Rape Investigation Failures

Highlighted in the news recently have been some shocking statistics in relation to rape investigations: victims face an agonising average wait of almost two years before the trial begins, if the case even gets that far. Figures for the 12 months to September 2021 showed that only 1.3% of the 63,136 rape offences recorded by the Police resulted in a suspect being charged – and this in an era when the video and scientific tools available to help secure a conviction are stronger than ever.

The Director of Public Prosecutions, Max Hill QC, has acknowledged a “crisis of public trust” over how the criminal justice system deals with rape and other sexual offences. The Crown Prosecution Service also highlighted how few of the reported cases are actually passed out of Police hands by being referred by local Forces to the CPS – a mere 2,747 rape cases being sent by the Police to the CPS in 2020/21.

When similar failings were in the spotlight last year, a joint report by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and HM Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate lamented a “deep division” between the Police and CPS as to how to solve this problem, identifying “continuing underlying tensions between the Police and the CPS, and a desire on both sides to blame the other for low charge and conviction rates.”

Home office statistics for 2021 also indicate that over 40% of rape investigations were closed because the victim did not support further action: that should not be interpreted as absolving the Police from blame, however. In many cases – such as the case study which I will present below – the courage and determination of victims to persevere through the terrible ordeal of a rape investigation and prosecution is severely tested by Police incompetence, callousness – or just simply, lack of faith in the victim in the first place.

Behind the Statistics: A Case Study

My client, whom I will refer to as Emma in this blog, was 16 years old when she was viciously attacked and raped by a stranger in the early hours of the morning of 23 August 2019. During the attack Emma sustained multiple injuries, including being choked by the rapist, and her facial piercing was ripped out. She was also robbed, in that the attacker took her mobile phone and bank card.

Following the attack Emma fled to a nearby hotel and spoke to the night porter, who called her mother. The attack was reported to the police by Emma’s father, shortly afterwards.

Two Police Response Officers then attended and the subsequent investigation was recorded on a Crime Log. Emma provided an initial account of the attack to the officers; one of the officers did write a witness statement following this interaction but was not asked for it until December 2019, whilst the other officer did not produce a witness statement at all. Sadly, this was just the beginning of a catalogue of errors and failures which would blight Emma’s case until its conclusion.

On a log entry at 05:53 the Response Officers noted an indentation in the sand on the beach where Emma indicated the attack had taken place, however the scene was not secured nor was it forensically examined, at any point.

Using a “Find My Phone” application Emma’s father was able to direct the Officers to his daughter’s mobile phone, which had been either discarded or dropped by the attacker on a nearby footpath. This was secured as evidence and placed into a sealed evidence bag.

At 06:38 officers took a brief account from the hotel night porter which differed slightly from Emma’s account as the night porter stated that Emma had initially alleged that she had been attacked by her boyfriend. Also, the night porter stated that he had not noticed any injuries to Emma.

Doubt, Distrust, and Incompetence

The case was then assigned to DC Alice Jones of CID as the Officer In Case (OIC) and supervised by DS Steven Barnes.

That morning, at a time unknown, DS Barnes retrieved Emma’s mobile phone, still in the evidence bag, from the evidence store and ripped a hole in the evidence bag in order to charge the phone. Thereafter DS Barnes circumnavigated the phone’s PIN by means unknown and accessed the phone’s data. Following this he returned the phone to the property store in the ripped evidence bag.

DS Barnes made no written record of this, and did not inform anyone of his actions; furthermore, he had not obtained Emma’s permission to access the phone.

Later that day DC Jones attended Emma’s home and talked her through the process of the investigation. Emma and her father immediately formed the impression that DC Jones did not believe Emma. Shortly after the meeting, DC Jones called Emma’s father to inform him that she thought there were a number of inconsistencies with Emma’s account, although she did not provide any specifics.

