Supporting police in improving procedural justice for rape victims

Published: 19 December 2022

UofG academics at the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research (SCCJR) have led on improving police engagement with victim-survivors for a project that aims to bring about significant improvements in the criminal justice system’s response to rape.

University of Glasgow academics at the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research (SCCJR) have led on improving police engagement with victim-survivors for a project that's aiming to improve the criminal justice system’s response to rape.

Operation Soteria Bluestone Year 1 Report 2021 - 2022 shares progress from the UK Government’s Rape Review Action plan, which sought to increase the volumes of trials being heard and ensure more rapists face justice. The project (currently based in England and Wales) brought together leading academics and the police, giving the former unprecedented and deep access to police data and evidence.

SCCJR based academics Dr Kelly Johnson and Dr Oona Brooks-Hay were Principal Investigator and Co-Investigator for the project’s ‘Embedding procedural justice and police engaging with victims’ workstream.

Procedural justice focuses on how criminal justice processes are experienced rather than on case outcomes alone. With relatively little known about how procedural justice applies to victim-survivors of sexual violence, this workstream explored how police could improve their responses and embed procedural justice when engaging with victim-survivors of sexual violence.

The importance of procedural justice to victim-survivors was clear. As one participant commented: “My case ended in a guilty verdict with a ten-year sentence, but when people ask me about my experience it isn’t ‘yay he got put in prison’, it's ‘well I was let down at this point, and this point, and at this point, and this point’”.

Although good practice was observed, police engagement with victim-survivors remains ‘patchy’ and inconsistent, affected by lack of resources, specialism and burnout in policing.

Dr Kelly Johnson, Principal Investigator at the SCCJR, said:

“Whilst it is encouraging to see that victims of rape and sexual violence are beginning to benefit from the focused effort to improve sexual violence investigations and prosecutions, it is clear that there remains a lot of work to be done, which is why work like our police-academic collaboration is so important.

“We know that that the criminal justice process can retraumatise and be harmful for victim-survivors of sexual violence. Victims and the organisations that support them have felt badly let down - as one victim-survivor we spoke to summarised this problem as: ‘you’re put in an intrusive situation when you get raped and then the investigation’s just intrusive as well from start to finish’”.

“Whilst many individual officers recognised the issues, and wanted to provide a good service to victim-survivors, we also heard about deeply traumatic experiences of reporting to police, and inconsistency in how victims are treated. Crucially, victims’ rights and interests are not currently a central focus of the police response. Their privacy rights can be ignored or undermined, sometimes inadvertently, and we found evidence of continuing problems with rape myths and officer judgements about victim credibility. We also heard that poor victim-survivor treatment was linked to a lack of specialism, resources, and burnout - making it a far bigger issue that goes beyond individual police force’s capabilities.

“Hearing and sharing the voices of victims, and those who advocate for them, was key to this research, and this is only the start of a long-term project for change that we hope will eventually be rolled out across every UK police force.”

Emily Hunt, survivor and independent advisor to the Government on the Rape Review, said: “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.”

Building on the 2019 London Rape Review led by Claire Waxman OBE, London’s Victims’ Commissioner, a new approach to transform the policing response to rape was developed within the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime (MOPAC) and by academics Dr Katrin Hohl and Professor Betsy Stanko.

This was first trialled as Project Bluestone within Avon & Somerset Police (January-March 2021), funded by the Home Office. It is the blueprint for Operation Soteria Bluestone, which aims to build a new national operating model for the investigation of rape and serious sexual assault.

Over the first year, the police element of the programme examined a wide range of data in the five forces including case files, observations of investigations and training, reviews of body worn video footage, video-recorded interviews and forces’ guidance and procedures - in addition to consulting with victim-survivors and hearing their invaluable testimonies.

The programme has already been expanded to 14 further police forces and three new CPS areas. It comprises of six workstreams, all looking at different aspects of the investigative process: suspect focused investigations, challenging and disrupting repeat offenders, victim engagement, learning and development and wellbeing, review of data, and performance and digital forensics.

Workstream 3 was led by Oona Brooks-Hay (co-Investigator), Sophie Geoghegan-Fittall, Beth Jennings, Kelly Johnson (Principal Investigator), Adrian Harris (Project Co-ordinator), Susan Hillyard, Katrin Hohl (co-Investigator), Sarah Molisso, Andy Myhill (co-Investigator), Olivia Smith (Principal Investigator) and Rosa Walling-Wefelmeyer.

Dr Kelly Johnson said: “On behalf of Oona and myself, I’d like to thank the officers, specialist support service workers and victim-survivors who participated in our work during Year 1. We especially want to acknowledge the invaluable contributions from victim-survivors who generously shared their experiences with us. Thank you also to the whole research team, who have worked incredibly hard to get us to this point.”

First published: 19 December 2022