Operation Soteria: Durham Constabulary secures 67% increase in rape and sexual offence charges

“I sleep in the same bed as my mum," says victim who was helped by Durham Constabulary. Watch Kris Jepson's report here.


Durham Constabulary has secured a significant increase in rape and serious sexual assault charges, thanks to what has been dubbed as a transformational new way of investigating sexual offences.

The force has seen a 67% increase in charges between August 2022 and July 2023.

Under Operation Soteria, which has been rolled out to police forces across the country, officers are trained in how to put the victim first by concentrating on the behaviours of the offender, as opposed to that of the victim.

Among the victims who praised the force for their investigative work, was a woman who was sexually assaulted in a terrifying street attack. She said she now sleeps next to her mother to feel safe at night.

Michael Gallagher, 33, of Westmoreland Street, Darlington, was caught on CCTV in the town centre following his victim as she walked home in the early hours of June 30 last year.

Dressed in shorts and a gym top, he followed her down several streets on his bike before he dragged her behind a wall and sexually assaulted her. She managed to scream loudly, causing Gallagher to flee the scene and she called the police.

Just 15 minutes later, officers had located the suspect, tasered him, arrested him and brought him in for questioning.

Gallagher gave "no comment" answers when he was questioned about the attack and an offence of trespass with intent to commit a sexual offence.

Just an hour earlier that night, he had broken into a woman’s bedroom and attempted to assault her. He admitted both offences when he appeared at Teesside Crown Court in September, where he was jailed for 14 years, plus an additional two years on extended licence.

Victims have praised Durham Police and Operation Soteria, the national programme to improve rape and sexual offence detection. Credit: ITV Tyne Tees

The victim of the street attack, who has not waived her right to anonymity, said: “This incident has had a huge effect on me and my family in the short time since it happened.

“Simple things like walking down the street have become tough for me, I find myself crossing the road when people come towards me or are walking on the same side of the road.

“I have had trouble sleeping and I think about what has happened all the time; every time I close my eyes, I just see the man’s eyes staring back at me.

“I have had to seek comfort by sleeping in the same bed as my mum, it was the only way I could feel safe.”

The woman praised Durham Police, who have implemented Operation Soteria, the national programme to improve rape and sexual offence detection, for their efforts in arresting Gallagher and building the case against him.

PC Colin Dodgson, from Darlington CID, who led the investigation, said: “Gallagher is an extremely dangerous individual who poses a significant risk to women.

“Both the women he attacked have shown incredible levels of bravery in reporting what had happened to them and providing powerful testimonies; they should feel proud that doing so has resulted in a dangerous man being put behind bars.”

"As a society - we are not there yet"

The Home Secretary James Cleverly visited Durham Police’s training centre in Meadowfield, Durham, to learn more about Operation Soteria, where he heard powerful evidence from a woman who was raped 20 years ago.

The woman, who cannot be identified, now trains police in dealing with victims of sexual assault and rape, explained the importance of how investigators speak to people who come forward.

After hearing her story, Mr Cleverly thanked her for sharing her evidence which had taken her years to process.

He said: “As a society we need to understand it is not about what fits into neat patterns, and we are not there yet.”

Mr Cleverly told ITV News that 4,500 officers across the country have now been trained in the new investigative techniques: "I want to see those charge rates increase. I want to see prosecution rates increase. That will happen through the deployment of Operation Soteria training, because we’ve seen that in the forces where it has initially been rolled out, including here in Durham.

"I want to see more victims feeling confident in coming forward, knowing they will be listened to, they will be dealt with professionally and that the officers dealing with their cases know what they are doing."

James Cleverly told how Operation Soteria works in the training unit Credit: ITV News

Asked how important the training is when the reputations of police forces across the country has been damaged in recent years due to sexual misconduct cases against a number of officers, he admitted it had "undermined confidence" in the police.

He said: "Sadly, we have had a number of high profile cases, which have undermined the confidence in policing. In my experience the people who are most angry about that are police officers themselves.

"This training makes sure that all police officers deal with these very sensitive crimes professionally, sympathetically, in a very victim focused way and that is really, really positive. It will take time to rebuild confidence, but the training that I’ve seen here today in Durham, I think, is incredibly important part of that.

"It is a real priority for me and I want to make sure that the UK is the safest place in the world for women and girls."

Between August 2022 and July 2023, Durham Constabulary secured 87 more charges for rape and serious sexual assaults, compared to the 12 month before.

The number of charges for domestic-related serious sexual abuse more than doubled, from 24 charges to 55 during the same period.

Young officers receive training in how to investigate sexual offence cases Credit: ITV News

Assistant Chief Constable, Tonya Antonis, told ITV News that more than 300 Durham detectives have received the training and that it was "making a difference".

She said: "I think if you speak to victims, with that wrap around support, and the support they get from sexual violence advocates, they are really making a difference, but what we are seeing, and it’s not about the numbers, but being able to charge more cases and bringing more offenders to justice is really making a difference."

The "transformative" new approach to rape investigations and prosecutions, aims to improve support for victims, and puts the emphasis on scrutinising offenders' behaviours.

The training, led by sexual offending expert, Dr Patrick Tidmarsh, brings police forces, prosecutors and academics together to provide officers with a more holisitic approach to rape and sexual offence cases.