Emma’s mother noted a number of injuries to her daughter, including subconjunctival haemorrhaging to both eyes, which Emma took photographs of that afternoon, and again over the next few days. Despite the family making DC Jones aware, these photos were not seized as evidence, raising further concerns about the thoroughness of the investigation, and the attitude and commitment of the officers leading it.

That evening Emma was examined by a Forensic Medical Examiner who took intimate swabs and noted bruising to her left arm, right leg and left eye as well as subconjunctival haemorrhaging to both eyes. The Examiner noted that the injuries were consistent with Emma’s account of the attack. Emma’s clothing worn during the attack was also seized as evidence; however none of this forensic evidence was submitted for DNA analysis at this stage. House to house enquiries were made on the same day; however no report of the outcome of this was made.

On 24 August Emma provided an “ABE” (achieving best evidence) interview, which was consistent with her previous accounts of the attack and confirmed that she had had consensual sexual activity with her boyfriend earlier that night, following which she was attacked by the stranger on the beach. Giving little consideration as to the potential psychological impact, DC Jones then requested that Emma do a “walk-through” of the crime scene the following day. Emma was very uncomfortable with this suggestion, however, believing it to be proper procedure in cases of sexual assault and wishing to assist with the investigation in any way, she agreed to the walk-through.

On 25 August Emma accompanied DC Jones to the Beach to do the walk-through. To my client’s shock she found that the scene, a public beach, had not been secured and had been open to members of the public since the attack. Emma found the experience of the walk-through to be deeply traumatic, as DC Jones callously asked Emma to “re-enact” various elements of the attack, such as walking to the sea without turning around, which she had been ordered to do by the rapist after the attack. Furthermore, contrary to Force policy, DC Jones did not record the walk-through and Emma’s Sexual Offences Liaison Officer was unaware that it had occurred.

The Police now spoke to Emma’s boyfriend; however, this conversation was not video/ audio recorded and he was not asked to complete a witness statement. Emma’s boyfriend later told her that he found the questioning by the Officers to be very “strange”, in that he felt he was treated as a suspect, and that he was being pressured to confess to the attack. This further confirmed to our client that the Officers did not believe her account i.e that they did not truly think she had been attacked by a stranger that night – or in other words, their working premise appeared to be to at least doubt, if not actively disbelieve, this 16 year old victim of rape.

CCTV and Forensic Errors

In today’s ‘surveillance society’ the ubiquity of CCTV cameras in urban locations gives the Police numerous additional ‘eyes’ on criminal occurrences – provided of course, prompt action is taken to secure the footage from diverse businesses/ local authorities before it suffers routine deletion; it is hardly rocket science therefore, to make the preservation of potentially relevant CCTV footage a top priority in the investigation of any crime, let alone one as serious as rape.

However, it was not until 25 August that the Police identified possible CCTV footage opportunities and began to make enquiries for the same; somewhat unsurprisingly, the local train station responded on 29 August that relevant CCTV footage had been automatically deleted after three days.

On 30 August DC Jones retrieved CCTV footage from a nearby beach café. DC Jones then spoke to Emma and her father and informed them that it showed nothing of relevance, thereby implying that this further undermined Emma’s account. Emma was deeply distressed on hearing this, as she felt that without such evidence she was unlikely to be believed, given the coldness and apparent hostility which the Police were displaying towards her.

However, the incorrect footage had been obtained, as it covered the 24 hours after the attack took place. This mistake remained unnoticed for some time despite the footage bearing a clear date and time stamp. By the time that the mistake was identified, the correct footage had been overwritten. Emma was not informed of this gross Police error until much later.

CCTV from local Council cameras was also obtained. One camera did capture the rapist fleeing the scene following the attack, however as no further evidence had been found linking this CCTV to the attack, the Police failed to realise the relevance at that time.

On 2 September it was suggested by the Detective Inspector who had been on duty on the night of the attack, that the case should be referred to the Major Crime Investigation Team.

