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A critical incident, family liaison and personal information: How police could’ve improved in Nicola Bulley investigation

Posted on - 21st November, 2023 - 10:00am | Author - | Posted in - Crime, Inskip, Lancashire Police, Preston News, Wyre Locations, Wyre News
Nicola Bulley
Nicola Bulley

The findings from the independent report into Lancashire Constabulary’s response to the widely publicised missing person Nicola Bulley have been published this morning (November 21). 

Nicola Bulley was reported missing on January 27, 2023. What followed was one of the most high-profile missing persons investigations in memory, attracting worldwide attention and coverage from everyone ranging from international media to Tiktok speculators. On February 20, police confirmed they had recovered Nicola’s body.

At the peak of reporting, over 6,000 articles on the topic of Nicola’s disappearance were published in a single 24-hour period. 

Read more: Police decision to release personal Nicola Bulley information ‘unnecessary and avoidable’

Lancashire Constabulary worked to the hypothesis that Nicola had fallen into the river and that there were was no third-party involvement. This proved to be correct, but this morning’s report highlights a number of improvements that could be made by the force. The report stresses that its goal is not to attribute blame, noting that everybody in the police had Nicola Bulley’s best interests at heart and was working under pressures of an unprecedented nature. 

The report spans 143 pages and draws a number of conclusions and recommendations for the future. We have summarised the points below. 

Initial police response: 

The initial grading of the emergency call made by Mr Ansell was quickly and correctly reviewed, assessed and categorised as ‘high risk’ by Lancashire Constabulary, in line with the Constabulary’s and national policy guidelines. The incident had further additional oversight and scrutiny through a later management review meeting. 

The initial response to a ‘high risk’ missing person enquiry, especially the use and deployment of a missing person search manager, was described by the report as highly commendable.

Early investigation:

The management of the early investigation was at a high level for this type of investigation. The attendance at the scene by the SIO (senior investigating officer) and investigating officer demonstrated senior assessment and scrutiny of the resourcing and working hypothesis. 

Greater consideration could have been provided to harness the community as a resource in these early search efforts.

Controlling the scene:

The early investigation used a working hypothesis that Nicola had fallen into the river. From the information known at the time, the review considered the working hypothesis to be correct. 

However, the report states that the scene should have been cordoned off and subject to forensic examination at an early stage. In doing so, additional benefits would have been realised, such as controlling who entered the scene and helping the search efforts. 

More robust management of the scene could have prevented the public intrusion regarding Nicola’s recovery. It is our view that greater efforts at the scene should have been conducted to provide the necessary control. 

Open-minded

There was no suspected third-party involvement, although an ‘open mind’ was being maintained. The approach taken was consistent and evidence-based, and led to informed decision making across the investigation. 

Search activity

From the time of reporting to the discovery of Nicola’s body, the report states it was evident that those leading the search activity had the relevant and appropriate experience and accreditation. The policing response to recovering Nicola was conducted to a high standard and with comprehensive and skilled resourcing. 

The search was later found to be accurate, with the recovery of Nicola’s body found within the defined area, proving the search and investigative hypotheses to be correct. 

Critical incident

Lancashire Constabulary should have adhered to College of Policing APP guidelines on the declaration of critical incidents – in particular, the requirement to consider the reputational impact of high-profile incidents on public confidence in the police. 

By not declaring a critical incident, the Constabulary missed a significant opportunity to signpost clearly – both to those within the Constabulary and to the wider public – the seriousness with which the force was responding. 

The declaration on February 16, 2023 that this was a critical incident was so late that it was rendered ineffective.

Family-liaison officers (FLOs)

The decision not to declare this as a critical incident is likely to have influenced decisions about the deployment of FLOs (family liaison officers). 

This led to FLO support being deployed too late, seven days after Nicola’s disappearance. Without the FLO structure in place, it was more difficult for Lancashire Constabulary to provide guidance to the family regarding the media.

That said, the family liaison team all demonstrated a high level of care, professionalism and dedication to the investigation and support to Nicola’s family. They worked extensive hours and provided a high level of accessible contact for the family, off-duty. 

It is identified that the training delivered by the FLOs course has only incorporated a media element since 2020. As a consequence, a high proportion of nationally trained FLOs have training that predates 2020, with no guidance in this area.

The increased demands placed on a family during a high-profile incident, by both social media and mainstream media, increases the responsibility for the police to navigate these challenges. The gap in media expertise increases the risk both to the family and to the investigation. This is increased further when a family conducts their own media engagement, albeit with good intentions. 

