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The police watchdog has said said rail cops must re-examine how the handled complaints made by the family of a young black student whose body was found on a Plymouth rail line, miles from his home.
The body of Romello McCook, a Plymouth University architecture student, was found next to the tracks near the Laira depot – close to where the line connects with Finch Close in Laira – on the morning of September 30, 2018.
A member of British Transport Police’s staff – a fatalities investigator – led the investigation although on the morning of the discovery BTP was joined by Plymouth police, paramedics from South Western Ambulance Service, and Network Rail’s response team.
The coroner’s statement explained that the 22-year-old had been “walking alongside the rail track under Laira Road Bridge and it is believed there was contact with an approaching train.” The coroner noted how BTP had stated they believed the young man’s death was not suspicious.
However, after realising there were a number of inconsistencies from the evidence collected, the family of the student began to call for more inquiries and felt let down at the responses they received from BTP.
Romello’s father, Lawrence, told PlymouthLive in May 2019 that his son was popular and well-liked at college, had no mental health issues or incidents of depression and that the injuries he sustained were “inconsistent with that of a train accident”.
He also noted how his son’s mobile phone had a tracker app installed, allowing his family to keep tabs on him during his time at university in Plymouth and while he went travelling.
In addition, Romello’s father said the phone – which has never been recovered – had been accessed several times since his son’s death.
Lawrence said that at one stage the assistant chief constable of British Transport Police wrote to the McCook family saying they were treating the case as a ‘critical incident’ and would request Thames Valley Police (TVP) conduct a review.
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He told PlymouthLive that BTP had confirmed to him that their officers walked 1,500 metres from where Romello was found “and they could not find any gap along the railway that Romello could have walked to get to where he was found, therefore they would like us to give them his clothes for forensic examination.
“They originally sent them to us without testing.”
BTP were unable to explain a number of inconsistencies, not least that despite having lived in the city for two years, Romello appeared to have walked in the completely wrong direction for some distance, on the railway line, despite there being absolutely no direct route to his home which involved the line.
In addition the BTP investigator mistakenly told the family Mr McCook’s mobile phone was being held by the force, when in fact it has never been found.
A delay of nearly six weeks before realising the phone was not held by the force “meant CCTV footage was disposed of which potentially could have been used to locate Romello and identify people that he was with”.
BTP had previously told PlymouthLive: “The loss of the phone is believed to have occurred prior to his death. Following extensive enquiries by officers, there is no evidence that the phone has been used after the victim’s death, nor has any person attempted to access or unlock it.”
According to investigations carried out by Lawrence, he learned that his 22-year-old son, who hails from Abingdon in Oxfordshire, had been out for the night, leaving his home at around 12.56am on September 30, 2018.
He went to the university student union at around 1am and then onto the Switch nightclub at 3.29am, leaving at 6am. From there he walked to Connaught Avenue where he spent one hour and 12 minutes.
According to Lawrence’s examination of the tracker app, Romello then walked from Connaught Avenue to the ANSA Premier Shop where he stayed from 7.39am to 7.50am, spending £2.29.
The app then showed he or his phone then went to a property in Belgrave Road at 8.03am, which Lawrence strongly believes was the home of fellow students, which Romello had been to a number of times before.
Lawrence noted how Romello – a second-year student – was pronounced deceased on the railway line, near Finch Close in Laira at 10.18am – without his phone, 1.4 miles away from Belgrave Road and in completely the opposite direction from his student digs in Glen Park Avenue.
Lawrence also previously explained that he himself prepared Romello’s body for his funeral, bathing and dressing his only child. He said that despite being told that Romello had been struck by a train travelling at around 70mph, he felt that the injury to the back of his son’s head did not appear consistent with being hit by a train.
He explained that police told him his son had effectively suffered a glancing blow, but Lawrence said that when he examined his son’s body there were no injuries to his back or shoulder, which would have been protruding into the path of the engine.
