Officer tells court of regret at grading Gaia Pope-Sutherland medium risk

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Undated handout photo issued by Dorset Coroner’s Court of Gaia Pope-Sutherland, 19, as an inquest heard, Ms Pope-Sutherland was “unsettled” on the day she was last seen alive because of the imminent release from prison of the man she had accused of raping her. Issue date: Tuesday April 26, 2022. (PA Media)
Undated handout photo issued by Dorset Coroner’s Court of Gaia Pope-Sutherland, 19, as an inquest heard, Ms Pope-Sutherland was “unsettled” on the day she was last seen alive because of the imminent release from prison of the man she had accused of raping her. Issue date: Tuesday April 26, 2022. (PA Media)

The police officer who initially graded Gaia Pope-Sutherland as medium risk of harm having considered her case for 10 minutes has spoken of his regret at not making her a high-risk missing person, an inquest heard.

Chief Inspector Steve White said that having reflected in recent days he regretted not treating the 19-year-old’s disappearance as the most serious and with hindsight he should have done.

His decision meant Dorset Police did not initiate the highest level of response when the college student was reported missing by her family on November 7 2017.

Miss Pope-Sutherland, who suffered with severe epilepsy, had run away from her aunt’s home in Swanage, Dorset in a “distressed” state.

Gaia Pope-Sutherland was found dead near a coastal path in Swanage, Dorset, 11 days after going missing in November 2017 (Dorset Police/PA) (PA Media)
Gaia Pope-Sutherland was found dead near a coastal path in Swanage, Dorset, 11 days after going missing in November 2017 (Dorset Police/PA) (PA Media)

Her aunt, Talia Pope, had phoned police to report her niece missing and a missing person report was later opened by a call handler at 6.15pm.

At 7pm Mr White, who was the force incident commander, graded Miss Pope-Sutherland’s status as medium risk having reviewed the log and missing person report created by the call handler.

The medium grading led to a National Police Air Service helicopter searching the coastal areas around Swanage and a uniformed officer patrolling the town centre.

But senior officers and a specialist police search adviser were not informed as Miss Pope-Sutherland was not considered high risk and extra officers were not drafted in to help with the search.

Mr White, who has since retired from the force, told Dorset Coroner’s Court that in assessing the teenager as medium risk he had considered she had left her aunt’s home distressed, had epilepsy, had mental health issues and was receiving counselling as a rape victim.

“I think from having looked at the log and from the time receiving the incident log, opening it and collating my risk assessment onto the incident log was around 10 mins in total – a narrow corridor of time to consider, digest, review and come to a decision,” Mr White said.

“My decision at that time was I felt the risk of harm to Gaia was likely but not serious considering all of those factors.”

The teenager’s body was found near the coast 11 days after she went missing (Andrew Matthews/PA) (PA Archive)
The teenager’s body was found near the coast 11 days after she went missing (Andrew Matthews/PA) (PA Archive)

He told the court he would spend an average of 10 to 15 minutes reviewing a missing person report before making his assessment.

Mr White said at the time he was unaware Dorset Police held a lot more background information about Miss Pope-Sutherland, such as her complaint about receiving indecent images, her past detention under the Mental Health Act and the severity of her epilepsy.

“Given my time again and given time – time being the critical word here – I would have read all of this information top to bottom but as is the role as a force incident commander at that time it just isn’t there,” he said.

“You have to spend a proportionate amount of time dealing with that incident, make a decision and move forward to whatever else needs dealing with.”

Rachael Griffin, senior coroner for Dorset, asked: “From the information available to Dorset Police she should have been a high-risk missing person from the outset?”

Mr White replied: “Yes.”

He went on: “Can I now say that I now regret having allocated that grading of medium risk.

I do regret that initial grading of medium risk and given my time again I would have allocated a high-risk grading

Chief Inspector Steve White

“When I went home at the end of that shift, I walked out of that door believing I had put in 100% and acted competently and professionally.

“I had no doubts in my mind about any of the work I conducted that day. Even when I came back the following shift and I saw the missing person inquiry was still on going and had escalated I still didn’t have any concerns about my initial grading.

“I was encouraged that active inquiries were ongoing and I felt I actually played my part in a professional way to this ongoing investigation.”

Mr White said the first time his grading was questioned was when he was interviewed by investigators from the Independent Office of Police Conduct some 19 months later.

“From November 7 until the day I provided that statement nobody within my organisation had ever suggested that the risk grading was dubious or suspect in any way,” he said.

“Three years later and during the course of reading the media reporting about colleagues of my own, who I have huge amounts of professional respect for, who have given their own view about the initial risk grading, I have had to reflect on that and that has caused me some angst over the last few days.

“I have reflected in some detail, and I do regret that initial grading of medium risk and given my time again I would have allocated a high-risk grading.”

Miss Pope-Sutherland was later upgraded to high risk during the early hours of the following day.

Her body was found on November 18 by police search teams in undergrowth between Dancing Ledge and Anvil Point, close to the coastline.

The inquest continues.

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