A damning official examination into how police forces tackle rape has exposed persistent failings in the criminal justice system, including a failure to track repeat suspects, “explicit victim-blaming” and botched investigations.
The long-awaited independent report into the first year of Operation Soteria Bluestone – launched by the government after a catastrophic fall in rape prosecutions – also paints a picture of a over-worked, traumatised and inexperienced police workforce in England and Wales, which is struggling to cope with an increase in rape reports after years of austerity.
The report – whose findings have been accepted by the Home Office – analyses 80,000 rape reports across five forces, includes deep dives into police data and reveals detailed discussions with officers. It is one of the first times academics have been given access to such a range of police records and have worked with select forces to understand how investigations proceed.
It comes as the Ministry of Justice said the most recent data showed “significant improvements” 18 months after the government’s Rape Review into the rape prosecution crisis. The MoJ said police referrals to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) were up 95%, cases charged up by two-thirds and the number of cases reaching the court up 91% compared to the quarterly averages of 2019. In 2019 there were 2,102 prosecutions – the lowest level on record.
But the 191-page report, which contains anonymised evidence from police officers, will make for uncomfortable reading for police leaders and government ministers.
The report said officers lacked specialist understanding and while some didn’t rely on inaccurate perceptions of victim credibility “the overwhelming direction of travel [was] still reliant on inaccurate understandings of victims and offenders”.
It stated: “At worst, officers demonstrated explicit victim blaming and lack of belief in the victim, which impacted on the subsequent investigation. For example, victim credibility was often focused on and used to either close or not investigate cases within some forces.”
Academics also found serving officers who “don’t think that [sexual offences] should be a priority for policing”.
“Some stated that they believed that most reports of rape are just examples of ‘regretful sex’, or that if victims presented additional issues, such as mental health problems or alcohol/substance misuse, then this was the victim’s problem and the legal system was not obligated to safeguard them,” states the report.
The report angered women’s groups with Andrea Simon, director of the End Violence Against Women coalition saying it exposed “the underbelly of policing and the extent to which the police are failing women and girls”. Jayne Butler, CEO of Rape Crisis England and Wales, said it revealed “the most basic failings”.
The report also found that checks to see if suspects had already been reported were not always carried out, despite the fact that researchers found that across all five forces more than half of named suspects had criminal histories for a range of offences and one in four had a history of sexual offending.
The report stresses that officers are struggling to cope with workload and emotional trauma and needed support. A bespoke survey found burnout to be higher than among NHS staff during the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic.
None of the forces had the necessary “data systems, analysts or analytic capability”, and several found vacancies for specialist sexual offences units hard to fill, said the report. One officer who previously worked in CID said he used to consider sexual offence cases “‘pink and fluffy’ cases as they were victim focused, and that he avoided them in favour of burglary and robbery”.
The disbandment of specialist units during austerity had led to a “de-professionalisation of the rape and other sexual offences investigator role” and a lack of learning and development “undermines the ability of any force to upskill officers”.
Inexperience was common in the five examined forces. One officer said: “I think my shift alone consists of about 80% of people with less than two years’ service. And when a sexual offence job comes in, there’s almost like this panic of like ‘Oh my God, what do I do’.”
The report also provides rarely seen in-depth data on the tens of thousands of cases it examined. It found that around one-third of police recorded rapes examined were also related to domestic abuse, rape charge rates varied by local policing areas within the pilot forces, and charge rates were lower for cases involving partners and former partners.
Joint academic lead Prof Betsy Stanko said the report made for “hard reading”, but said it had taken bravery by the forces involved. “I have been amazed at the bravery and honesty of many officers who are determined to change this area of work,” she said.
“At this point, it’s not getting worse, it’s getting better. The conversation that we sparked has made people think about what they’re doing and how they could improve.”
Home secretary Suella Braverman said the report showed “there are big obstacles to overcome” but said that there were early signs of improvement, adding: “I’m determined to build on these to deliver a sustainable shift in the way rape is investigated.”
Justice secretary Dominic Raab said the government had launched a 24/7 rape and sexual abuse helpline, allowed victims to pre-record evidence and introduced a new approach to police investigations “that focuses on the behaviour of the suspect rather than the victim”.
Reacting to the report Labour’s shadow justice secretary Steve Reed said that after 12 years under the Conservatives women “did not feel safe” and “sexual violence and rape has effectively been decriminalised”.
Chief constable Sarah Crew, National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for adult sexual offences, said her force of Avon and Somerset, which first introduced the pilot and implemented changes based on the academics’ findings, had increased its adult rape charge rate from 3% to over 10%.
“Uncovering deep rooted and systemic issues within policing is the first big milestone in achieving the transformational change required to improve the policing response to rape,” she said. “Everyone in policing recognises that we must do better and this programme has been met with a genuine willingness and openness to change.”