Are the police mishandling the Nicola Bulley investigation?

Lancashire officers have been accused of ‘bungling’ their strategy and having a ‘cack-handed’ approach

Nicola Bulley
Nicola Bulley went missing three weeks ago while walking her dog
(Image credit: Lancashire Police)

Criticism of Lancashire police is intensifying after the force revealed personal information about the missing woman Nicola Bulley.

Lancashire Constabulary is “facing a growing backlash over its handling of the case”, said The Telegraph after it made public that Bulley had struggles with alcohol and the menopause.

The home secretary has asked Lancashire police for an explanation and a source told The Times that Suella Braverman was not “wholly satisfied” by the Lancashire force’s response that it had been trying to dampen speculation.

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‘Bungling’ strategy

A week after Bulley first went missing, the police said they believed she had most likely fallen in the River Wyre. This theory was quickly picked apart by armchair detectives on social media, fuelling the extraordinary speculation that has surrounded the investigation.

When officers revealed earlier this week that the mother of two had been classed a “high risk” missing person due to “some significant issues with alcohol” linked to “ongoing struggles with the menopause”, this led to a wave of criticism.

Martyn Underhill, a former police officer and former police and crime commissioner for Dorset, told The Guardian that Lancashire Constabulary’s handling of the communications had been a “car crash”.

He added that the force’s “media strategy” had left a space to be “filled by TikTok detectives”, and then thrown “a grenade in there that no one saw coming”.

In the Daily Mail, Stephen Wright agreed the “bungling” force created a “void” by “alienating the press” and in “cack-handedly” trying to fix this by releasing details of Bulley’s vulnerability, the force has “only made things worse”.

Officers have acted with “shocking naivety” in how information has been released, Peter Bleksley, a former undercover officer and star of Channel 4 show Hunted, told TalkTV. And the dive specialist who helped police in the hunt for Bulley told Sky News that knowing she was “high risk” would have “changed our whole search”.

Joining the chorus of criticism was former victims’ commissioner for England and Wales, Dame Vera Baird, who told the BBC that the decision to divulge Bulley’s struggles with the menopause and alcohol is “as sexist as it comes”.

A rare note of support came from Nigel Green, a former journalist and an expert on the relationship between the police and the press. He told The Guardian that the force has had to “tread very, very carefully” and “on the issue of when and how they release that she’s a vulnerable person, they’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t”.

‘Significant distraction’

The force is facing the prospect of two reviews. It has referred itself to the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) over the revelation that its officers had contact with Bulley before her disappearance.

Officers attended her family home in Inskip on 10 January, 17 days before she went missing. It was confirmed that this was a “welfare visit and that no arrests were made”, said the Manchester Evening News.

The IOPC has said it is “assessing the available information” to decide whether an investigation is required into the contact police had with Bulley.

Intense public interest in the case has seen “amateur sleuths travelling up to 80 miles” to investigate the disappearance, said the i paper, while the Mirror said that “scared locals” have hired guards because vigilantes are “peering in” the windows of their homes.

Detective Superintendent Rebecca Smith, of Lancashire Police, said this has got in the way of their investigation. Officers are being “inundated with false information, accusations and rumours” and the phenomenal interest has been “significantly distracting”, she told a press conference.

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