A lawyer representing the victims of Stephen Port has said they remain sceptical about proposed policing reforms to how unexplained deaths are reported.
In 2016, Port was jailed at the Old Bailey for life for the murders of Anthony Walgate, Gabriel Kovari, Daniel Whitworth and Jack Taylor.
In December of last year, an inquest jury concluded that a string of failings by police probably contributed to three of the deaths while the Metropolitan Police has faced allegations that homophobia played a part in how the victims’ deaths were treated.
In a statement on behalf of the families, solicitor Neil Hudgell said the reforms “still leave the door open to interpretation”, and could lead to more unexplained deaths being wrongly classed.
He added that “only time will tell” if the reforms improve the standards of policing, particularly in relation to officers’ mindsets towards young gay men.
“It seems almost unimaginable to the ordinary member of the public for any unexplained death to be anything but fully and properly investigated by our police forces,” he said.
“However, in this case, deaths were classed as unexplained but not suspicious on the very same day that the bodies were found.
“This approach contributed to officers overlooking glaring pieces of evidence which pointed towards murder, and meant key background checks on Port himself were not carried out.”
In January this year a coroner’s report on the deaths identified a “large number of very serious and very basic investigative failings” by police, including a “lack of professional curiosity” about their cases.
The report, by Sarah Munro QC, also expressed concern over how deaths are classified as “unexplained” rather than suspicious.
On Tuesday the Metropolitan Police and the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) responded, saying they have formed four new classifications “so as to provide absolute clarity to officers responding to and investigating deaths”.
These are “expected deaths” – where there is a medical diagnosis; “unexpected death investigated and not suspicious” – where evidence shows “no third party involvement”; an “unexpected death under investigation” – where further investigation is required; and “homicide” – where it is likely there was third party involvement.
However, Mr Hudgell said the families view the reforms with “scepticism”.
“Whether introducing new classifications of unexplained deaths will make a difference is something we, and the families of Anthony, Gabriel, Daniel and Jack, view with a degree of scepticism,” he said.
“It still appears to leave the door open to interpretation, in which the wrong mindset could still result in a death being wrongly classed, and therefore inappropriately investigated.”
The changes will be presented to the Front Line Policing (FLP) Chief Officer Group (COG) and the Met said they aim to embed them across the force by June 30.