During this time, entries made on the Crime Log and emails exchanged between DC Jones, DS Barnes and other officers expressed concern about inconsistencies between Emma’s account of the attack compared to the initial account provided by the hotel porter. The officers openly questioned Emma’s veracity, suggesting either that she had been attacked by, or had had further consensual sexual activity with her boyfriend, and that her injuries were self-inflicted.

On 4 September DC Jones informed Emma that due to a lack of any evidence supporting her account the forensic samples had not been sent off for analysis. DC Jones then made it clear to Emma that she could ‘choose’ to not proceed further with the case. If there was any doubt as to what DC Jones herself wanted Emma to do, this was dispelled when the officer spoke to a colleague from the Serious Crime Analysis Section on 13 September, arguing that it was not in the public interest to have the forensic evidence examined.

The investigation team seemed to have made up their mind therefore: Emma was lying, and she had not after all been attacked and raped by a stranger on the beach that night. Frankly, it was this mindset which seemed to have guided DC Jones and DS Barnes’ cynical and lackadaisical attitude to the investigation from the very outset.

Despite this, an email from a Scene of Crime Officer (SOCO) on 17 September advised sending the samples for analysis any way, as Emma was unlikely to have self-inflicted her injuries. The SOCO also expressed concern that the reasoning of DC Jones to not submit the forensics for analysis would be called into question if someone else was attacked; tragically, this was exactly what happened, only two days after that warning.

The Rapist Strikes Again

On 19 September 2019 the man who had raped Emma, attacked another woman (identified in subsequent Police reports as Female B) on the same beach where Emma has been attacked.

Prompted by the second attack, the forensic evidence collected from my client, including her clothes, swabs, and mobile phone, was at last submitted by the investigation team to SOCO for analysis on 30 September. However, the DNA and fingerprint analysis of Emma’s mobile phone was subsequently refused as the hole in the evidence bag made by DS Barnes had compromised its forensic integrity (although at the time the cause of the hole was unknown).

On 7 October, Emma’s father emailed DC Jones a series of questions regarding her conduct of the investigation – and querying whether the officer had actually believed his daughter prior to the second attack. He received no substantive reply from DC Jones, who later provided an account to the IOPC complaining that she found my client’s father to be “demanding”. Evidently, asking the officer for a competent and compassionate investigation of his daughter’s rape was asking too much?

On 17 October Emma attended an E-FIT appointment. The civilian operator that conducted the appointment seemed inexperienced and although an E-FIT was produced, Emma felt that it was not an accurate reflection of the rapist, as the officer had not paid sufficient attention to her description. The E-FIT operator asked Emma to score the likeness he had produced out of 10, to which she replied that it was between 3 and 5 on the scale. The operator then told her that anything less than a 7 was “probably worthless”. Emma found the operator distant and dismissive throughout the process; his attitude further heightening her concern that the Police were disinterested in her case.

CID Failings Exposed

The cases of Emma and Female B, now jointly referred to as Operation Laurel, were then subject to reviews by the Major Crime Investigation Team (MCIT) and the National Crime Agency (NCA). The report of the NCA expressed concern that “the current resourcing and governance (of Operation Laurel) presents a strong risk of a ‘failed investigation”. This led to MCIT providing increased support to the investigation before assuming responsibility for Operation Laurel on 18 November 2019.

On 20 November a formal statement was taken from the hotel night porter who was the first person Emma had spoken to after the attack. However, due to the passage of time since the incident, he was unable to provide any significant detail above and beyond the brief account provided to the response officers.

On 6 December an officer from MCIT met with Emma and her father, who discussed with him the failings of the CID officers, and how this had significantly undermined the confidence of Emma and her family in the Police. This officer then emailed his supervisor noting a number of concerns regarding the initial investigation.

Emma’s father subsequently submitted a formal complaint regarding the conduct of the officers from CID during the investigation. However, the investigation into the complaint was put on hold until Operation Laurel had concluded.

