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Project Bluestone: transforming policing's approach to rape

Avon and Somerset opened its door to a group of academics in a bid to understand where policing is going wrong with rape investigations

Project Bluestone has brought together academia and operational policing in an effort to "transform" the police response to rape and sexual assault.

The government's rape review in June found charges, prosecutions and convictions for rape have fallen over the last five years, despite the number of reported sexual offences remaining steady.

A review of one force found a lack of data, analysts and limited case review and opportunities for reflective practice, produced the same poor results again and again.

Professor Betsy Stanko has been a criminology professor for 26 years both in the UK and the US. Her expertise is violence against women and girls. She worked for the Metropolitan Police and was deputy director of corporate development from 2003 to 2014. She also set up the force’s Social Science Research Unit, which was moved to the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime (MOPAC) in 2014.

Although she retired in 2016 she has re-engaged with policing following more negative headlines about rape prosection attrition rates.

After the London Rape Review in 2019, Professor Stanko and her colleagues approached Avon and Somerset Police with the offer of academic insight to tackle what she called the “decriminalisation” of rape.

The force, whose chief constable Sarah Crew is national adult sexual offences lead, jumped at the chance to try a new approach.

And so Project Bluestone was launched in March this year, funded through the Home Office STAR programme.

“I understand what academic approaches and methodologies can do to diagnose the issues that policing are facing,” Professor Stanko told Police Oracle. “I think much of the organisational diagnosis is quite superficial.

"Police are used to just creating or cutting a squad as a result of a problem. And this is far more sophisticated than that.”

The project separates rape investigations into five pillars and gives each one both an academic and a police lead:

After engaging with stakeholders, holding focus groups with Independent Sexual Violence Advisors and officers across the force, interviewing police leads and doing deep dives into police data, the main criticism was officers were focusing too much on victims and not enough on the suspect.

And this meant they were missing opportunities to identify patterns in offender behaviour and disrupt repeat offending.

The project team produced a data improvement plan, with maps to enable better tracking of case progression and outcomes after it found that data quality is "undermining knowledge" about rape and serious sexual offences in Avon and Somerset and needs "rapid improvement"

Avon and Somerset Detective Chief Inspector Lorett Spierenburg has been tasked with embedding the recommendations into the day to day business of the force's rape investigators.

Now officers are spending more time and energy investigating the suspect rather than the complainant. 

As an example, she says, a man and a woman who met on Tinder go on a date. Afterwards they go back to the man’s place. The woman then reports she has been raped. The suspect is arrested and he tells police the sex was consensual.

How do investigators prove there was no consent when all they have is one word against another?

"I think we're now pushing to say, okay, obviously, that part is important, but what you need to do is build the whole story around what has happened at that time," said DCI Spierenburg.

“What's led up it? How has that suspect targeted the vulnerabilities of that victim? What evidence can we gain that we've maybe not thought about before?”

The force is also working with Professor Patrick Tidmarsh, an Australian based criminologist and author of The Whole Story: Investigating Sexual Crime – Truth, Lies and Path to Justice. He has been giving master classes to officers on how to look for evidence in sexual offence cases beyond the private moment between the suspect and victim.

Now investigators will look at the suspect's messages on Tinder and speak to other women they've contacted, focusing on the language that they've used, how they've groomed the victim into wanting to meet up or go back to a particular address, how they manipulated the conversations to make the victim feel safer.  

“So it's a lot around the psychology of the suspect, and fixing on how they target the vulnerabilities of the victim," said DCI Spierenburg.

She said a vulnerability could be anything from mental health, being a single parent who needs support, someone who's lonely or someone who's drinking or taking drugs - "a number of vulnerabilities that we need to dig into further, instead of just saying the victim went out and drank four glasses of wine.That's what we've focused on in the past.”

Rape myths and stereotypes are being turned on their head. Investigators are thinking about how the suspect may have exploited weaknesses previously attributed to the victim. 

“It's really moving away from actually, it doesn't matter what the victim has done, or how they dress or what they've drunk,” said DCI Spierenburg. “We don't consent to being raped.”

The project also promotes the concept of making rape and sexual violence investigaton a credible specialist role, something Avon and Somerset is already working on.

Adult rape investigations are also bringing in more of the knowledge gleaned in the investigation of child sexual exploitation and abuse, as well as coercive control.

“It's really trying to upskill our staff and improve our processes," said DCI Spierenburg.

“We are really advocating about specialism. How do we make this a specialist role? What do we need to do? How do we upscale? How do we accredit staff? And how do we keep that moving on a longer term basis?”

Professor Stanko said: “We are suggesting and all the evidence suggests that you need to understand what rape and sexual abuse are, in order to investigate them. We are not convinced that is the case across the country.

Professor Betsy Stanko

"There’s an assumption that you can figure out what sexual offending is by focusing on the credibility of the victim. That's not what sexual offending is.

"Sexual offenders are really good at grooming, and abusing and luring and all kinds of other things, which are not being picked up by investigations today."

The project also produced an victim booklet together with a victim communication plan.

"A victim needs to feel like they're at the heart of the investigation, that they are provided with really good updates, they're included in the progression of the case, it's done quickly, we're not asking them for all of these ridiculous requests around third party material or their phones, and that they're supported by an ISVA.”.

The Metropolitan Police have enabled the team to conduct deep dives into their investigations and procedures. 

Durham, West Midlands and South Wales will also take part in reviews of current practice by September 2022. 

These five detailed reviews, plus the academic insight from studies of offenders, victims and criminal justice, will be combined to draft a national operating model for the investigation of rape and sexual offences.This model will be applied and tested throughout year two of the project. 

“Policing often goes from one case to one case to one case to one case. Academics come in and look at what cases are like and when a new case comes in they look at it in the context of the other cases. It's a completely different approach,” says Professor Stanko. 

She says academic insight into policing has been met with resistance her "entire life".

Its success will be measured in a multitude of ways, including a reduced drop out rate, which at the same time would show better relationship with the victim and improved timeliness.

DCI Spierenburg said an increase in referrals for CPS, charges and convictions can only be a good thing. "But it's also about if a victim comes to us, and actually doesn't want it to go to court, if they will walk away and think actually, I was dealt with by the police. And I feel they listened, they understood, and they did everything they could to be able to help and support me."

“I would think we would get an uplift in charge rates because it can't get any worse," said Professor Stanko. "It's pretty much at the bottom.”

She added victims should also report they're being treated well and not further harmed by their interactions with police.

Chief Constable Sarah Crew called the research phase of Project Bluestone “intense, sometimes uncomfortable but extremely important for the future of rape and sexual offences investigations”.

“By lowering the bridge to academic researchers, we knew we were opening ourselves up to public scrutiny. But, we did this with our eyes wide open, willing to learn and to improve.

“We’ve all heard the saying from Albert Einstein stating that ‘the first sign of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results’. The only way we can start to change the outcomes for victims of rape and sexual assault is by changing our processes when it comes to investigating these crimes. It would simply be madness to continue the way we have and expect different results.”

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