Poor communication and relationships between police officers and the Crown Prosecution Service are obstacles in bringing allegations of rape and other serious sexual offences to trial. That is one of the findings of a new study led by Bournemouth University.
The study, published in the journal Policing, also found that problems getting early advice from prosecutors, victim-focused rather than suspect-focussed investigations, and a requirement to produce excessive paperwork before a charging decision is made, also present challenges to successful prosecutions.
The research team from Bournemouth University and University of Suffolk carried out interviews with fifty police officers from four police forces in England and Wales.
Despite the issues identified, the researchers did hear encouraging feedback from some forces, who talked of how steps were being taken to improve their collaboration with the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).
“Over the past few years, it's been recognised that the relationship between the police and the CPS plays a key role raising the conviction rate for sexual offences, with good communication and collaboration being crucial,” said Dr Anna Gekoski, Research Consultant in Forensic Psychology and Criminology at Bournemouth University, who led the study. “However, we found that there was hardly any research on how they work together on rape and serious sexual offence cases,” she continued.
The interviews identified four main challenges from a police perspective. The first was around poor communication and relationships, which police felt was made worse by an over-reliance on electronic systems, rather than speaking to one another directly.
“Many observed that it has become more difficult from the days where prosecutors were embedded in police stations. They felt that this loss of co-location took the human element out of communication and hindered the building of good working relationships,” said Dr Gekoski.
The second issue was around the police not obtaining 'Early Advice' from the CPS, which involves a meeting between the officer in charge and the prosecutor, at an early stage, where they can discuss the case and agree on reasonable lines of enquiry. There were several issues identified, including not receiving timely responses from CPS and police officers not being aware what cases could be submitted for early advice.
The third area concerned the CPS driving victim-focused investigations.
“Officers felt that the CPS often asked for unnecessary and intrusive information about victims - such as medical records, counselling notes, social service and education history - which are not routinely requested for suspects. Police also reported the CPS embarking on 'digital fishing expeditions', where victims could have their phones taken off them for long periods of time whilst their personal messages, images and social media are scrutinised, with a view to undermining their credibility as a victim,” explained Dr Gekoski.
Finally, there were issues with recent legislation that requires the police to give the CPS a full file of evidence before it can be considered for charge. This can result in a heavy administrative burden for officers, particularly given the huge amount of data that can be held on a person’s mobile phone.
Some examples of good practice were noted during the course of this study – including one force providing face-to-face early advice clinics with prosecutors, and another force trialling 'enhanced Early Advice' much earlier, before interviewing suspects.
“Headway is also slowly being made within the police and CPS to carry out more suspect-focused investigations - concentrating on the suspect's behaviour before, during and after the offence - with training on rape myths, trauma and stereotypes now being more routinely offered. These types of initiatives are designed to promote better communication and relationships between police and CPS and ultimately improve charge and conviction rates,” Dr Gekoski concluded.
The research was carried out as part of Operation Soteria Bluestone, a Home Office project which aims to transform how the police respond to and investigate rape. Dr Gekoski is part of the academic team for pillar two (targeting repeat suspects) of this project, which is led by Dr Kari Davies, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at BU.
Dr Davies noted, "this type of research is critical for understanding, not just the way the criminal justice system is or isn't working when it comes to the investigation and prosecution of rape and serious sexual offences, but also the opinions, attitudes, and feelings of law enforcement that work within this system. Understanding their perspectives is vital in trying to make meaningful improvements where needed, and to understand how new initiatives could work or how they would be received."
The study “Barriers and challenges to police and Crown Prosecution Service joint working on rape and serious sexual offence cases: A police perspective” has been published in Policing with DOI https://doi.org/10.1093/police/paad041