Mr Ansell, the wider family and friends of Nicola, including the family friend who acted as a community spokesperson, were dealing with an exceptionally difficult and disorientating set of circumstances. The independent media and press activity undertaken by Mr Ansell and this family friend, while clearly conducted to support the efforts to find Nicola, inadvertently added complexity to the investigation. 

This could have been mitigated by conclusions previously made by the review – namely, a quicker decision by Lancashire Constabulary with implementing an earlier and comprehensive FLO structure, and better family engagement from individuals with experience in media and communications. 

Public confidence

Lancashire Constabulary’s chief officer team should have recognised the level of media and social media interest in this case, as well as the impact that this was having on public confidence in the force. On this basis, a more senior officer should have been selected to represent the force in the media at a much earlier stage.

The senior investigating officer’s (SIO) performance in the press conference on February 15 was competent. They displayed comprehensive knowledge of all the investigative detail, helping to dispel myths and rumours. The pressure and frustrations of combining both the SIO and PIP4 ‘talking head’ roles were, at times, understandably evident. The SIO received extensive, personal criticism for matters unrelated to their role. Despite this, the SIO continued to lead the investigation and deserves credit for their resilience, commitment and dedication.

Lancashire Constabulary should follow the existing protocol for identifying and supporting a single identifiable spokesperson for high-profile investigations. The greater the level of public scrutiny, the more senior the police spokesperson needs to be

Personal information

The decision to release personal information of a sensitive nature should only be made at the most senior level. Sufficient chief officer team engagement did not take place. This section refers to the press being informed that “Nicola had in the past suffered with some significant issues with alcohol which were brought on by her ongoing struggles with the menopause”.

Lancashire Constabulary should instead have corrected the misleading statement given in the first press conference and used the opportunity to provide an informed non-reportable briefing to the media. 

While the decision to release the most personal information was lawful, the report’s viewed is that it was avoidable and unnecessary. Personal medical information can be released if it is important to assist in resolving a situation – for example, if it is known that a person might react in a particular way because of certain medication. However, unless this type of information has a direct bearing on the case and its resolution, it would be highly unusual for it to be appropriate to disclose.

Forces should, by default, not release personal information of such a sensitive nature, excepting only the most extreme of circumstances where all ethical perspectives and alternative mitigation have been considered.

Speculation and information vacuum

Lancashire Constabulary should have released more regular communications to explain its working hypothesis and search methods to build public confidence – for example, using police search or dive specialists to explain key parts of the investigation. 

Lancashire Constabulary should have recognised that the absence of regular updates on the progress of the investigation created a vacuum for both mainstream and social media to fill, in which conspiracy theories thrived and negative sentiment grew.

The media

It was not appropriate for the police spokesperson to deliver criticism of the media on behalf of the family. This created a risk of it being regarded as the view of the police. 

Despite the significant public interest in the investigation, there was no media presence at the funeral and no subsequent coverage, due – at least, in part – to the steps taken by Lancashire Constabulary and IPSO. Local media would be unlikely to attend without express permission. 

Lancashire Constabulary acted robustly to support the local community in relation to the physical presence of social media influencers in St Michael’s on Wyre, including the arrest and eventual conviction of one individual.

The decision by Lancashire Constabulary not to accept help from other police communicators meant that it was unable to respond effectively to media needs and contributed towards the information vacuum that subsequently developed.

Suspicions

Not declaring that Nicola was ‘high risk’ publicly at the outset of the investigation, with an agreed form of words, had a significant impact on how this case was perceived. 

The narrative from social media commentators, and sometimes from family and friends, was that something suspicious had occurred. Lancashire Constabulary did not do enough to counter this narrative sufficiently. 

Peter Faulding

The management of Mr Faulding’s activities at the scene and his interactions with the media, while discussed at gold group level and a concern for Lancashire Constabulary, was not incorporated into a media strategy. This was despite the clear challenges around public confidence. Police felt Mr Faulding’s contributions were not useful and ultimately contradicted the outcomes from the inquest. 

If a force engages an expert (even if not procured directly), any NDA used should clearly set out the parameters within which the expert is expected to work, as well as the likely consequences if these requirements are not met. A copy of the NDA should be provided to the expert.

While it is recognised that Lancashire Constabulary did not request the services of SGI and Mr Faulding, and that he was not deployed by the NCA, a decision was made to use the services of a commercial dive company and to manage the risk. 

Lancashire Constabulary felt it was placed in an unenviable situation, which would lead to a widespread negative perception that the force were not using every opportunity to locate Nicola.

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