Nicola Bulley: 'Cops in charge of search weren't bungling - it was TikTok amateur detectives who were the problem', says Lancashire police commissioner
Within days of the mother-of-two’s body being found in the River Wyre – at St. Michael’s on Wyre – on 19th February, Andrew Snowden had announced an independent review into the three-week missing person’s inquiry that had been carried out by Lancashire Police.
The force’s high-profile investigation had faced some criticism – both over the confident police contention, a week into the search, that Ms. Bulley had fallen into the water and not come to harm at the hands of a third party; and regarding a later decision to release highly sensitive information about the 45-year-old, who lived in Inskip.
Asked by the Local Democracy Reporting Service whether he had ordered the review – which got under way earlier this month – because it was good practice to do so or because he was concerned about the way the case had been handled, Mr. Snowden said that it was important to address the public disquiet that elements of the inquiry had prompted and “ask the questions” that they wanted answering.
However, he added that he also wanted to get to the heart of how one Lancashire family’s very personal and tragic experience had sparked a global media – and social media – storm: and one which served only to heighten their suffering.
“Yes, it is good practice when such a major story has [occurred to review it]. I’m also concerned in a modern policing era [that]…a policing investigation, [which] was sadly correct in its hypothesis all the way along…became such a story – particularly in the national papers – about ‘bungling, incompetent cops’. Yet they were right all along.
“So how did the police lose control of that narrative? I’m grateful to outlets like the Lancashire Post, BBC Radio Lancashire, the Lancashire Telegraph and Blackpool Gazette… all [of whom] were very measured and sensible in their reporting and listened to what the police were saying.
“But that wasn’t the case with a lot of the national newspapers – and then this became an internationalised, sensationalised story.
“TikTok, in particular, [saw] online amateur detectives pushing conspiracy theories out, which resulted in vile abuse towards Nicola’s family and friends. How did that get so out of hand?” Mr Snowden asked in a broader interview to mark the start of the final year of his current term of office.
The Conservative politician said he had his own “personal views” about the publication by police of details including Ms. Bulley’s related struggles with the menopause and alcohol, which were issued with the knowledge of her family in a statement on 15th February in an attempt to quell speculation about “vulnerabilities” that detectives had referred to her as having during a press conference earlier that day. However, Mr. Snowden said he did not want to “pre-empt” the outcome of the review he had requested, which is being conducted by the College of Policing.
While stressing that he is not able to “direct and control operational resources” in his role as commissioner, he said that he had received “regular briefings from the chief officer team on the case as it unfolded, including on Saturdays and Sundays”.
The College of Policing Review is expected to report in the autumn. It will have three areas of focus – the operational response to the high-risk missing person investigation mounted to find Nicola Bulley, communication and engagement with the press, public and family, and decision-making surrounding the disclosure of sensitive personal information.
“[My] thoughts remain with Nicola’s family and friends at what is an absolutely tragic time – and every single step of the way that we’re going with this review, family liaison officers are in place and we’re making sure that we do it with as much sensitivity…as possible,” Mr. Snowden added.
Earlier this month, the Information Commissioner’s Office decided not to take any enforcement action against Lancashire Police over its disclosure of Nicola Bulley’s personal information.
Meanwhile, the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) cleared the force of any wrongdoing over contact it had had with her prior to her disappearance. However, what were described as two “areas of learning” were identified.