in Hamilton that day are a tragic reminder that we have to be at our best at all times, even when dealing with what may initially appear to be routine matters.
“If not, there is always the risk that things can go very wrong - and this is sadly one of those times. We are very sorry about what happened,” he says.
Mr Boreham says police have changed their systems to prevent it happening again.