Nicola Bulley search expert caused ‘challenges’ and cops went too far – report

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    The search for Nicola Bulley contained errors from both police and Peter Faulding’s Specialist Group International, a new report has revealed.

    Criticism has been aimed at the investigation into the highly-public disappearance of Ms Bulley, 45, with both Faulding and Lancashire Police slammed in part for their actions. Key elements of the police’s efforts, including the conduct of the search itself, have been praised.

    The mum-of-two vanished during her morning dog walk on January 27, leaving her dog Willow and phone – still connected to Teams call – on the bank of the river Wyre, near St Michael's on Wyre, Lancashire. An inquest concluded that her death was accidental, however, conduct surrounding the investigation has been looked at in a report, published today (November 21) by the College of Policing.

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    Mr Faulding and his organisation are said to have "caused challenges to the investigation," after telling police that they had “low-tech” equipment – although it was later found that the force had access to all the necessary gear. Lancashire Constabulary then said it felt it was placed in a challenging predicament after it received pressure from a family friend of the Bulleys to involve SGI in the investigation.

    The force said it subsequently felt it would be criticised if it did not appear to be using all possible resources, which in turn would undermine public trust. SGI offered its services free of charge, however issues emerged regarding communication with the press.

    A chief constable is understood to have given Faulding "suitable, robust advice about the information he is passing to the media – unhelpful to the investigation, the family and wider community".

    Mr Faulding felt that communication with the press had been “within the terms of engagement,” claiming he had no support from police and felt “ambushed” by reporters. The 143-page report noted: “It is the view of Lancashire Constabulary that Mr Faulding had a significant impact on the investigation and public confidence through his activities and his engagement with the media.

    "The review team considers that some of his actions created a more challenging environment for the investigation team.

    "His public statements often contradicted the investigative and operational approach, leading to confusion for the public and reducing the family's trust in the investigation and search operation."

    The force itself has also been criticised in the report, with the College of Policing noting that disclosure of Ms Bulley’s mental health caused distress and led to rampant speculation by the public.

    Shared information surrounding her health was deemed "avoidable and unnecessary," with the report sharing 17 recommendations based on its findings. It notes “errors of judgement” and says senior officers “observed but did not act”.

    Chief Constable Andy Marsh, who leads the College of Policing, said: "The decision to not call the investigation a critical incident, despite it meeting the national definition, set the tone within the constabulary and led to several challenges. The most notable of these was the way the constabulary 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 Constabulary's response that should be commended, including an exemplary investigation and a well-conducted search. At the heart of the investigation was Nicola. I am left in no doubt that she and her family were foremost in the minds of officers and staff throughout the search."

    The report noted that the police should have given reporters non-reportable background information in a bid to encourage responsible reporting. The failure to do this came as part of a breakdown of trust between the two parties, and opened the door to rampant speculation, particularly online, the report said.

    The report said: "The investigating team had background information on Nicola that was not publicly available. The way in which this information was eventually communicated to the public proved to be the most controversial aspect of the investigation.

    "The failure to brief the mainstream media on a non-reportable basis on this information, or to adequately fill the information vacuum, allowed speculation to run unchecked. This led to an extraordinary increase in media and public interest in the case, which was fuelled by several newsworthy elements. These included the apparent mystery of why Nicola had disappeared, leaving behind her dog and leaving her mobile phone still connected to a Microsoft Teams call."

    Deputy Chief Constable Sacha Hatchett from Lancashire Police said: "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."

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