Police have been criticized for revealing Nicola Bulley's health struggles in a review of the police's handling of her disappearance.
Lancashire Police's disclosure of personal information about a missing mother's struggles with alcohol and menopause was “neglectful and unnecessary”, a report led by the College of Policing has found.
The force came under fire for the way it released details of Ms Bulley's medical condition amid a media frenzy earlier this year, with even the Prime Minister expressing concern that personal information had been exposed.
The body of mother-of-two Mrs Bulley, 45, was found in the River Wyre on February 19, about a mile from where she disappeared while walking her dog at St Michael's in Wyre, Lancashire, on January 27.
An inquest concluded that her death was accidental, that she fell into the river on the day she disappeared and died almost immediately in the cold water.
Ms Bulley's family say they continue to mourn her loss and do not want to comment on the report.
A review, published on Tuesday, found that the police's investigation into the missing persons had gone well, but that the force had lost control of the public narrative at an early stage.
Senior officers failed to inform accredited journalists because trust between the police and the media had broken down – leading to an information vacuum and rampant speculation.
The 143-page report, which concludes with 17 recommendations, criticizes senior officers at Lancashire Police, details “inadequate focus” and errors of judgment and questions the culture of the force, with claims chief officers “noticed but failed to act”. and they failed. to show sufficient support to lower ranks.
A huge level of interest combined with wild speculation on social media has put the force under intense pressure during the investigation into Ms Bulley's disappearance.
The frenzy of speculation saw 6,500 international articles written about the hunt in one day, and TikTok videos with the hashtag of her name racked up 270 million views.
Lancashire Police's press office recorded more than 500 media calls and 75,000 incoming comments on social media about the case in about a month.
A review of the investigation carried out by the Constabulary found that as levels of public trust in the force fell, the case should have been declared a critical incident, due to the impact on public trust in the police, with greater media focus and previous use of official family links.
Chief Constable Andy Marsh, who leads the College of Policing, said: “Throughout our work we have had Nicola's family and friends in our thoughts.
“The purpose of the review was not to assign blame but to identify areas of learning for policing and wider policing.
“The decision not to classify the investigation as a critical incident, despite meeting the national definition, set the tone for the police department and led to many challenges.
“The most notable of these was the way the officer 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 Police's response to be commended, including an exemplary investigation and a well-conducted investigation.
“At the center of the investigation was Nicola. I have no doubt that she and her family were foremost in the minds of officers and staff throughout the investigation.”
The report is the latest to be made public of the three separate agency inquiries into Lancashire Police's handling of the case after it came under heavy criticism.
Details of Ms Bulley's health struggles were revealed by police after confused handling of questions about whether any medical factors were at play.
Officers revealed on February 15 that Ms Bulley had “drinking problems” and was menopausal, a revelation which was met with a backlash from the public, with claims it was inappropriate to share such private details. The interior minister, among others, called on the force to explain why they had shared the personal details of the missing woman.
The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO), a public body that reviews information rights, launched an investigation into the force days later.
Lancashire Constabulary said the ICO concluded no enforcement action was needed, although a separate independent review launched on Tuesday by the College of Policing will also look into the disclosure.
Separately, an investigation by the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) into a Lancashire officer's contact with Ms Bulley before her disappearance found no misconduct but informed the force for guidance and the officer about body-worn camera protocol on the body.
The latest review released on Tuesday found that Lancashire Police should have given non-disclosure information to accredited journalists to conduct responsible reporting, without releasing personal information.
He said: “The investigative team had information about Nicola that was not publicly available.
“How this information was ultimately released to the public proved to be the most controversial aspect of the investigation.
“The failure to inform the mainstream media on an undisclosed basis about this information, or the failure to adequately fill the information gap, allowed for rampant speculation.
“This has led to a phenomenal increase in media and public interest in the case, which has been fueled by numerous news items.
“These included the apparent mystery of why Nicola had disappeared, leaving her dog behind and leaving her mobile phone still connected to a Microsoft Teams call.”
He said the relationship between the police and accredited media had broken down and needed to be rebuilt.
Dr Iain Raphael, who led the review, said: “A professional, trustworthy and appropriate working relationship between the police and the media is vital to public trust.
“The report makes it clear that without this, speculation can run rampant and lead to an extraordinary explosion of media and public interest in the case.
“Police also need to recognize the impact that social media is now having.
“Ultimately, the police should aim to be first with the truth and ensure the public has access to accurate and valid information when it is most needed.”
Deputy Chief Constable Sacha Hatchett from Lancashire Police said: “This media demand has been overwhelming at times, and with the benefit of hindsight there are undoubtedly things we would do differently in the future. Indeed, we have already started to We do it.
“There is no doubt that the impact of social media, as experienced in this case, is an area of concern for policing in general that requires more focus going forward.
“It has had a damaging effect on the family, the investigation and our staff, as well as affecting wider media reporting.”
A press conference to discuss the report will be held on Tuesday with Andrew Snowden, police and crime commissioner for Lancashire, who commissioned the report, along with Chief Constable Andy Marsh.