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Stephen Fulcher: 'officers under investigation are cut adrift'

A conversation with a murderer began the end to a detective's career at the same time a misconduct investigation contributed to another officer taking his own life. Former detective superintendent Stephen Fulcher tells the story of two complaints investigations.

Former Wiltshire Detective Superintendent Stephen Fulcher

Former Wiltshire Detective Superintendent Stephen Fulcher

Date - 19th February 2021
By - Chloe Livadeas
25 Comments 25 Comments}

A breach of PACE during a conversation with a murderer cost former Wiltshire Detective Superintendent Stephen Fulcher his career. 

The investigation into the disappearance of Sian O’Cannagan on her way home from a night out in Swindon, led by Mr Fulcher, ended with the arrest of taxi driver Christopher Halliwell on 24 March 2011. Instead of taking him into custody and allowing him a solicitor, former Det Supt Fulcher demanded that the suspect show him Sian's location who he believed to be still alive and potentially held captive by Halliwell.

After revealing where he had left the 22-year-old’s body, Halliwell then said to Mr Fulcher “Do you want another one?” before taking him to a second location.

Another missing girl in the town, 20-year-old Becky Godden-Edwards, had disappeared nine years earlier and was not connected to the investigation into Sian's whereabouts. Her skeletal remains were found at the location.

Once in the presence of his solicitor, Halliwell stopped co-operating with Det Supt Fulcher or anyone else at Wiltshire Police.

Because the detective superintendent did not caution Halliwell, the revelation of the whereabouts of Becky’s body was inadmissable as evidence and a conviction was only possible for Sian’s murder. A high court later overturned this decision and Halliwell was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder in 2016, in addition to the life sentence he was serving for Sian’s murder, adding him to the list of Britain's killers who will die behind bars.

Christopher Halliwell, guilty of the murder of two women

But before the high court decison was made, Becky's father made a complaint in 2013 that Mr Fulcher’s conduct had denied his daughter justice. It was referred to the then Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) who launched an investigation and the detective was supended. Becky’s mother, Karen Edwards, always spoke out in support of Mr Fulcher, believing him to be the reason they discovered what had happened to their daughter.

From the point of his suspension in September 2012 to around April 2013 Mr Fulcher was obliged to inform the force if he planned to leave home for more than 24 hours, extended to two nights after a request to take his daughter to look around universities.

He also says his phone was tapped in an attempt to prosecute him for misfeasance in public office, a tap Mr Fulcher alleges was illegally obtained. The force deny he was ever under such surveillance.

“I think it was very, very extreme,” said Mr Fulcher.

“And obviously, you're kept incommunicado and you're barred from seeing any of your friends or colleagues in that period of time. You've got no advice, no independent view of things.”

“It was absolutely horrendous,” he said.

At the hearing in January 2014, Mr Fulcher was found guilty of two counts of gross misconduct (the execution of his duty and inappropriate contact with the media) and received two final written warnings. A few months later he resigned from the force.

In the midst of the search for Sian that ultimately destroyed Mr Fulcher’s career, another senior Wiltshire officer, who was subject to an investigation, hanged himself shortly after being suspended.

Mr Fulcher and DCC David Ainsworth were friends as well as colleagues.

DCC Ainsworth was accused of sexual harassment by colleagues and exposed in the press as having been placed under investigation.

Thirty-three individuals, mostly women, made a total of 26 allegations of inappropriate, sexist comments made by Mr Ainsworth. A grievance was first raised about his behaviour in the workplace in 2009, which resulted in management action, and again in August 2010. By September 2010 more complaints had been made and the Police Authority decided to launch a misconduct investigation.

His mental health deteriorated rapidly as a consequence. He was 49 years old when he hanged himself in his garage on 22 March, six months after he was put on restricted duties.

“What Dave Ainsworth went through to my mind is simply scandalous,” said Mr Fulcher. “No employer other than the police force and possibly the teaching profession would get away with behaving in that fashion towards an employee."

When Mr Fulcher saw Mr Ainsworth shortly before he died, he told him “I don't even know what I've been accused of”.

“He hadn't been served papers. He hadn't been given any clarity, no welfare support,” claims Mr Fulcher. “And he was on the list to be promoted to chief constable of Bedfordshire police. His entire career, everything, collapsed.

“As far as I could gather there weren't any substantive offences and yet he was driven to suicide. It's absolutely unforgiveable in my view.”

David Ainsworth, former DCC of Wiltshire Police 

An inquest into Mr Ainsworth's death cleared the force of shirking any welfare responsibilities. 

Mr Fulcher said Mr Ainsworth’s girlfriend got so concerned about his mental state she wouldn't even let him go to the toilet without leaving the door open.

Three weeks after he'd received the statements made against him, he was signed off as unfit to work. Two weeks later he was dead. 

