by Steve Symms, Rape and Serious Sexual Offences (RaSSo) Force Champion, Dorset Police

We understand how challenging it can seem to report sexual assaults and that is why we are working jointly with the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and neighbouring police forces, as well as with colleagues within the Independent Sexual Violence Advisors (ISVA) service and The Shores Sexual Assault Referral Centre (SARC) to improve  our services from first contact with the police through to court and beyond.  Our improvements are as a result of a National Joint Action Plan and cover five specific areas: Casework Quality, Digital Capability and Disclosure, Supporting Victims, Our People and Expertise and Stakeholder Engagement. 

We understand how daunting it is for victims to embark on the process of receiving justice through the courts, and how long it takes to get to court or indeed to get any decision on whether a case will proceed to court or not.  There has been a real focus by the CPS and Police in this area with a significant increase in cases being presented to CPS for early advice.  The aim is for CPS to have sight of the investigation within the first couple of months in order to a agree a collaborative approach to building cases for court.  At this stage Police and CPS agree what evidence will be relevant, what lines of enquiry need to be followed and how a case can be presented. 

In sexual assault cases where the background of the victim is quizzed, victims can end up feeling that they are the ones on trial, and we accept this and that it is neither helpful nor encouraging.  Some enquiries with a victim are necessary, as these are what a defence team and a jury would expect, however Dorset Police has adopted an offender focussed approach.  The main change is that investigators are encouraged to focus on the behaviours of the suspect as opposed to the victim.  There are a number of myths and stereotypes which are covered in more detail in another blog on this website and I encourage those reading this to also read that (click here).  Dispelling myths and stereotypes is key to investigators building strong evidence led, offender centric investigations. 

It is also widely believed that Police will take away and trawl through a victim’s mobile phones and examine their social media presence. Enquiries into phone records and other materials are only undertaken if it can be shown that there may be something of relevance.  These enquiries are targeted and specific to individual cases.  So, if there is nothing to suggest any relevance then those enquiries will not be required.  If we do need to look at a phone, then we seek to do that by appointment and have the phone back with the owner the same day.  In Spring 2022, following a bid for investment, Dorset Police will have access to a Digital Van, providing a mobile service, which will mean a victim’s mobile phone can be examined quickly.

We have invested heavily in our people, recruiting additional staff to improve the contact Police have with victims of sexual assaults and have provided bespoke training to all our investigative staff to provide them with the skills to investigate sexual assaults.  We hold monthly meetings with the STARS Dorset Independent Sexual Violence Advisor (ISVA) service and The Shores, Dorset's Sexual Assault Referral Clinic (SARC) to ensure that our processes are as good as they can be and where improvements are required, we implement them.  We understand that there is still some way to go, and it will take time to see our improvements translate into more positive victim outcomes, however we are already seeing a reduction in delays, increases in early consultation and an increase in those cases being charged.  Our main aim is to provide the best service we can for victims of these horrendous offences.

We have recently amended our Investigation Timeline Document that can be accessed via the Dorset Police website: Investigation Timeline and FAQ  On the website there is lots of information however this document and the FAQ should hopefully provide further clarity on what happens when you report an offence, summarised as follows.

Once you have reported an offence a supervisor will conduct an initial assessment and identify what enquiries are needed and, if there is a suspect identified, whether that person should be arrested immediately.  Depending on the circumstances sometimes it will be deemed best to gather all the evidence first.  You will be appointed a specially trained Police officer (Sexual Offences Liaison Officer or SOLO) who will support you through the process and signpost you to the STARS Dorset's ISVA service and to The  Shores (Dorset's SARC).  You may be asked to attend a medical examination, the full details of which will be provided to you at the Shores or by your SOLO.  We look to identify where the evidence is, be that a location, with a witness or maybe from CCTV or with the suspect and prioritise those enquiries.  You will be asked to provide a visually recorded statement.  This is the best way to obtain your evidence and provides us with opportunities to make any court case easier for you.  We can apply to the court for your recording to be used in evidence, to pre-record any cross examination that a defence lawyer may have and use screens to protect you.

Every case is different and it’s challenging to summarise the vast array of enquiries that are undertaken to gather the facts about what happened, so please look at the Investigation Timeline at the link above.  If you are unfortunate enough to be a victim of a sexual assault, please believe me when I say that there is a real determination from our staff to bring to justice those who perpetrate these awful crimes.  My role is to ensure that we improve our investigative standards and most importantly improve our victim support and services, whilst increasing the confidence in victims to report these crimes to us.