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Comment: missing the point

It is not unusual for police to release personal information during a missing persons inquiry. In fact, it can save lives says former Met officer Chris Hobbs

In my 32 years of policing, I have only been on the periphery of murder and major/critical incident investigations that have provided media headlines and caused public alarm. But I have seen enough to learn that the dedication and resolve of officers to get to the truth is quite remarkable.

Yet, there is no such investigation that could be described as 100% perfect. That’s why, at the conclusion of a major investigation, there is a debrief for officers who have been involved as part of the team/unit and lessons are invariably learnt. In some circumstances there could also be a review either internally or by an outside body. This is happening in respect of the search for Nicola Bulley although there is much head-scratching as to why the College of Policing has been asked to conduct such an investigation rather than the police inspectorate.

The chasm between the mainstream media namely the news channels and press and police, has actually increased over recent weeks. In addition, the part played by certain critical retired officers and social media has been well documented elsewhere.

As a former officer who has little knowledge of underwater searching or large- scale search operations I will offer no comment on that aspect of the inquiry. But there are two issues that I am able to offer some thoughts on.

These days there is little in the MSM that is supportive of police. It seems that editors and owners are constantly pressing their workforce to seek out stories which will show the police in the worst possible light. No-one should dispute the duty of the press to hold the police to account; however, it is the lack of balance which disturbs those struggling to ‘hold the line,’ in the most difficult of circumstances.

To be fair to those in the MSM I should point out that the BBC’s Dominic Casciani wrote an excellent article under the heading, ‘Nicola Bulley: Why can it take so long to find bodies,’ which, in layman’s terms explained the difficulties facing police and other searchers when searching tidal waters.

Dress sense

But elsewhere a lack of balance was plain to see. Some of the most contentious media comments concerned the appearance of the investigation’s SIO at a press conference. The Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday frequently carry articles and editorials which criticise and mock the police. Amanda Platell, a columnist for the Daily Mail condemned the officer’s sleeveless dress accusing her of a lack of respect and asking why she was not in uniform, seemingly oblivious of the fact that detectives don’t wear uniform and are probably not even in possession of one.

Petronella Wyatt, a columnist who has written for the Daily Mail and Sun was also mocking yet both probably didn’t expect such a ferocious response including from a number of very senior serving female officers and even those not normally supportive of police.

Intrusive revelations?

However, the most strident criticism, from the Prime Minister and Home Secretary ‘downwards,’ concerned the decision by Lancashire police to release details of Nicola’s personal struggles together with the fact that officers responded to a ‘concern for welfare ’ incident involving Nicola back in January.

The release of these details was deemed a gross intrusion of privacy to the extent that the Information Commissioner is mounting an investigation. The family’s response to the announcement wasn’t one of unqualified support but neither was it one of harsh criticism.

Certainly, I can recall, the evening before these statements a tweet from a journalist, promising revelations the next day. The decision by Lancashire Police was perhaps motivated by a desire to ‘head off at the pass,’ such speculation, some of which could have been even more hurtful than that endured by the family over the nightmare days following Nicola’s disappearance.

It would be true to say that the maxim; ’it’s OK not to be OK,’ has hugely gained momentum over recent times in relation to those with illnesses relating to mental health, alcohol, gambling, drugs and other similar issues. In addition, debate surrounding the menopause has become increasingly prevalent over the last few months.

But above all, police revealing personal details in relation to a ‘misper,’ is far from unusual. Those suffering from a form of dementia frequently go missing and their illness may well be mentioned in a police appeal.

If a missing person is likely to be violent, then an appeal may well include a warning to the public not to approach. Other appeals may include the fact that the individual being sought is suffering from conditions such as aspergers, autism, ADHD, depression, anxiety, schizophrenia or anorexia. Examples of these will be passed to the College of Policing and the Information Commissioner.

Back in 2014, when a 14-old-girl went missing in the area close to where I live, it was felt necessary to refer to an eating disorder. That did not stigmatise her in any way. The locality was covered in yellow ribbons which were also worn, not just by local people but by police officers. Sadly, there was no happy ending and her body was eventually found. This resulted in some controversy as she had been missed during the initial search. The individual who murdered her was later found hanged.

I do know that such was the strain upon the two senior officers leading the investigation, that their physical appearance actually changed.

The disappearance of the King’s College student nurse last year had a happier outcome in that she was eventually found alive and well in Hampshire. The case again, proved controversial with retired police officers weighing in with criticisms amidst numerous allegations of police racism. At one stage the Met issued an appeal which included the following:  'Owami has been depressed and in the absence of her medication may use alcohol to relieve her depression.' The BTP stated that Owami may appear ‘dazed or confused.’

Speaking personally, the more information provided in an appeal, the more likely I am to remember the relevant details should I encounter that individual and felt it necessary to engage with them.

In one case, which I looked at, the police issued two, ‘concerns for welfare’ appeals. However, at the inquest it was revealed that the male had been admitted to hospital suffering from seizures, had a serious drink problem and had simply walked out of the hospital. He was later found dead. The point at issue is whether a fuller account of his circumstances may have provoked a greater public interest rather than the more usual format which, of course, safeguarded his privacy.

Details of Nicola’s issues may have been publicised to prevent further speculation given that there was already significant publicity concerning her disappearance. Fuller explanations of decisions taken will emerge in due course.

Nicola’s funeral and inquest will resurrect both media and public interest as will forthcoming controversial incidents. Regardless, police will continue to deal with 315,000 missing person incidents a year involving around 170,000 individuals.

For further information in respect of issues involving ‘mispers,’ the charity, Missing People has an excellent website https://www.missingpeople.org.uk/  which includes a support line telephone number.

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