The investigation into harassment claims was laid on file and the Wiltshire Police Authority commissioned the HMIC to investigate any cultural issues and learning more widely.

The review found that there was “considerable” welfare provision available to Mr Ainsworth; “however responsibility for providing this was shared between a number of individuals”.

“Whilst there was a lack of structure and coordination between those providing welfare assistance to Mr Ainsworth, it is acknowledged that confidentiality arrangements made it extremely difficult to share information.”

The report states there is “no formalised structure at a national level for the welfare needs of chief officers”, and the coroner intended to write to the-then Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) highlighting the issues. It also mentioned a lack of "emotional intelligence" that needed to become part of the force's culture.

There was also an investigation carried out by West Mercia Police into the original investigation into Mr Ainsworth. A file was passed to Wiltshire Police but West Mercia told Police Oracle they were unable to disclose any details of its outcome due to "the time that has passed". Wiltshire also did not respond to requests for information.

Mr Fulcher says he knows exactly what Mr Ainsworth went through.

“You could see the physical and mental deterioration that happened day after day.

“They claim they're acting in the interest of justice and the public good, then leave you for week after week, month after month, in a state of not knowing.

“It's the uncertainty that kills you, that's so devastating. You get up every morning thinking, well, give me an opportunity to make my case.

“There's no end in sight. If you knew you're going to serve a sentence of three years, you have a certain mental approach. When it's open ended you realise that the year has passed and every day you've woken up, put your tie on ready, potentially to return to duty, and found that absolutely nothing happens.”

He pointed out the time constraints placed on officers who are investigating crimes, but not on the Independent Office for Police Conduct. “How is it that these cases go on for weeks and months and years with the IOPC? Well, the answer is because they're not competent.”

He said if he hadn’t resigned, he'd “be another statistic along with Dave Ainsworth and all the other people”.

Wiltshire Police said in response to Mr Fulcher's account “in line with normal practice, any officer under investigation has access to a range of support from the force" and this is "in addition to the support they receive from their relevant associations."

But Mr Fulcher claims he didn’t even get any legal support from the PSA for six months.

Victor Marshall, PSA’s Professional Standards Coordinator, said the PSA provided support to Mr Fulcher throughout the inquiry.

“In line with the standard provision offered to members facing investigation of this kind, this support included a superintendent representative through the association’s ‘friending’ scheme, a solicitor and senior counsel,” he said.

A PSA spokesperson went on to tell Police Oracle: “Legal support is activated when it is required and necessary and therefore the timing of such is in accordance with the association’s insurance policy. Mr Fulcher received full legal support as necessary in his case.

“Welfare support is a matter for the force concerned. The PSA ‘friend’ supports the member during an investigation by liaising with investigators, lawyers and relevant parties.”

The duty of care the force has towards an investigated officer is coming under greater scrutiny, with the Federation currently working with the College of Policing to produce minimum standards of welfare support and mandatory risk assessments. The Federation admitted suicides were an issue they’d recognised, and said support can vary across the country and be non-existent in some forces.

Mr Fulcher said he'd be "very, very surprised" if it has changed since his time because and says a culture shift is required in forces to prevent officers being regarded as pariahs and cut off from others.

“If you've lost the career you’ve been working out for 25 years, and you're suddenly under the cosh, suspended, disgraced, persona non grata and avoided by all the people who would formally come to you for some direction, because you happen to be reasonably senior - how are you supposed to respond to that?”

He says there is a structural problem of internal hierarchies, with some people prepared to climb the ranks "at any cost."

This means many people try not to 'rock the boat' when they see an injustice he adds, "Nobody's going to stand up and say, ‘Look, this isn't a proportionate response to a public complaint or this is not proportionate to the apparent evidence in front of us.’”

He believes the number of suicides by officers under misconduct proceedings is only a fraction of the true figure because it doesn’t take into account former officer suicides.

“Because most people go on a slight downward spiral. And it could have happened to me if I hadn't had (my wife) Yvonne and my daughters. 

“The people going in a downward spiral got publicly disgraced, they've lost their job, they usually lose their home, their livelihood, they become unemployable.

“We ought to be capturing those people because just from my own personal knowledge, there are more people in that cohort than the ones [who take their own lives] while in the job.”

Mr Fulcher says he would never have given up his policing career if he had been treated properly through the investigation against him. He has just returned to the UK after training officers in Somalia and Libya but is unsure what his future holds. But he says he is safe in the knowledge that he helped bring justice to a family who may never have found their daughter.

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Belligerent Badger - Thu, 25 February 2021

Mr Fulcher is far more of an inspiration to decent cops than the vast majority of talentless sycophants, that have climbed to the top of the police, will ever will be. I doff my cap to your Sir.