Police costs for Gatwick drone fiasco double to nearly £900k – and still no one's been charged

Omnishambles just keeps on rolling and you're paying for it

panoramic view of empty runway at gatwick airport
This is Gatwick's empty main runway, 08R/26L, as it was in December 2018

Sussex Police's probe of the infamous London Gatwick airport drone fiasco of Christmas 2018 has doubled in cost to nearly £900,000 – and the bungling force still hasn't arrested the person or persons responsible.

So far police in Sussex, where the "London" airport is situated, have splurged an eye-watering £886,210 on trying to track down whoever shut down the UK's second busiest airport in December.

Reports dating back to March showed the force had spent £419,000 by that date, meaning the cost of the investigation has doubled over the past five months. At the time, local MP Henry Smith described the force's spending as "shocking".

The figure was revealed in a Freedom of Information response to Gary Mortimer, editor of drone industry news website sUAS News – along with the revelation that police still haven't cuffed anyone over the disruption, other than an innocent local couple who were released after a public outcry. The husband, a drone enthusiast, had been at work when the first sightings were called in – yet police ignored multiple witnesses who knew he couldn't have been flying his drones at the time.

Chief Constable Giles York later doubled down on his employees' behaviour, refusing to apologise for the wrongful arrests and suggesting the two innocent people should have been grateful to police for not having them "released under investigation"* instead, thus branding them as suspects for potentially years.

Commenting on the cash spent on the Gatwick drone investigation, sUAS News' Mortimer told The Register: "The police can't be blamed for the Gatwick drone fiasco; the chain of command that called them out for an alleged incident with no evidence to support it needs to face scrutiny. I believe Gatwick Airport should pay the bill for a false alarm or tell the world what really happened."

Detective Chief Superintendent Jason Tingley told the media that "it was a possibility that there may not have been any genuine drone activity in the first place" – to the evident horror of his bosses. This also fuelled a large number of theories about what had happened, hadn't happened and might have happened but had been hushed up.

Between 19 and 21 December 2018, Gatwick Airport was closed to all flights after sightings of small drones being flown near the airport's southern perimeter. As a precaution, all aircraft movements were halted in case the drones were part of a plot to bring down an airliner.

From those initial sightings the whole thing descended into farce very rapidly. Police eventually confessed that most of the drone sightings after the initial ones were probably caused by them flying their own drone around in a fruitless attempt to spot the rogue craft. Despite tens of thousands of people being stranded at Gatwick and thousands more searching the local area, not one managed to use a smartphone to video anything that looked like a drone flying near the airport.

Sussex Police has desperately wanted public scrutiny of its failings in the Gatwick fiasco to just go away, to the point where the force recently secured the deletion of a YouTube video interview with a senior manager who talked about it.

The Register has asked Sussex Police if it wants to comment on the investigation cost doubling. We'll update this article if it responds but we're not holding our breath. ®

Arrestnote

* "Released under investigation" is a recent police tactic for evading laws that put them under independent judicial supervision. A few years ago it came to light that police workers were abusing their pre-charge bail powers to keep people under police control for years on end while making no effort to formally close investigations into them. Parliament passed the Policing and Crime Act 2017 to end this abuse, forcing police to answer to the courts for their use of bail.

Scoffing at the new Act, police managers simply created a new internal police procedure that looks and functions exactly like pre-charge bail did before the Policing and Crime Act 2017 – except without the external scrutiny of judges and without any obligation on police to do, well, anything at all.

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