Hampshire Constabulary was heavily criticised for failings in three separate probes into deaths at Gosport War Memorial Hospital.
The report by Gosport’s Independent Panel said: “From the start, the mindset was one of seeing the family members who complained as stirring up trouble, and seeing the hospital, by contrast, as the natural place to go for guidance and assurance.”
On Wednesday, families learned that as many as 650 loved ones were killed by “unnecessary” opiate painkillers at the hospital – though the force had only ever investigated 92 and no prosecutions were brought.
In the wake of the report, the families, MP Norman Lamb, who secured the inquiry, and health and social care secretary Jeremy Hunt all called for the findings to be investigated by a separate police force.
Although Hampshire Constabulary said it had not previously seen much of the information available to the inquiry panel, it recognised its previous failings had damaged the relationship with families beyond repair.
Chief constable Olivia Pinkney said: “Having taken time to carefully consider the matter, I have made the decision that Hampshire Constabulary must take a step back.
“I certainly would never want to absolve my force of its responsibilities, but we cannot hide from the fact that the legacy of what has happened has caused considerable damage to confidence in the agencies involved, including my own.
“The force has always acknowledged that the first two police investigations were not of a high quality.
“The report makes clear a view from the panel that the third did not look widely enough. We accept the panel’s findings and I would like to take this opportunity to apologise for our part in the distress caused to families for so many years.”
Family members who attended Portsmouth Cathedral this week to hear the panel’s findings said it was just another milestone in their 20 year quest for justice and called for criminal charges to now be brought.
The inquiry into the Gosport scandal found an “institutionalised practice of shortening lives” between 1989 and 2000 during the tenure of one GP, Dr Jane Barton.
Families, who have battled for 20 years to have their loved ones’ deaths investigated, were “marginalised” by hospital staff when they complained, and “failed” by the police and medical regulators who did not act or investigate thoroughly, the inquiry found.
Dr Barton was principally responsible for the practice of prescribing lethal doses of opiate painkillers without medical justification – but senior consultants, nurses and managers at the hospital had been aware of or administered opiates which they should have known could kill, the inquiry and Mr Hunt said.
The Crown Prosecution Service and police are now to review evidence brought forward by the inquiry to identify possible charges.
The public inquiry, which began in 2014 and has been backed by £13m in public money, appealed widely for families with concerns to come forward. The number of cases under investigation tripled as a result.
Gillian McKenzie was the first person to go to the police with concerns about the death of her 91-year-old mother, Gladys Richards, in 1998.
“I really don’t mind if my mother’s case doesn’t get into the criminal court – I probably won’t live that long anyway – but I’d like 15 of the strongest cases to get in,” Ms McKenzie, 84, told The Independent.
The General Medical Council found Dr Barton guilty of “serious professional misconduct” in 2010 after a fitness to practise panel review into the deaths of 12 of the patients in her care.
The panel said her prescribing had been “excessive, inappropriate and potentially hazardous”, but she was allowed to keep her medical licence and she retired shortly afterwards.
At the hearing, Dr Barton said: “I was faced with an excessive and increasing burden in trying to care for patients at the Gosport War Memorial Hospital. I did the best that I could for them in the circumstances.”