He also revealed that despite several pleas to friends he was out with on that night – September 30, 2018 – for information, none of them have come forward.
The Independent Office for Police Conduct agreed to review how BTP handled complaints made by the 22-year-old’s parents Lawrence and Vivienne McCook.
The IOPC’s report, seen by PlymouthLive, noted that the initial stages of the investigation were carried out by the fatalities investigator who deemed the matter to be a “tragic accident and not suspicious.”
The report noted: “Clearly the errors made at the start of the process led to the McCook family losing a significant amount of faith in the police process as they were concerned that their son’s death was not being thoroughly dealt with.”
By the time the case was referred to detectives, the report noted that “it was perfectly natural for the family to see any delays, loss of evidence or lines of enquiry not pursued as further compounding their perception of not having their feelings and their son’s tragic death treated with the appropriate severity.”
However the IOPC did not agree with the family that officers acted “in a manner that would amount to misconduct or justify disciplinary action”.
The IOPC did agree with the family that there were grounds to re-examine Romello’s parents’ complaint that the force had not conducted a thorough investigation into his death “due to his ethnicity”.
The IOPC report stated that its investigator observed: “Despite the phrase ‘because he was a black man’ being used in more than one complaint as a perceived reason for investigation outcomes, what none of the reviews have done at any stage, however, is actually ask the McCook family why they felt that ethnicity played a part in how the investigation was carried out.”
The report added: “In this case, the investigation has not addressed this element directly and only touches on the allegation rather than actually examining it in any depth.”
As such, the IOPC upheld the McCooks’ appeal and confirmed that “a full reinvestigation into this allegation is required.”
The IOPC also noted that decisions over other elements of the McCook’s complaints “cannot be reached at this point until the re-investigation has been completed appropriately”.
British Transport Police said in a statement: “We strongly refute the suggestion that his death wasn’t investigated properly because of the colour of his skin.”
It said: “Every single death on the railway is a tragedy and our sympathies remain with Mr and Mrs McCook on the untimely death of their son”.
“We acknowledge that despite extensive inquires to trace Romello’s movements prior to accessing the railway lines, some questions remain unanswered.”
It added that after a “full and comprehensive review of the case into his death and how it was investigated” there was “still no evidence or information to indicate any suspicion or third party involvement, nor is there any suggestion that the service provided was different to what any grieving family should expect”.
McCook’s parents, from Abingdon, Oxfordshire, told The Guardian they welcomed the decision and said they hoped it would lead to a full re-investigation. They are also hoping to learn more of what happened to their son when Plymouth Coroner’s Court holds Romello’s full inquest, understood to take place in June this year, nearly four years after his death.
Lawrence McCook said: “We felt we have been let down because of our ethnicity. That is very sad. Romello was our only child. We brought him to this country from Jamaica hoping life would be good. He did very well. He was very popular and very happy. But the police did not do very basic things when they investigated.”
Vivienne McCook added: “We felt the moment they went down there and saw it was a black person the investigation ended. The case was almost closed from that day. We were hoping the police would help us and they didn’t. We’ve had to become investigators.”
An IOPC spokesperson said: “The purpose of an appeal is to allow the IOPC to consider a police force’s response to complaints and ascertain whether they have been adequately and appropriately addressed.
“We review the force’s investigation and decide whether the evidence gathered has answered all of the complaints and an appropriate outcome decision has been reached.
“Having reviewed an investigation conducted by British Transport Police (BTP) we have partially upheld an appeal.
“We identified a procedural issue with the force’s finding of a case to answer for misconduct for a member of police staff and have directed the force to reinvestigate this element.
“We also identified that BTP failed to adequately investigate allegations of discrimination based on ethnicity made by the complainants.
“This is because the force had not obtained accounts from all of the officers involved and had not addressed the allegations in line with current IOPC guidelines. We have directed BTP to reinvestigate those allegations appropriately.
“Our review did not uphold a number of other allegations including that insufficient information had been provided by BTP on the findings of their investigation.”
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