British Police Under Fire for Exposing Missing Woman’s Private Troubles

LONDON — Three weeks ago, Nicola Bulley dropped her two daughters off at school and took her dog for a walk. Then she vanished. Her case prompted an intense police investigation and has dominated headlines across Britain.

But it was a statement made this past week by the local police force, revealing that she had “problems with alcohol” brought on by “ongoing struggles” with menopause, that has set off a national debate about exposing her private struggles.

The unusual revelations by the police in Lancashire, in northwestern England, drew condemnation from lawmakers, raised questions about the legality of releasing such details to the public and added fuel to growing anger in Britain about the treatment of women by the police.

Zoe Billingham, a former inspector for the Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services, an independent police watchdog group in Britain, said the police statement “literally stopped me in my tracks.”

“There is no need whatsoever to put the level of detail into the public domain as the force did,” she said. “If it is relevant now, it would have been twenty days ago.”

The statement, she added, made her wonder, “Would they have released that information if it weren’t a woman and what are the future implications for families whose loved ones go missing?”

The tensions come at a particularly fraught moment for Britain’s police forces, who were already under intense scrutiny over a series of scandals and crimes have weakened trust, including violence against women.

A team from Specialist Group International used sonar to scan the bed of the River Wyre in St. Michael’s on Wyre, earlier this month.Credit…Paul Ellis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

A number of policing experts said they were shocked by the Lancashire police comments and have questioned the investigative value of sharing such painful details about Ms. Bulley three weeks after her disappearance. Some speculate that the police would not treat a missing man similarly.

Vera Baird, the former victims’ commissioner for England and Wales, an independent adviser to the government, speaking to BBC Radio 4 on Friday morning, called the decision to release the information “as sexist as it comes.”

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“I’m afraid this is the biggest error that I have seen for quite a long time,” she added, one that would “undermine trust in the police yet further.”

Ms. Bulley, 45, has been missing since the morning of Jan. 27 when she disappeared while walking her dog in a field in St. Michael’s on Wyre, a rural village in Lancashire, some 200 miles northwest of London.

Nicola BulleyCredit…Lancashire Police

While walking, Ms. Bulley, a mortgage adviser, logged onto a conference call for her work but stayed on mute with her video off, the police said. Around 30 minutes later, her dog was found running by a nearby river and her phone was found on a bench, still connected to the call.

In the weeks since her disappearance, little progress has been made in uncovering what happened, despite numerous underwater searches in the River Wyre and an intense public focus on the case.

On Wednesday, the Lancashire Constabulary, the police force responsible for investigating Ms. Bulley’s case, released the highly personal information in a statement, saying that she “had in the past suffered with some significant issues with alcohol” that the police said were brought on by her ongoing struggles with menopause. The force said the problems had resurfaced over recent months, and had resulted in police and health professionals being called to her home 17 days before she disappeared.

The police force itself acknowledged the “unusual step” of going into detail about someone’s private life but added “we felt it was important to clarify what we meant when we talked about vulnerabilities to avoid any further speculation or misinterpretation.” It said her family had been informed that the police were making the information public.

In a statement issued on Thursday, Ms. Bulley’s family said of the police statement, “we know that Nikki would not have wanted this,” but offered some elaboration.

Experiencing perimenopause, the yearslong transition period to menopause, Ms. Bulley had “suffered with significant side effects such as brain fog, restless sleep” and had used hormonereplacement therapy, or HRT, to relieve those symptoms, the statement said, “but this was giving her intense headaches.”

“The headaches caused Nikki to stop taking the HRT thinking that may have helped her but only ended up causing this crisis,” the family continued. “The public focus has to be on finding her and not making up wild theories about her personal life.”

Assistant Chief Constable Peter Lawson and Detective Superintendent Rebecca Smith, both of the Lancashire Constabulary, speaking at a news conference on Wednesday.Credit…Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Lawmakers from across the political spectrum have called into question the choice made by the police to release the information.

Suella Braverman, Britain’s Home Secretary, whose office is responsible for overseeing policing affairs nationally, is “receiving regular updates from Lancashire Police on its handling of this case,” her office said in a statement, “including why personal information about Nicola was briefed out at this stage of the investigation.”

The country’s information commissioner, John Edwards, whose office is dedicated to upholding information rights, questioned whether the release of Ms. Bulley’s private information could actually be deemed illegal under data protection law. He said that his office was asking the police “how they reached the decision to disclose this information.”

“Police can disclose information to protect the public and investigate crime, but they would need to be able to demonstrate such disclosure was necessary,” he said in a statement.

The concerns about Ms. Bulley’s case come amid a broader crisis of trust in the police, as a series of high-profile criminal cases against officers have cast a harsh spotlight on policing culture.

Last month, a former London police officer was sentenced to life in prison for sexual assaults carried out over nearly two decades. In 2021, another former London officer was sentenced to life for the abduction, rape and murder of a woman. Both had been able to continue working as officers despite previous complaints against them.

Despite an extensive search and intense public focus on the case, no news has emerged about what happened to Ms. Bulley in the weeks since she disappeared.Credit…Danny Lawson/PA Images, via Getty Images

The London police force in particular has come under scrutiny, and a report on it, released last year, detailed a pattern of misogyny and bullying. But policing experts have said the issues extend to forces across the nation.

A detailed report released late last year by the Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services, the independent police watchdog, found that “a culture of misogyny, sexism and predatory behavior toward members of the public and female police officers and staff still exists” in forces nationally.

The handling of Ms. Bulley’s disappearance has the potential to do “longer-term damage to that precious bond of trust between. the police and the public,” said Ms. Billingham, the former watchdog inspector.

She said she feared that the disclosure could deter the families of other victims from coming forward.

“We have to think about future victims too and I think it’s really incumbent on the police leaders,” she said, “to step forward and provide some assurance.”

“There are people who now will think twice about calling the police when their loved ones go missing, and that’s a terrible indictment on policing.”

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