Justice is Done

On 20 December 2019 the rapist was arrested and charged in relation to both attacks, and three days later the same man was linked to another attack, which had happened on 19 October 2019. He was subsequently convicted of the offences against Emma and the two other victims on 13 October 2020. At the trial, Emma courageously gave live evidence to help secure the rapist’s conviction.

Emma’s complaint, along with the conduct of Operation Laurel as a whole, was then referred to the IOPC. In addition, DS Barnes was also investigated for an offence under section 1 of the Computer Misuse Act 1990 for the unlawful accessing of Emma’s mobile phone, for which he received a criminal caution.

During the course of the IOPC investigation, DS Barnes provided an account denying culpability, and instead sought to blame the failings of the investigation on operational demands, and a lack of resources, experienced officers and support from MCIT. DS Barnes claimed that he had expressed his concerns regarding the lack of resources of CID and the inexperience of CID officers on a number of occasions to senior officers, however no action was taken.

DS Barnes was found to have a case to answer for misconduct. The matter proceeded to a misconduct meeting on 6 October 2021 when DS Barnes was issued with a final written warning due to the following derelictions of duty –

  1. Did not secure the crime scene or ask SOCO to examine the scene;
  2. Failed to ensure that the scene walk-through was recorded or otherwise conducted in accordance with ABE guidelines;
  3. Did not ensure that Emma’s injuries were photographed by SOCO, and did not arrange for further photographs to be taken when further signs of injury appeared;
  4. Accessed material on Emma’s mobile phone after it had been seized and exhibited, and did not take sufficient steps to ensure that any forensic or digital evidence was preserved, and did not create an auditable record of his actions and decisions;
  5. Failed to ensure that the CCTV trawl was undertaken promptly, with the result that some CCTV was lost, and some relevant CCTV evidence was overlooked;
  6. Failed to ensure that statements were obtained from key witnesses;
  7. Failed to ensure that items were submitted for forensic examination promptly, and in one instance the wrong items were submitted;
  8. Did not issue a witness appeal; and
  9. Did not believe Emma.

DC Jones was also found to have a case to answer for misconduct and was given management action for her role. In an account provided to the IOPC, DC Jones acknowledged her lack of experience and training with investigations of serious sexual assault and asserted that although she was the OIC, DS Barnes had provided guidance throughout and in effect he had control of the investigation. Having subsequently had additional training to deal with victims of sexual assault, DC Jones now acknowledged the damage to Emma that her actions had caused.

In addition to the failures identified during the investigation of Emma’s case the IOPC also identified further failings in the Police handling of Female B’s case.

During DS Barnes’ misconduct meeting a statement on behalf of my client and her father was read out by the Chair pointing out that had Emma not stayed strong in the face of the adversity and disbelief by the investigating Officers, the rapist might not have been convicted.

Here therefore, is just one illustration of the tragic reality behind the headline statistics with which I began this blog; an investigation littered with basic errors from the start and almost actively undermined by officers who, either through cynicism, prejudice or inexperience, failed to believe the victim – and failed to catch the rapist before two more women had been attacked. No wonder so many rape investigations go nowhere, as this might have done had the perpetrator not struck again.

The Police need to take this criticism to heart, and take the opportunity to improve their attitude towards rape investigations substantially, rather than becoming involved in finger- pointing games with the CPS. The Police are the frontline of these investigations, and no doubt many rape victims ‘drop’ the case because they have every reason to conclude that the Police are not fighting on their side.

At the present time, I continue to represent and assist Emma, who has suffered significant psychological harm from the way the Police handled her case, in seeking appropriate compensation from the relevant force. How much rather she wishes that they had just done their job properly in the first place.

Care, compassion and competence don’t seem too much to ask for, in such traumatic circumstances.

The names of my client, and the Police officers referred to in this blog, have been changed to preserve her anonymity.

Author: iaingould

Actions against the police solicitor (lawyer) and blogger.

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