“Coroner hits out at police use of Google Maps printouts in search for missing man” is the headline of a story appearing on news.com.au today. It also carries the tagline ‘Police slammed over google maps search’.
That is somewhat an overstatement. The Coroner’s findings are available online: Inquest into the death of Darrell Gene Simon (19 December 2018). It should be noted that Mr Simon was last seen on 16 November 2014. The search, the subject of this inquest and the news report took place on 23 November 2014 so the inquest is not talking about a search conducted today. Mr Simon’s remains were eventually located in May 2016.
The Coroner did comment on the search for the missing man and did say, at  ‘The fact the ground search was conducted over only half the property was very regretful and should not have happened.’ The use of google maps as a search tool was subject to comment. At  the coroner said:
Sgt Esaias and SC Reid had obtained an aerial map from the Lockyer Valley Regional Council, at no cost to QPS. It is quite apparent the quality of the images of the property on this map is far superior to the Google map images used in the search of the property and one wonders if the same mistake in conducting a search of only half the property would have been made if this map had been obtained by Sgt Harm.
And at -:
Counsel Assisting submitted there were a number of reasons why Darrell’s remains were not located sooner. Counsel for the Commissioner of Police accepts those submissions. The reasons submitted include as follows:
- The search was informed by a printed copy of a Google Maps image of the property, which is less helpful in determining the property’s boundaries and features than other map products available to QPS.2
- QPS otherwise relied on verbal descriptions of the property and its boundaries by relevant witnesses and did not take any other steps to verify the precise location of those boundaries and then communicate this to those searching the property.
- The property had large areas of impenetrable scrub and lantana and steep terrain, preventing a standard line search from being conducted and making some areas of the property inaccessible.
- The verbal briefing process between SES and QPS following the search failed to identify or alert QPS to the fact the entire property had not been searched and, specifically, that one of the two groups had not searched up to the western boundary.
- Whilst data downloaded from GPS trackers worn by the SES volunteers that day indicated a significant portion of the property had not been searched, this was not identified by Sergeant Harm or any other QPS officers involved in the investigation into Darrell’s disappearance until after Darrell’s remains were located 16 months later by the property’s new owners.
Counsel for the Commissioner submits that notwithstanding those failings in the conduct of the search, there is no evidence this contributed to Darrell’s death. This is accepted.
Is that ‘hitting out’ or ‘slamming’ police? I don’t think they are adjectives I would use.
Many people in the emergency services sector are scared of the coroner. It is a refrain in training – “do it this way or you’ll have to explain to the coroner!” Or a threat that having one’s actions questioned by the coroner is always a career limiting event.
In this case Sergeant Harm had been the “the QPS search coordinator”. It was Sergeant Harm who briefed the SES search parties and who relied on a google map of the property for the purposes of coordinating the search. Sergeant Harm was not subject to criticism for his actions, nor were recommendations made to discipline him or prosecute him. A review of the search by Queensland Police concluded that ‘Sgt Harm had done a creditable search’ (). Further (at ):
Sgt Harm has considered the review and has provided further information as to what he believes could be done to improve the search capability of the QPS. Sgt Harm believes the ability to download the GPS trackers to a laptop on site in this case may have assisted to identify that the whole property had not been searched immediately and a further search of the remainder of the property could have been conducted. He had identified the following improvements:
- Refresher training in the Ozi Explorer for part-time land search coordinators. He has received further training in the system since the incident and found it helpful as the system is not often used operationally.
- Downloading of GPS trackers onto the Ozi Explorer system could be conducted as soon as possible after use at the scene, if possible, to enable immediate decision to be made on search area coverage. A laptop could be made available for field use for this purpose.
- The laptop and GPS trackers could be stored together so they could be picked up at the same time when needed.
Further the police had acted on those suggestions. At :
Snr Sgt Whitehead said these recommendations were all valid suggestions. Since 2016 all GPS search coordinates are either downloaded at the scene or as soon as possible back at the station to verify the area searched. To do this at the scene would require a SAR computer. In any case any delay in considering the GPS data would only be half a day. GPS devices have been sent to almost every QPS station and 700 licences for Ozi Explore had been provided. Snr Sgt Whitehead also QPS have available various mapping sources including Google, RP data and local councils. SAR officers can utilise Intel officers to assist in obtaining such maps if not readily available.
The relevant recommendations from the coroner were ():
ii. That QPS considers the adequacy of resources, information and training currently provided to its officers for the purpose of coordinating and conducting land searches, to ensure officers are able to and do in fact access high quality map products and GPS tracking data in a timely way. Whilst not prescribing how QPS might ensure officers take these steps in the future, an example may be to implement some type of quality assurance checklist that officers are required to complete as they go.
iii. That QPS consider whether improvements can be made in relation to communication between SES and QPS at the conclusion of a land search involving SES volunteers, to ensure vital information is passed on to QPS officers responsible for the quality and accuracy of that search.
It appears that Sgt Harm remains a sergeant of police and his experience in this search has given assistance to both the QPS and the coroner to make recommendations for future searches. Again hardly ‘hitting out’ or ‘slamming’ police nor evidence that appearing before the coroner constituted a direct, personal and career limiting event for Sgt Harm.
This is an example where there were issues in the response, but they are not used to blame police (in part as there was no suggestion that a different response would have saved Mr Simon’s life). Rather the experience has been used to make recommendations – to identify and implement lessons learned – to improve future searches. That is what a coroner’s inquest is meant to do.
For other posts on the coroner and the generally benign response to emergency services and their efforts see all the posts here – https://emergencylaw.wordpress.com/?s=coroner. And can trainers (and others) please stop using the coroner as a threat to obtain compliance.