Victim-survivors not feeling heard in their engagements with the police emerged as a key theme amongst ISVA participants. When making a report of rape, victim-survivors would be asked to repeat their account on multiple occasions to a series of different officers with different functions within the early stages of the investigation, often in unnecessary detail. Such multiple handovers of the case and having to repeat the same information several times necessitated by police organisational structures and processes likely contribute to a sense of not having been listened to. Further, ISVA participants reported victim-survivors felt they had little control over or understanding of what was happening to them and how the process ‘worked’, negatively impacting victim-survivors’ sense of active participation and citizenship in the investigation. Examples included victim-survivors feeling they were rushed by officers into particular actions for the benefit of the investigation, such as giving their video-recorded interview or agreeing to third-party disclosure requests (e.g. medical, social services, school records, or counselling notes), at the expense of their wellbeing, and/or when they did not fully understand the processes or implications of these actions. Additionally, ISVA participants reflected officers would often use inaccessible language and police jargon in their communications, resulting in victim-survivors not fully understanding what has been said or what actions had been taken, especially in circumstances where English is not their first language. Moreover, victim–survivors reported feeling officers sometimes did not take the time to understand their wishes and views, or provide them with space to ask questions, in effect silencing the victim-survivor’s voice in the process. Examples included officers interrupting or cutting victim––survivors off when providing their account, or concentrating on criminal justice outcomes without exploring what alternative outcomes might be available to or desired by the victim-survivor, such as civil orders, providing intelligence, or other forms of safeguarding and support.
Dignity and Respect
Officer focus groups revealed significant variability between officers in interpersonal skills and confidence when engaging with rape victim-survivors. Both officer and ISVA focus groups provided examples of good practice, such as officers being mindful of body language (e.g. not towering over a seated victim-survivor) as well as examples of poor practice, including officers misgendering a victim-survivor despite them clearly stating their chosen pronouns. A key driver for this variability in the quality of police engagement, in the view of participating officers, were significant workload pressures. This, officers reported, was compounded by severely limited resources and lack of clinical support and supervision, causing high levels of occupational stress, burnout, and ‘empathy fatigue’. These challenging circumstances, police participants reflected, meant often officers, despite having all the right intentions, had limited capacity to sufficiently engage with victim-survivors and meet their communication and support needs, all of which are central to instilling a sense of dignity and respect in victim-survivors. Further, officers felt they had limited training and capacity for tailoring their engagement to different victim contexts and needs. For example, whilst there were officers with specialist expertise in engaging with sex workers praised both by officers and ISVAs, ISVAs noted such specialism was absent for other victim-survivors, such as those from ethnically or culturally minoritised groups, or those with learning disabilities. This finding points to the need for protocols that ensure accessibility and sensitivity, and thus dignity and respect, for all victim-survivors of sexual violence. ISVA participants further stressed the significance of officers’ actions, tone of voice, or choice of words being amplified to victim-survivors because of the police’s position of authority and power, especially relative to rape complainants. ISVA participants felt officers did not always appreciate the effect their position of authority can have on victim-survivors and failed, for example, to understand that victim-survivors can be impacted and undermined by officers’ off-hand comments, or a disengaged tone of voice. This suggests that whilst police symbolic power is generally accepted within the academic literature (Bradford, 2014), and apparent to ISVAs, officers may not always be aware of, acknowledge, or act in ways recognisant of this.
Our analysis of the sequencing of the police investigation found that the ordering of investigative steps undermined its procedural neutrality. For cases reported 30 days or more after the alleged offence (deemed ‘non-recent’ by the force), the so-called ‘Bluestone Unit’ would support the victim-survivor, but also take the victim-survivors’ initial account, formal (video-recorded) statement, and request their consent for police to access third-party and digital disclosure materials, to be reviewed by the unit. Cases would only be transferred to the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) for a full investigation, including potential arrests and interviewing of suspects, if and when the investigation of the victim-survivor’s account and all victim-survivor-related background material had been completed. The Bluestone Unit had originally been established to provide dedicated, specialised, and quicker service for victim-survivors of rape, and as such was well-intended. Yet, the Bluestone Unit was, in effect, a ‘victim-survivor credibility investigation unit’, frontloading and over-focusing the investigation towards victim-survivor credibility. This well-intended, yet ill-conceived set-up is indicative of insufficient consideration given to procedural fairness – in particular, whether starting an investigation by examining the victim-survivor’s credibility might undermine neutral decision-making. This approach could well suggest to victim-survivors police suspiciousness of their truthfulness and is reminiscent of Jordan’s (2004) research addressing the lack of credibility afforded to ‘the word of a woman’ and the pernicious rape myth that false rape allegations are frequent.
Within the officer focus groups there was also some debate over what ‘neutrality’ meant within rape investigations. Some officers felt this meant they should avoid communicating to victim-survivors whether they believed their account, and position themselves as impartial evidence gatherers, not ‘arbiters of truth’. Other officers challenged this view, suggesting that such ‘neutral’ behaviour could be read by victim-survivors as detachment and disbelief, and felt it important to communicate to victim-survivors that they were believed and, consequently, their report taken seriously. Doing so, they contended, would not undermine neutrality of their case decision-making and functioned as a supportive enabler for victim-survivors engaging with the criminal justice process.
‘Trustworthy’ motives involve officers having the wellbeing or best interests of victim-survivors at heart. A recurring theme in ISVA participant reflections was the inconsistent support and communication offered by officers, leaving many victim-survivors feeling they had not been afforded appropriate consideration. Examples of poor communication included officers failing to call on agreed dates and failing to provide regular, meaningful updates, or communicating important pieces of information inappropriately. For instance, police decisions to take ‘no further action’ (i.e. drop the case) were at times communicated to victim-survivors via text message. At times officers would phone victim-survivors late at night with abrupt updates because this suited their shift pattern without considering the impact of an unexpected late night police call on victims-survivors, or that ISVA services were unavailable during those times to help victim-survivors process the update. Both ISVA and officer participants felt such ill-considered communications may be a result of workload pressures, limited resources, or administrative delays, rather than ill will. Yet, officers agreed with the ISVA focus groups’ finding that victim-survivors would understandably interpret such actions as being indicative of police not having the victim-survivors wellbeing at heart, or signalling a lack of interest in their case.