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Avon and Somerset Police announce research collaboration to transform policing response to rape

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Avon and Somerset Police are pioneering a transformative programme, Project Bluestone, which sees police professionals work alongside prominent academics to transform the police response to rape and sexual offences.

Improving the experiences of victims is at the heart of the project, which also aims to tighten the grip on offenders and help address falling conviction rates for rape and sexual assaults.

The research programme will combine academic learning with expertise and insight from professional perspectives to deliver practical tools and processes which will be embedded as a specialist approach within Avon and Somerset Police’s investigations department. Project outcomes will incorporate the latest academic research into areas such as offender behaviour, with innovative policing practices including trauma informed and offender centric investigations.

Directed by research lead, Professor Betsy Stanko (OBE), a group of expert academics from across the country are focusing on five key areas ranging from victim engagement to disrupting repeat offenders and learning and development for police officers. Beyond policing, the project engages with victim support services, barristers and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to conduct in-depth assessments and develop an insight-led redesign of the current approach to rape and sexual offences.

Each area of work is spearheaded by a leading academic in their field, working alongside representatives from across Avon and Somerset Police:

  • Dr Miranda Horvath from Middlesex University will lead the suspect focused investigations work stream alongside DCI Lorett Spierenburg.
  • Dr Kari Davies from University of Birmingham will lead the challenging and disrupting repeat offenders work stream alongside A/DI Andrew Fox.
  • Dr Katrin Hohl from City University will lead the victim engagement work stream alongside A/DCI Dave Lewis.
  • Dr Emma Williams from Centre for Police Research and Learning at the Open University will lead the learning, development and wellbeing work stream alongside DCI Larisa Hunt and;
  • Jo Lovett from London Metropolitan University will lead the review of data and performance alongside Jon Dowey, Head of Performance and Insight and Avon and Somerset Police.

Project Bluestone has been launched at a time when national reports show prosecutions for rape and sexual assault offences have continued to fall over the past three years, despite more cases being referred to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) across England and Wales.

The programme is currently in the data and research gathering phase and will move into an implementation phase in April. Project Bluestone has been funded by the Home Office’s Police Science, Tech, and Research Board (STAR) and will inform a national change in the policing approach to rape and sexual offences.

Avon and Somerset Police Deputy Chief Constable Sarah Crew said: “Previous studies have focussed on the need for improvements but have often been transactional solutions which do not address the broader issues we face. The study will allow us to produce some specific, practical and evidence based tools and processes that can be adopted by any police force and that will have a measurable impact on the way we approach rape investigations.

“This is an opportunity for us to bring about real and sustainable change, putting the victim experience, and their wellbeing, at the heart of everything we do.”

Professor Betsy Stanko (OBE), Research lead, Project Bluestone said: “This is an exciting project bringing together academic knowledge and expertise in collaboration with Avon and Somerset police.  Allowing fresh, outside eyes and ears tuned to current practice armed with the state of the art scholarly knowledge, this project aspires to rebuild a robust and responsive force-wide approach to improvement.”

Avon and Somerset Police and Crime Commissioner Sue Mountstevens said: “This is a momentous moment for Avon and Somerset – the Bluestone research project will allow us to understand the needs of victims and vitally how to best meet them through the criminal justice system like never before. I have long advocated for services to listen to the voice of the victim and tailor processes to meet their needs. This piece of work, which will see criminal justice partners, academics and the Independent Sexual Violence Advisor (ISVA) service, will do just that.

“This is another step in the right direction but we have so much, much more to do and I do not underestimate the task that lies ahead. Under the leadership of Deputy Chief Constable Sarah Crew, who has been a fierce ally of survivors throughout her career, Avon and Somerset is well placed to really make significant and long lasting change.”

Senior District Crown Prosecutor and Unit Head of the RASSO team Vicky Gleave said: “The CPS shares the deep public concern over the falling number of rape cases going to court. An extensive programme of work is underway to address the gap between reported rapes and the number of cases that are prosecuted, and our five year strategy RASSO 2025 sets out how we will work with our criminal justice partners to achieve this.

“We are committed to improving the victim’s experience throughout the process, and this includes improving confidence that a complaint will be fully investigated and, where the evidence supports, charged and prosecuted. Locally, we have agreed a joint action plan to help deliver this commitment in partnership with Avon and Somerset Police. Project Bluestone is one very promising aspect of our local and national partnerships, and the opportunity it provides for improvement through collaboration with academic research and ISVA partners is both exciting and very welcome.”

Head of Guildhall Chambers, Anna Vigars QC said: “It is vital that allegations of rape and serious sexual assault are thoroughly, fairly and robustly investigated and prosecuted so that both those caught up in such cases and wider society can repose confidence in the system. For that reason, I am encouraged to see this comprehensive academic study of this aspect of policing practice. I look forward to seeing the learning reflected in practical outcomes which better support work done in this sensitive and important area.”

Safe Link Chief Executive Officer Sarah O’Leary said: “At Safe link we are delighted to work alongside Avon and Somerset Police to improve the response to victims of rape and sexual assault. We believe that Project Bluestone will not just improve the lives of victims today, but will create long lasting system change to ensure that all victims get the response they need to support their recovery, seek justice and ultimately to reduce the perpetration of abuse.”

SARC Service Manager at The Bridge Nicola Shannon, said: “We offer support to men, women, non-binary people and children of all ages who have experienced a recent or historical sexual assault, and a victim centred approach is at the core of everything we do. We welcome the opportunity to add our voice and insights into this extremely important study that is putting the victim’s experiences at its heart.”

If you’ve been a victim of sexual abuse, recent or non-recent, you don’t have to speak to the police. You can self-refer to The Bridge, a Sexual Assault Referral Centre available 24/7 365 days a year. Visit their website at www.thebridgecanhelp.org.uk or call 0117 342 6999.

Safelink also provides support for anyone who has been the victim of rape and sexual abuse across the whole of Avon and Somerset area.  Visit their website: www.safelinksupport.co.uk, call 0333 323 1543  or email Safe.Link@safelinksupport.co.uk

For more advice and support, visit www.thisisnotanexcuse.org