COP publish independent review into the handling of Nicola Bulley case

21/11/2023 | College of Policing

The College of Policing has published a review of the operational response to the reported missing person, Nicola Bulley.

The review report indicates that the case generated unprecedented levels of mainstream and social media interest. Lancashire Constabulary's media and engagement team logged over 500 media calls and 75,000 inbound social media comments on the case, with the investigation generating 6,500 news articles globally in a single day. Despite the media frenzy, the report indicates that the police investigation into Nicola's disappearance was highly professional and delivered to a high standard. However, the failure to control the media narrative led to the unnecessary public disclosure of sensitive personal information about Nicola. 

Concerning the public release of information during the press conference on 15 February, the independent external review found: 

  • The decision to release personal medical information was lawful but avoidable and unnecessary. Only if the information is crucial in resolving a situation, such as a person's reaction to medication, should it be disclosed. Otherwise, it would be highly unusual to reveal such private information.
  • Lancashire Constabulary should have foreseen that information about Nicola's vulnerabilities could be made public during the investigation and could have done a better job of communicating this information in a more thoughtful way.
  • The police are responsible for any media statement they request or create. It is important for them to consider ethical implications, especially when personal information is involved.
  • The default practice for police forces should be to not disclose personal information of a sensitive nature unless it is absolutely necessary, in which case all ethical perspectives and alternative solutions should be examined. Only the most senior level (chief officer team) should make the decision to release such information after seeking advice from the DPO, SIRO and/or the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO).

In a statement responding to the College of Policing review, Lancashire Constabulary welcomed it and confirmed that it had fully cooperated with the review team. Commenting on the release of personal information, Deputy Chief Constable Sacha 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."

In a separate statement from the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO), Information Commissioner John Edwards said that it is important to learn from this tragic case, particularly around the sharing of information during a fast-paced investigation. Edwards went on to emphasise that strict laws govern the handling and sharing of personal information in the UK and that the police must demonstrate any sharing of personal information is necessary and proportionate to protect the public and investigate crime. 

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