Police watchdog says missing person investigation in Bernadette Walker case ‘could have been handled better
Police could have handled some aspects of the missing persons investigation for murdered teenager Bernadette Walker better but there is “no way this could have prevented her death”, a watchdog has said.
The 17-year-old was last seen alive on July 18 last year and was reported missing by her mother, Sarah Walker, three days later.
The missing persons investigation was initially assessed as “medium risk”, remaining so for seven weeks before it was regraded as “high risk” and two days later a homicide investigation began.
The man Bernadette called her father, 51-year-old Scott Walker, was found guilty of her murder and sentenced on Friday at Cambridge Crown Court to life in prison with a minimum term of 32 years.
He and the teenager’s 38-year-old mother, Sarah Walker, tried to cover up her death, sending messages from her phone to give the impression she was still alive.
Both defendants were convicted of perverting the course of justice, with Sarah Walker jailed for six years.
The Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) said in July that it found no case to answer for misconduct for an officer over his role in the missing persons investigation.
However, the IOPC investigation, which began last October and concluded in June this year, identified “potential learning” for Cambridgeshire Police.
This included supervision of missing persons investigations, and improved training for frontline officers about such inquiries.
It also included guidance for officers on how to handle sexual abuse allegations which come to light in the course of a missing persons investigation.
Bernadette had claimed that Scott Walker had sexually abused her.
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.”
The watchdog’s investigation found that police were informed that Bernadette had made allegations of sexual abuse but these were not investigated until seven weeks after she was first reported missing.
National guidance stipulates that, where sexual offences are disclosed during a missing persons inquiry but were not the original reported incident, this information should be passed to force intelligence and investigated.
The IOPC 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.
It recommended that the force’s procedures be brought in line with national guidance.
The IOPC also recommended further training, noting that officers had authority to monitor activity on Bernadette’s phone but only used it twice in a 30-day period.
And it recommended a review of processes to ensure it is clear who is responsible for supervision reviews, and that they are identifiable and auditable.