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Cambridgeshire officer cleared by IOPC in missing persons case

An officer has been cleared of handling a missing person case by the IOPC which became a murder inquiry. But Cambridgeshire has been criticised over its handling of the Bernadette Walker investigation.

Cambridgeshire has been ordered to overhaul its guidance and procedures on missing persons after a man was convicted of murdering a teenager.

The Independent Office for Police Conduct found the force had lost valuable time by not following procedures when investigating the disappearance of a young girl from her family home.

Bernadette Walker, then 17, was reported missing from her Peterborough home by her mother in July 2020.

She has never been found but her stepfather, Scott Walker, was sentenced to life with a minimum term of 32 years for her murder and her mother, Sarah, six years for perverting the course of justice.

The IOPC cleared an officer for his role in the missing person investigation but found the force needs to improve supervision of missing person investigations and training for the officers who will carry them out.

Bernadette was last seen alive on 18 July 2020 at the home of Walker’s parents when he collected her. Her mobile phone was switched off late that night.

Walker had claimed that she had jumped out of his car and run off.

Officers were informed after Bernadette’s disappearance that she had made sexual abuse allegations against her stepfather days before being reported missing.

These allegations were disclosed by different sources to police on multiple occasions during the missing person investigation. However, no crime was recorded and the allegations were not investigated until seven weeks after the initial missing person report.

The IOPC found the force had no guidance on how officers need to record or share information on abuse.

Cambridgeshire had also failed to access mobile phone data earlier which could have helped uncover the true nature of the crime.

The case was assessed at medium risk for seven weeks and was reviewed by the officer seven times. It was then re-graded as high risk by another officer. Two days later, a homicide investigation began into Bernadette’s disappearance, with her mother and step-father treated as suspects.

The IOPC judged the officer’s performance was satisfactory as they identified essential lines of enquiry, attempted to ensure actions were progressed and carried out timely reviews of the investigation.

The watchdog also found the force’s Missing Person Manual of Standards (MoS) had not been followed because there were multiple response sergeants on duty and none had been designated with completing missing person reviews.

The IOPC has ordered the force to review processes for the supervision of medium risk missing persons investigations and roll out training to response team officers including how to handle allegations of abuse if they are raised during enquiries.

Four officers had already been put on reflective practice following the review.

IOPC Regional Director Graham Beesley said: "Cambridgeshire Constabulary has already taken steps to address some of the issues we have highlighted in our recommendations but there is still work to do.

"We found that aspects of this missing person investigation could have been handled better and there were opportunities missed to progress the investigation and to have earlier taken it in the direction of looking at Bernadette’s mother and stepfather. However, there is no way this could have prevented her death.”

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