Research, rape and attrition issues….

This blog was also published in Policing Insight on June 25th 2015

Emma Williams and Jennifer Norman

In 2005 the MPS’ Strategic Research and Analysis Unit began an eight year internal research programme into rape and attrition. The aim was to understand what type of cases were being reported to the MPS, which cases were susceptible to attrition and then to track this over subsequent years. The research identified four vulnerabilities that presented themselves in over 80 per cent of the 677 cases analysed in the first year of the research: the involvement of drugs and / or alcohol in the assault; victims under the age of 18; victims with mental health issues and those with a history of knowing the alleged offender.

The research identified that the more vulnerabilities presented the more likely the case was to result in attrition. The bespoke care packages needed to effectively support these types of victims’ through the process takes time, diversity of thought around gathering evidence to support the case and indeed experience of knowing what might work well in very complex contexts.

One of the best TV ‘fly-on-the-wall’ documentaries we have seen about the reality of policing sexual violence was aired recently over three nights on BBC2. ‘The Detectives’ was an excellent depiction of the GMP Serious Sexual Offences Unit (SSOU) clearly showing the complexity and uniqueness of the investigation of sexual violence and indeed, the very individual and personal concerns that come with the typologies of the victims. We have worked on research in this area for over ten years now and we have never seen such a true reflection of the nature of this offence and the depth of the investigation involved. This is particularly important given the rise in historical allegations occurring currently, and the extra issues this presents for both the victim and the investigating team.

Having followed the interactive Twitter feed #thedetectives, many of the Tweets recognised these difficulties. The importance of the police being professional, compassionate and supportive with victims of rape was clearly recognised. In addition to this, the time given to undertake specialist investigations without compromise was clearly critical. Having specialist approaches to rape investigations and sexual violence that captures local intelligence to bring the offender to justice is key, as well as an understanding of the wider picture of the nature of the problem of rape and the issues that this presents with regard to consent.

We do not have the scope within this piece to discuss all of the very difficult and complex issues concerning rape stereotypes and what this means in relation to consent. However, what is clear in the evidence is that the types of victims reporting to the police, have a realm of vulnerabilities which require time and thoughtful support packages. ‘What works’ in reducing attrition in cases of sexual violence is complicated by a wealth of issues concerning all of the actors involved – the victim, the assailant, and the investigating officer.

The ongoing discussion about the need for officer training about rape is something that we tried to deliver in the MPS in conjunction with Project Sapphire. We attempted to make academic findings from the MPS Rape Review operationally digestible in the form of presentations and delivering training directly to investigating officers. However, the problems with attrition appear to remain as found in the MPS tracking of rape cases up until 2012. In our training courses we had many willing and engaged officers that genuinely wanted to see a difference in attrition rates and yet in reality the evidence appears very challenging to embed.

Creating a climate and culture where officers are encouraged to be innovative and thoughtful when dealing with rape victims is essential. Experience and diverse support is what these victims need. That is what the evidence on victim typologies suggests and that is what ‘The Detectives’ clearly showed us. It seems to us, that rather than continually reviewing numbers and statistics about attrition, there needs to be a real acknowledgement about the structure of the organisation and why this limits practitioners in their ability to deal with this crime effectively.

We acknowledge that the current financial climate presents future challenges about the provision of a specialist, quality service to rape victims and their investigations. However, utilising what is already known about rape is critical, as well as allowing officers the time to be creative in identifying the necessary support that a victim needs to maintain their engagement in the criminal justice process. There are potentially a range of organisational restraints that impact negatively on doing this right; officers having responsibility for too many cases, performance being measured by detection targets, top down policy and training guidance and a lack of perceived support for specialist officers who manage the investigations and complexities involved in this crime.

Currently an understanding of police actions, behaviour and decision making during the investigation is limited. Rather than delivering more guidelines to practitioners, it seems to us that exploring these issues is vital. ‘Evidence’ needs to come from the bottom up in this context, and, it is only when we start engaging with officers throughout the research process and representing their voices, that we will fully understand this picture as it presents in reality for them. We need to encourage the ‘diversity of thought’ amongst specialist officers in this field, incorporate their expertise into policing this crime and what they know about how to deal best with rape and sexual violence.

The most recent independent review into rape in London by Dame Elish Angiolini published in April this year remained critical of the current standard of investigations and noted that the common recommendations made by previous research into this area remain largely unsuccessfully implemented and embedded.

However, one issue that is perhaps different from previous research is the report’s acknowledgment of the over whelming workloads officers have currently and the competing priorities this involves. Until the organisational and political constraints are properly understood and acknowledged alongside the officers’ voice and evidence about what they need, we will never fully understand this complex issue to change the ongoing picture of attrition.

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