Surrey police are accused of failing to investigate claims that Milly Dowler’s phone was hacked during their inquiry into the schoolgirl’s murder.
The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) said it had been unable to find out why nothing was done because senior officers appeared to have been suffering from a “form of collective amnesia”.
The police watchdog said officers at every level of the murder investigation knew an allegation of hacking had been made against the News of the World, but failed to act, despite suggestions a crime had been committed.
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. Lynne Owens, Surrey police
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 they had taken “management action and issued words of advice” to both officers, although the IPCC concluded neither had a case to answer for misconduct.
Deborah Glass, deputy chair of the IPCC, 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.”
The chief constable of Surrey police, 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.”
Ms Owens said it was “the largest and most high-profile murder investigation in the country at the time”, adding: “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.”
The News of the World admitted hacking Milly’s phone after her disappearance. This led to News International closing the newspaper in 2011 and David Cameron setting up the Leveson inquiry into media ethics.
There had been suggestions that journalists deliberately erased some of Milly’s messages to free up space so they could listen to future messages left on the phone.
It remains unknown whether two missing messages were deleted deliberately or were removed from her message box automatically.
But in 2011, a Scotland Yard lawyer told the Leveson inquiry it was “unlikely” that journalists had erased the messages.