New police techniques see rape convictions rise in Avon and Somerset

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A new operation to improve rape investigations in Avon and Somerset has seen a three-fold increase in convictions.

The area's police force had one of the worst rape conviction rates in the UK in 2021 - at just 1.6 %.

But Avon and Somerset Police's Operation Bluestone has seen detectives use new techniques - with both victims and suspects.

For suspects, detectives now spend more time looking at the bigger picture - including their background and movements long before an offence.

Det Supt Lisa Simpson said: "We know a perpetrator of serious sexual assault will probably have perpetrated before and is more than 25% likely to do it again.

"It probably sounds obvious, but actually understanding how they get to that stage, how they groom their victims, what sort of background they may have had, how that will influence that behaviour, allows us to look differently and listen differently to a victim who reports it."

She said this helps police to better understand what behaviours might have been prevalent that historic policing approaches may have missed.

Det Con Toby Hayes added: "We have a better understanding that these offences have a wider context.

Det Con Toby Hayes from Avon and Somerset Police

"We understand that we are not just looking at the time and the place of the incident itself, we need to understand the build-up. What’s happened before, what’s happened afterwards.

"This approach widens our perspective.

"We will be looking at what that suspect did before, even before he has been to the nightclub? Has he been to other nightclubs? Has he been approaching other potential victims? Is he targeting people? What type of suspect is he? Is he opportunistic? Or has he got a plan? Is this premeditated?"

Bluestone also has new technology which helps how they deal with victims.

Historically, many rape survivors said having to hand over their mobile phones has been a traumatic and intrusive process.

Now 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 handset is then given back immediately.

"Victims are saying they feel like they’re supported," Det Supt Simpson added.

"They feel like they can really tell us as it is and that we’ll listen and we'll progress it quickly - that we are not just taking their phone for months and months, with no regard to how that impacts on them.

"That we are not investigating them, that we are listening to them and investigating the perpetrators. I think that's probably the most seismic change."

Although she welcomed the three-fold conviction increase, Det Supt Simpson admitted the current conviction rates are still too low.

"I’m never going to celebrate the fact we’re still talking about very small numbers," she said. "We are a long way from that success rate that we want."

Avon and Somerset Police used to have teams who specialised in sexual offences, but they were scrapped during austerity cuts.

Operation Bluestone was formed after work by academics in early 2020. They looked at Avon & Somerset’s investigative techniques and suggested improvements.

The scheme is now being rolled out nationwide.