The decision made by police to release personal information about Nicola Bulley while undertaking a missing persons operation was unnecessary and avoidable and led to a significant, negative public response.Advertisement
This is one of the conclusions of the Independent External Review of Lancashire Constabulary’s Operational Response to the widely publicised missing person Nicola Bulley which has been published this morning (November 21). Nicola, from Inskip, was reported missing while walking her dog in St Michael’s-on-Wyre on January 27, 2023 and later found by an inquest to have accidentally drowned.
The review, commissioned in February 2023, and led by the College of Policing, provided insight into the effectiveness of the Constabulary’s response over the period Nicola Bulley was missing earlier this year, which saw unprecedented levels of mainstream and social media interest in the case.
Read more: A critical incident, family liaison and personal information: How police could’ve improved in Nicola Bulley investigation
Nicola’s body was subsequently found in the river Wyre about a mile from where she was first reported missing. At the inquest, the senior coroner for Lancashire ruled that Nicola Bulley died an Accidental Death.
Arguably the most controversial part of the investigation was the decision to release details regarding Nicola Bulley’s vulnerabilities. On day 20 of the investigation, on February 15, 2023, police issued a statement which referred to Nicola as ‘high risk’ and with ‘specific vulnerabilities’ with this later being clarified by police as referring to menopause.
The decision to release this information to the public was criticised widely. Zoë Billingham, the chairwoman of an NHS mental health trust who has previously worked in policing, said it: ‘‘smacked either of panic or perhaps even a deliberate decision on the part of the force to think how they can maintain their reputation. That’s quite disturbing on so many fronts. People are asking rightly how does the reproductive status of a woman who has gone missing relate to the bid to find her and would that same information be put in the public domain if she were a man.”
The decision to include reference to menopause was made by a member of Nicola’s family and agreed by all four family members present when the statement was written, according to police. However, while the decision was lawful, the report deemed it unnecessary and avoidable.” It also noted that the critical elements of the statement did not receive sign-off from the appropriate levels of seniority in the investigation.
The report concluded: “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. The decision to release personal information of such a sensitive nature should only be made at the most senior level (chief officer team).”
This was made more complicated by a misleading answer given to the media at a press conference on February 3, when police indicated there were no relevant health issues despite knowing otherwise. This was viewed as a missed opportunity to control the narrative around the investigation and the point at which speculation started to increase significantly.
Recommendations and conclusions
The report includes a series of recommendations and conclusions for Lancashire Constabulary and wider policing, while also commenting on the behaviour of the local, national and social media during the period when the search was active. Some of these points helped contribute to serious distress by Nicola’s family and friends, and potentially harmed overall trust in policing, but the office of Lancashire’s Police & Crime Commissioner Andrew Snowden noted in its summary that ‘none of the findings would have materially affected the outcome of the search or investigation’.
The report found that the search for Nicola Bulley was ‘very well’ conducted, and resourced, by Lancashire Constabulary. However, the decision not to call the investigation a critical incident led to numerous challenges. The investigation not being treated as a critical incident at least partially led to irregular briefings to the public and press, which created a vacuum for ‘social media detectives’ to fill. The delay in appointing a family liaison officer led to Nicola’s family and friends speaking to the media in good faith, but ultimately creating problems for police undertaking the investigation. The report also notes as a more general point that the relationship between police forces and media needs to be rebuilt.
The delay in classifying Nicola’s disappearance as a critical incident ultimately contributed to the decision to not appoint a family liaison team to her husband Paul and her family until seven days after she was reported missing. This, in turn, contributed to the community and family speaking independently to the media, which added to the complexity of the investigation.
In relation to Nicola’s husband Paul Ansell’s conversations with the media – and that of her family and friends more generally – the report concluded: “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 made by the review – namely, a quicker decision by Lancashire Constabulary with implementing an earlier and comprehensive FLO (family liaison officer) structure, and better family engagement from individuals with experience in media and communications.”
