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Burnout, lack of learning and traces of concerning culture in RAOSO

A report into the initial findings of the nationwide RAOSO programme has identified some concerning issues, although most officers were found to be motivated to “do a good job”.

A lack of specialist knowledge, emotional exhaustion and the presence of damaging beliefs are among the key findings of a report published today about RAOSO (Rape and other sexual offences) investigations.

CC Sarah Crew, lead for Adult Sexual Offences, has said the findings are “challenging and some are concerning”.

“But this is not a bad day for policing or for criminal justice. This report provides an evidence base for the action required for transformational change” she added.

The Year 1 report for Operation Soteria-Bluestone provides conclusions which are designed to influence policy moving forward. The programme will eventually result in a National Operating Model (NOM) for investigating rape and sexual offences, due to be published in June 2023.

Operation Soteria centres around collaboration between academics and forces. It began as a pilot project in early 2021 with Avon and Somerset. Since then four further forces (Met, South Wales, Durham, West Midlands) have undertaken similar ‘deep-dive’ processes where academics are given unique access to data including BWV, video footage of first response and video-recorded Achieving Best Evidence interviews.

Among today's findings, generalised and not force-specific, is a lack of sufficient specialist knowledge about sexual offending among investigators. This includes deficits in knowledge about sexual offending behaviours, the nature of rape contexts and its impact on victims from different backgrounds.

It’s a scenario in part impacted by the “influx of inexperienced investigators" and with the backdrop of detective recruitment problems, there has been a focus on building capacity rather than capability – particularly in the context of Uplift and direct-entry detective programmes.

However, a further contributing factor included concerns about time for learning detracting from time on the job – 80% of respondents said they did not have time to participate in training, compared with 2.7% who felt they did not need learning and development because they were fully competent.   

Researchers additionally came across officers who “displayed a culture of disbelieving victims”.

Some officers said that most reports of rape were examples of “regretful sex”, or that if victims had additional needs (mental health, substances) it was not down to the legal system to safeguard them.

The report said: “These officers were found to be in the minority but nonetheless, they contribute to a considerable drag on progress, or obstruct progress (either intentionally or inadvertently), and influence how new officers are socialised into RAOSO work.”

Senior management in one force believed “the system is clogged up with false allegations”, and alongside another force begun several victim interviews with a “discussion about truth and lies” (should only occur where victim is u18 or has communication/learning disabilities).

The lack of learning and development has contributed an “overwhelming” level of burnout on the few experienced officers. The report highlighted that the symptoms for emotional exhaustion were shown to be higher among the relevant staff of the deep dive forces than for NHS staff during the first year of the pandemic (according to a bespoke survey).

Moreover, good practice tended to be driven by individuals, in spite of their already demanding workload, “at the expense of their own wellbeing”.

Burnout can lead to a less effective relationship with the victim, with one officer telling researchers “I’ve decided to care less, as it’s the only way to get through” and a victim saying they ended up feeling sorry for an officer who “couldn’t apologise enough […] she was so overworked”.

The focus on the suspect as opposed to the victim has been a key theme throughout Op Soteria. It’s something Avon and Somerset spoke to Police Oracle about last summer.

Moreover, the overlap between domestic abuse and sexual offending is not always recognised. Of the 80,000 recorded rapes in the past four years across the five forces – 1/3 were flagged as domestic abuse related, yet some forces still treat them as separate areas of policing. 

A&S is further along in the process than other forces – their ‘next steps’ include prioritising suspect-focused investigations, which will be helped by a project-generated ‘investigation map’, and aiming towards better disruption and challenging of repeat suspects. It further has a plan created to integrate academic knowledge into development processes.

All participating forces report positive outcomes. 

South Wales T/DCS Phil Sparrow referred to consequent “enhanced” work with partners including health and the CPS. It’s an approach that in one case resulted in the identification of a suspect having committed an offence elsewhere leading to the two offences being heard in court together. 

Meanwhile, Durham DS Nicola Lawrence referred to the force’s introduction of wellbeing measures, including peer-led trauma informed support and wellbeing packs for late working. Structural improvements on shift patterns and supervisor ratios have further been introduced.

The College is currently piloting a RAOSO Investigative Skills Development Programme and additionally exploring a form of ‘Licence to Practice’ in the investigation of RAOSO.

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