Avon and Somerset Police must improve ‘shamefully low’ rape conviction rate, victim service says

‘Only around 15% of people who have experienced rape or sexual assault take the step of reporting to the police’

Just 3.3% of rape investigations carried out by Avon and Somerset Police in the last 12 months have resulted in a suspect being charged, Home Office data shows.

The service has a 7.7% charge rate for investigations into other sexual offences from data collected between April 1 2021 to March 31 2022.

Both figures are below the national average but are a three-fold improvement on the previous year’s numbers when rape convictions stood at 1.6%.

The rise is partly due to Operation Bluestone, a measure developed with the help of victim services, which has seen detectives use new techniques - with both victims and suspects.

Operation Bluestone has been described as a ‘pioneering’ method to bring justice to victims of sexual violence but more needs to be done according to the support service, SARSAS which helped devise Bluestone.

A group work session held by SARSAS.

Communication officer, Lisa Durston told Bristol World: “While the increase is a step in the right direction, the percentage of reported rapes that are making it to charge is still shamefully low and we know that only around 15% of people who have experienced rape or sexual assault take the step of reporting to the police.

“It is likely that this increase is a result of some of the work being done by Project Bluestone, the Avon and Somerset Serious Sexual Violence Unit, to improve the force’s response to sexual violence.

“We work alongside Bluestone to keep our team informed about their work but there is more that needs to be done and we would like to see all the Avon and Somerset police first responders receive training on understanding sexual violence.”

The group has campaigned for more measures to be put in place to protect victims across the Avon and Somerset region.

The region’s police previously had teams who specialised in sexual offences, but they were scrapped during austerity cuts.

Mrs Durston added: “Ultimately, this issue is part of a national picture that requires major structural change and we would like to see a serious national conversation around rape and sexual assaults that results in innovative and lasting changes to the justice system.”

Many rape survivors have stated that having to hand over their mobile phones during investigations has been a traumatic and intrusive process.

With Bluestone, a new, unmarked ‘digital’ van, is deployed to allow investigators to go to a victim’s home to download the specific files needed for an inquiry.

The victim’s phone is then given back immediately.

Det Supt Lisa Simpson says more work is needed to bring rapists to justice.

However, despite the advancements in technology, a spokesperson for the service admitted the current conviction rates are still too low and that work has been made to continue improvements.

They said: “We know conviction rates for rape offences are too low nationally.

“We as a police service wouldn’t be doing our duty if we didn’t acknowledge that, and act on it by working with other agencies and the legal system to understand why and make necessary changes.

"In Avon and Somerset we chose to open our doors to academics and set up Project Bluestone to examine everything we do, from the moment we receive an allegation through to getting a case to court.

“The learning from this, and the way in which we shape our understanding and our processes will be instrumental in improving victim care and outcomes not just in Avon and Somerset as Operation Bluestone, but nationally through Operation Soteria.

“Among the changes already made in Avon and Somerset include a new framework for investigations, with increased focus on perpetrator behaviour so they are at the forefront of our investigation; rape is never the victim’s fault.

“We have also committed extra officers and staff to bolster our investigations team looking at rape and serious sexual offences.

“Although there is significant work still to be done, recent data from Operation Bluestone shows promising improvement in both the volume and proportion of cases resulting in a positive charging decision.

“We believe Operation Bluestone will help us increase the chances to achieve justice for victims who have gone through the most horrendous experiences. Victims have to be exceptionally brave in reporting this to us – we would be failing them if we didn’t make changes to our processes to help them, and we are resolute in our ambition to be so much better to serve the victims as they truly deserve."