During the search for Nicola Bulley, Peter Faulding’s name was one that appeared in several high-profile outlets. Mr Faulding is the chief executive of SGI which claims to specialise in rescue and underwater search. His statements to the media were later often found to be at odds with the inquest findings, the report said.
Mr Faulding was listed on the Experts Advisers Database maintained by the National Crime Agency, and had previously conducted search and dive activities with several other police forces in the UK. In this case, Lancashire Constabulary did not make a request to use the services of SGI, nor was SGI recommended to the force.
There followed communication by Nicola’s family friend to the family liaison officers expressing a strong message that a refusal to use Mr Faulding that day (February 5) would result in a negative press release to the media. Lancashire Constabulary felt that this would undermine public trust and therefore agreed to allow the use of SGI. Mr Faulding offered his services free of charge to the family.
The report concludes: “It is the view of Lancashire Constabulary that Mr Faulding had a significant impact on the investigation and public confidence through his activities and his engagement with the media.
“The review team considers that some of his actions created a more challenging environment for the investigation team.
“His public statements often contradicted the investigative and operational approach, leading to confusion for the public and reducing the family’s trust in the investigation and search operation.”
“None of these actions would have changed the outcome of this tragic case.”
Andrew Snowden, Police and Crime Commissioner for Lancashire, said: “First and foremost I hope today’s report reassures Nicola’s family that Lancashire Constabulary carried out a professional and extensive investigation and despite important learnings highlighted in the report, none of these actions would have changed the outcome of this tragic case.
“This review offers best practice in how high-profile cases can be best investigated and communicated under such spotlight and scrutiny, highlighting the importance of leadership command structures, declaration of critical incidents and resilience within police communications.
“Whilst the investigation into Nicola’s disappearance was found to be well handled and resourced, the media narrative was lost at an early stage, which had a detrimental impact on Nicola’s family and friends, and also the confidence of the wider community. Opportunities for non-reportable media briefings on her medical history and vulnerabilities, or sharing her status as a high-risk missing person were not taken.
“This was always intended as a learning review and as the public’s voice in policing in Lancashire, I will hold the Chief Constable to account for producing an action plan against the recommendations in this report, to ensure we are delivering policing that is efficient and effective for the communities we serve.
“Whilst there is learning for Lancashire, the report draws out a significant amount of best practice and recommendations for wider learning to police forces nationally, particularly around the relationship between the police and the media, which needs to be strengthened for everyone’s benefit.
“I would like to thank the College of Policing for their meticulous work in compiling this review, together with the operational and subject matter experts that contributed. I would also like to thank officers and staff within Lancashire Constabulary who worked tirelessly throughout this investigation, and despite the pressures and distractions, remained focussed on finding Nicola.
“This report concludes what has been a long and painful process for Nicola’s friends and family and I would ask that their privacy is respected whilst they to continue to grieve for their loss.”
Chief Constable Andy Marsh, CEO of the College of Policing, said: “Throughout our work, we have had Nicola’s family and friends in our thoughts. We can only imagine the pain they will be feeling, coming to terms with their loss and pay tribute to their strength and patience. We hope the completion of this review will allow them the space to continue to grieve in peace.
“The purpose of the review was not to attribute blame but identify areas of learning for the constabulary and wider policing. The decision to not call the investigation a critical incident, despite it meeting the national definition, set the tone within the Constabulary, and led to several challenges. The most notable of these was the way the constabulary released personal information about Nicola which was avoidable and unnecessary.
“While we have not shied away from criticism there are also many areas of Lancashire Constabulary’s response that should be commended including an exemplary investigation and a well conducted search.
“At the heart of the investigation was Nicola. I am left in no doubt that she and her family were foremost in the minds of officers and staff throughout the search.
“We stand ready to support the Constabulary, the Police and Crime Commissioner, and wider policing as we look to implement the important learning from this review.”
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