Research report provides unprecedented evidence on the dire state of rape investigations in England and Wales. This research is already resulting in improvements in early adopter forces

By Chris Lines(Senior Communications Officer), Published

Operation Soteria is a unique police and CPS programme to develop new operating models for the investigation and prosecution of rape in England and Wales by June 2023. The policing model is being developed by a team of experts funded by the Home Office (£6.65m from 2021 to 2023).

Professor Katrin Hohl [pictured], Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at City, University of London, is the Joint Academic Lead for Operation Soteria Bluestone, alongside Strategic Advisor Professor Betsy Stanko OBE.Professor Katrin Hohl

Today, the Year One report of the programme has been laid before parliament and published by the Home Office.

Between January 2021 and August 2022, a team of academics, led by Professors Stanko and Hohl, conducted sequential deep dives on the police response to rape in five police forces: Avon and Somerset Police, the Metropolitan Police Service, Durham Constabulary, West Midlands Police and South Wales Police. A wide range of data and information was gathered and examined during the deep dives – including reviews of case files, observations of investigations and training, focus groups with support services and victims.

Following the deep dives, the forces have developed tailored improvement plans to address the findings.

An independent report has been published setting out the findings from these deep dives across the six key areas of research.

The findings are being used to inform the development of the new National Operating Model which will support policing to improve their response to rape and other sexual offences.

The report’s key findings highlight that:

  • investigators and other police staff lack sufficient specialist knowledge about rape and other sexual offending, and there is a need for specialism and research-informed specialist investigative practice for rape and sexual offences;
  • disproportionate effort has been put into testing the credibility of a victim’s account, and there is a need to re-balance investigations to include a thorough investigation of the suspect’s behaviour;
  • the learning and development available to investigators has lacked specialist knowledge about offending, which has been exacerbated by high workloads, the complexity of investigations, and resourcing – this is affecting investigations and victim engagement;
  • there is a direct link between officer burnout, a lack of learning and development and the confidence of officers in whether they are using the right investigative strategies; and
  • better strategic analysis of a force’s recorded rape offences and improved analytical capability is needed to ensure offending contexts are reflected in investigative strategies and when monitoring performance.

Professors Hohl and Stanko said:

“This genuine collaboration has provided unprecedented data access, enabling the academic team to form a holistic, nuanced picture of how pathfinder forces tackle rape and other sexual offending. Some of our research highlights issues raised by campaign groups and replicate findings of earlier work, including those of the end-to-end rape review, while others are new.

Our evidence-informed and research-grounded approach forms a robust evidence base, which sits at the heart of Operation Soteria Bluestone. The police-academic co-created solutions are starting to have traction, but our findings make clear the need for transformational change – there is lots of work to do.

Deputy Prime Minister, Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, Dominic Raab said of today’s report:

“Rape convictions are up two thirds since last year and the number of CPS charges is also up by nearly two thirds from 2019.

“But I want to make sure victims are properly supported throughout the criminal justice process. That is why we introduced a 24/7 rape and sexual abuse helpline, pre-recording of evidence in court to spare them the trauma of testifying during a live trial, and a new approach to police investigations that focuses on the behaviour of the suspect rather than the victim.”

Home Secretary Suella Braverman said:

“We need radical improvement in the way police handle rape cases. As a society, too often, we have failed the victims of sexual violence and that cannot continue.

“This independent report shows that there are big obstacles to overcome and the whole of the criminal justice system needs to work together.

“But there are also early signs of improvement and I’m determined to build on these to deliver a sustainable shift in the way rape is investigated.”

Academics were brought into five ‘pathfinder’ police forces to work alongside frontline police officers and develop new tools for improvement – Avon and Somerset, the Metropolitan Police Service, Durham Constabulary, West Midlands Police and South Wales Police. Early indicators of change can already be seen, including stronger collaboration with prosecutors, improved organisational capability and more specialist knowledge of sexual offending being applied to investigations. A further 14 forces are now participating in the programme.

The national operating model will be tested and refined before being made available to all police forces nationwide from June 2023.

Emily Hunt, survivor and independent advisor to the government on the Rape Review, said:

“This is only the start of the step change we need to make to truly tackle sexual violence.

“While important progress is being made, we cannot rest on our laurels and must continue to ensure victims of rape aren’t just heard, believed and supported, but also have a better chance to see justice done.”

Chief Constable Sarah Crew, National Police Chiefs’ Council Lead for Adult Sexual Offences said:

“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. Everyone in policing recognises that we must do better, and this programme has been met with a genuine willingness and openness to change.

“The evidence tells us that building specialist knowledge, supported by critical thinking and a problem-solving mindset are among the most important changes we can make to tighten our grip on offenders and address falling conviction rates.

“Officers must target rapists by focusing on suspects – not the credibility of victims – and using their legal and policing powers to disrupt offenders and further harm.

“We are seeing green shoots of change in pathfinder forces and after 18 months, Avon and Somerset have increased their adult rape charge rate from 3% to over 10%. Improvements are being made at pace in pathfinder forces and I am confident this work will lead to the sustainable progress victims so desperately deserve.”

For students: If you have been affected by anything in this story, you can find help, support and report an incident in confidence via our You Report, We Support page on the Student Hub. You can also find guidance here.