Learning recommendations for Cambridgeshire Constabulary following death of Bernadette Walker
We have made recommendations to Cambridgeshire Constabulary to improve how it handles missing person investigations, following the death of teenager Bernadette Walker.
Our recommendations were made after we investigated how police responded when 17-year-old Bernadette was reported missing from her Peterborough home by her mother in July 2020.
Her body has never been found but today (10 September) 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.
We found no case to answer for misconduct for an officer for his role in the missing person investigation.
However, our investigation, which began in October 2020 and concluded in June this year, identified potential learning for the force in the area of:
⦁ The supervision of missing person investigations
⦁ Improved training for frontline officers about missing person investigations
⦁ Guidance for officers on how to handle sexual abuse allegations which come to light in the course of a missing person investigation.
(Full details below).
IOPC Regional Director Graham Beesley said: “My thoughts and sympathies remain with all those who knew and loved Bernadette Walker, and will miss her.
“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.
“We hope the force continues to work with us to implement these learning recommendations and to ensure lessons are learnt from these tragic events.”
We have recommended that the force should:
• Review processes for the supervision of medium risk missing persons investigations to ensure it is clear who has supervisory responsibility and that they are identifiable and auditable
We found the force’s Missing Person Manual of Standards (MoS) was, and is, clear that supervision of medium risk missing person investigations are the responsibility of the response team duty sergeant, with reviews to be completed on each early shift.
However, evidence we gathered indicated that on most days supervisor reviews were not completed. Due to multiple response sergeants being on each early shift, and the lack of any centralised record of which of them was responsible for completing the review, there was no way of identifying the specific officer responsible for undertaking this role, particularly when supervisory reviews were not completed in line with the MoS.
• Develop and roll out additional training to response team officers in relation to missing person investigations
We found evidence to indicate that some basic actions were not initially carried out in accordance with relevant national guidance and that key lines of enquiry relating to communications data were not effectively followed up, including missed opportunities to “re-run” forward-facing communications data applications. Officers had authority to monitor activity on Bernadette’s phone but only used it twice in a 30-day period. They would have found the phone was not being used and that may have moved the investigation in a different direction earlier.
There were also inadequacies and delays in applications by officers to the force’s department which handles requests for access to communications data.
In our view, issues of this nature may have contributed to delays in establishing the true nature of Bernadette’s disappearance. As these issues occurred over a relatively long period of time and involved numerous officers, it may be indicative of a broader training issue.
• Take steps to ensure it provides clear direction to officers on handling and recording allegations of crime which come to light during a missing person investigation. In particular, that appropriate guidance is provided regarding the handling of allegations of sexual abuse, domestic abuse or (so-called) Honour Based Abuse – and the potential relevance of such allegations to the investigation.
Our investigation found police 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.
National guidance stipulates that where sexual offences are disclosed during a missing person investigation but were not the original reported incident, this information should be passed to force intelligence and investigated.
We noted that national guidance also instructs officers investigating missing people to consider that part of an abuser’s strategy may be to report the victim missing to portray false concern to cover up abuse or homicide.
Although the force’s local guidance on missing people refers to domestic and sexual abuse as a “push factor”, there is no guidance to officers on how such information should be handled, recorded or shared.
In this case, concerns about the perpetrator may have been raised earlier if these allegations had been handled in line with the national policy and investigated more thoroughly and earlier. This indicated a need to bring local procedure into line with national guidance.
During our investigation we conducted witness interviews with four Cambridgeshire Constabulary officers and a member of police staff. We examined nearly 600 entries on the missing person report and obtained documents generated by the police and other agencies in connection with the missing person investigation.