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Lancashire Police statement on publication of independent report into Nicola Bulley case

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Nicola BulleyLancashire Constabulary has today welcomed the College of Policing review of the operational response to reported missing person Nicola Bulley.

This review was commissioned by Police and Crime Commissioner, Andrew Snowden, to provide an external perspective on the investigation and associated activity in the search for Nicola.

The Constabulary welcomed the review as an opportunity to highlight any learning and best practice that could be applied locally and nationally and cooperated fully with the review team.

There are some areas of the operation that have received commendation and have been highlighted as exemplary, including the initial response, investigation, and search operation. The support to the Bulley family by the Family Liaison Officers is also highlighted as exceptional, and the Senior Investigating Officer led the investigation professionally and with noteworthy competence. Reassurance to, and engagement with, the community of St Michael’s was also central to our response through our local neighbourhood policing team.

There are also areas of learning that the Constabulary will be reviewing and looking to implement in the future or has already done so.

Deputy Chief Constable Sacha Hatchett is the lead Chief Officer for organisational learning, standards and conduct and is now responsible for ensuring that any learning is considered and implemented.

DCC Hatchett said: “I thank the College for the time they have dedicated to this review and for the recommendations and best practices they have identified, and to PCC Snowden for his support in identifying the learning from this investigation.

“Whilst the review has been published today, it is important to remember that at the centre of all this is Nikki and her family. They have been our priority throughout and our thoughts remain with them as they continue to deal with the grief of losing the person they loved most dearly.

“We have some of the most experienced staff in policing who put others first and the report reflects their outstanding dedication and professionalism; their focus was on finding Nikki and bringing her home to her family.

“When Nikki went missing, all the evidence pointed to the fact that she had somehow fallen into the river. Whilst the media reporting and social media commentary pointed to other possibilities, the investigation remained focused but always open minded. The investigation team’s hypothesis was proven to be right when Nikki was found.

“This was an incredibly tragic case that attracted a huge media and social media interest, placing our policing response and the Bulley family in the spotlight. That media demand was at times overwhelming, and with the benefit of hindsight, there are undoubtedly things we would do differently in the future. Indeed, we have already started to do so.

“There is no doubt that the impact of social media, as experienced in this case, is an area of concern for policing generally which requires more focus in the future. It had a detrimental effect on the family, the investigation, and our staff along with influencing wider media reporting. This impact also extended to many residents in the village of St Michaels, many who were targeted and had their businesses affected. Any police force could face what we did, and we must draw on the learning nationally.”

The release of personal information has been highlighted as a key area of learning by the College.

Commenting on this specifically, DCC Hatchett said: “It is absolutely right that this has been subject to such a high level of scrutiny. We worked proactively with the Information Commissioner’s Office immediately after the disclosure was made and they concluded that no action was required against the force.

“The release of the information was lawful, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t recognise the impact that this had. It is incumbent on me to stress that the decision making process was thorough, considered and based on the substantial risk posed at that time in the investigation. We did not, and would never, make this decision lightly.

“We accept the points raised in the review and the considerations about whether a non-reportable press briefing could have impacted on how the mainstream media reported on the case. We were balancing our obligation to the family, maintaining their desire to keep this information private, and whilst a briefing may have had some impact on the mainstream media, it would have done little to deter social media speculation and comment.”

The media handling of the investigation has also attracted significant commentary in the report, and it is this area in particular which has generated not only local learning but also national recommendations.

DCC Hatchett said: “The speed that this case was picked up in the media and on social media, and how quickly it became national and international focus, meant that incredible pressure and demand was put on our press team and the wider department.

“The report very rightly highlights the significant expertise, commitment, and work ethic of this team and whilst there are points of learning, it’s important to recognise that many police forces would have been overwhelmed by this. They were a small team and they worked tirelessly throughout in support of the investigation. With the benefit of hindsight, we should have considered mutual aid more thoroughly at the time.”

The review has also highlighted times when the leadership of the force wasn’t as effective as it could have been.

DCC Hatchett said: “I am disappointed that our staff didn’t feel that they had the support from us that they needed. We were working hard behind the scenes, but that isn’t good enough and we have learned from this. As noted in the review, the operational oversight and grip on the investigation and search was evident and beneficial, but there are some areas where we could have done better. We know this and I am committed to ensuring that we adopt this learning immediately.”

The Constabulary also benefitted from the expertise of many professional organisations, scientists and colleagues from the wider policing family and it is grateful for the support it received.

In conclusion, DCC Hatchett said: “Everything we did during the investigation and search for Nikki was in the hope we could find her alive and well, and to bring her home to her family, who remained at the heart of everything we did. Sadly, that was not the outcome, and our thoughts are with them as they continue to grieve.”