Former senior officers at Surrey Police in England failed to act on evidence of the alleged hacking of schoolgirl Milly Dowler’s phone during their 2002 investigation of her murder, the police watchdog has found.
Officers at all levels of the investigation knew that an allegation of hacking had been made against the News of the World but did nothing despite suggestions that a crime had been committed, the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) said.
But the watchdog added it had not been able to discover why nothing was done, adding that senior officers appeared to be suffering from a “form of collective amnesia”.
The findings follow an investigation into the conduct of two senior officers, Deputy Chief Constable Craig Denholm and temporary Detective Superintendent Maria Woodall.
Surrey Police said it had taken “management action and issued words of advice” to both officers, although the IPCC concluded neither had a case to answer for misconduct.
IPCC deputy chair Deborah Glass said: ``We will never know what would have happened had Surrey Police carried out an investigation into the hacking of Milly Dowler's phone in 2002.
“Phone hacking was a crime and this should have been acted upon, if not in 2002, then later, once the News of the World’s widespread use of phone hacking became a matter of public knowledge and concern.
“Our investigation has heard from officers and former officers from Surrey Police who have expressed surprise and dismay that it wasn’t investigated.
“We have not been able to uncover any evidence, in documentation or witness statements, of why and by whom that decision was made – former senior officers, in particular, appear to have been afflicted by a form of collective amnesia in relation to the events of 2002.
“This is perhaps not surprising, given the events of 2011 and the public outcry that the hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone produced.”
Former nightclub bouncer Levi Bellfield was convicted of Milly's murder in June 2011, some nine years after the teenager vanished as she walked home from school after leaving Walton-on-Thames station.
Following Bellfield’s trial, the then Surrey Police chief constable, Mark Rowley, set up Operation Baronet to look into reports that Surrey Police was aware in April 2002 that the News of the World had allegedly intercepted Milly’s voicemail.
Surrey Police Authority and Surrey Police referred complaints against Mr Denholm and Ms Woodall to the IPCC in June 2012 in light of evidence arising from Operation Baronet.
Surrey Police said it had taken action and issued words of advice to Mr Denholm in relation to failing to assess material sent to him referring to phone hacking.
And it has done the same for Ms Woodall, in relation to failing to make the connection between convictions of News of the World royal editor Clive Goodman and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire for phone hacking in 2007 and the events of 2002.
Surrey Police chief constable Lynne Owens said: “Surrey Police acknowledged in 2011 that the hacking of Milly Dowler’s voicemails should have been investigated and both the former chief constable and I have met with and apologised to the Dowler family for the distress this has caused.”
She added: “As the IPCC Commissioner has acknowledged, at the time Surrey Police became aware of phone hacking, the focus of the investigation team was on finding Milly Dowler and then bringing her killer to justice.
“This was the largest and most high-profile murder investigation in the country at the time and remains the largest inquiry ever undertaken by Surrey Police.
“It was right that Milly was the primary focus of the investigation but the matter of phone hacking should have been revisited at a later stage.”