‘Everyone wants to get involved’: inside a new police approach to tackling rape

At 8am, in the glass and steel police centre in Bridgwater, Somerset, DI Richard Horsfall takes a swig from an enormous mug of tea and kicks off the team briefing. “Right then, let’s get going,” he says. “We’ve got a lot to get through.”

Three reports of rape have been made overnight. A man is in custody, and in little more than 12 hours he will have to be charged or released. “The clock is ticking,” says Horsfall. “It’s going to be a busy day.”

This is Operation Bluestone. Its “Al Capone” approach to catching rapists puts suspects – not victims’ credibility – at the centre of investigations, say police, and aims to “disrupt” them by whatever legal means possible.

Over two days, the Guardian was given exclusive insight into the workings of Bluestone, as well access to new data, the academics behind it, the people supporting victims, and the national police lead at its vanguard.

The project – part of a wider police and Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) operation called Operation Soteria, after the goddess of safety and deliverance from harm – aims to tackle a crisis in rape prosecutions, which fell by 64% between 2016 and 2020 against a backdrop of record reports in England and Wales.

The government’s response in its rape review, published last year, resulted in the £6.65m pilot, kicked off in Avon and Somerset and extended to 18 forces. A Home Office report on its first year is due imminently, and a new police model for dealing with rape is expected by June next year.

Eighteen months after the scheme’s inception in Avon and Somerset, the force says it is beginning to see “green shoots” of change. Before Bluestone, it ranked 40th out of 43 forces for its performance on tackling rape and sexual assault. Now it has risen to 22nd. Its charge rate has tripled, from 3% to 10%, according to internal analysis from the force. Officers are arresting suspects at twice the rate – an average of 45 a month in 2022, up from 26 a month in 2021.

“It is still rubbish,” Det Supt Ed Yaxley, Bluestone’s research lead, says bluntly. “Let’s be honest, 90% of our cases still don’t end up in court. I don’t think anyone within Bluestone thinks of this as something to be crowing about. But the data is telling us that this is the start of something really important.”

In the police offices, the new way of working is in full swing. Two “disruption officers”, whose job is to focus on the suspect in the case, are about to leave to interview a man. Two women have gone to a sexual assault referral centre, and an “engagement officer”, who interviews and supports victims, has set off to meet them. Details of suspects in all the reports from the previous night have been checked against police databases to see if they have previously been reported or have an offending history.

While that may sound like the type of basic procedures that should happen for every rape allegation, multiple reports, dozens of experts – including the former victims’ commissioner – and thousands of rape victims attest that this is very often not the case.

As part of Operation Soteria, academics carry out intrusive deep dives into forces’ data – as well as case reviews, surveys and endless conversations – to find out exactly what has been going wrong, says Betsy Stanko, one of the operation’s academic architects. Their findings across the first five forces to join the pilot were bleak.

“Basically, we found that investigation units were really victim credibility units,” she says. “Officers weren’t talking to suspects, they didn’t know how many repeat offenders they had, their relationships with victims was bad, they weren’t using their data and information.”

After the deep dive, academics help officers change in six key areas, known as pillars: focusing on suspects, disrupting repeat offenders, engaging with victims, learning and development and officer wellbeing, data and digital forensics.

In Avon and Somerset, academics found that 60% of rape suspects were repeat offenders and a quarter were repeat sexual offenders. Often this was not picked up, and sometimes suspects were not questioned for months.

Now, officers interview suspects at the earliest opportunity and look for evidence of grooming, coercion and exploitation, says Sarah Crew, the Avon and Somerset chief constable and the National Police Chiefs’ Council’s (NPCC) lead on rape. If they are deemed a threat to the public, officers try to “disrupt” them through a range of methods such as sexual risk or sexual harm prevention orders or checking for driving disqualifications.

“Otherwise known as the Al Capone approach,” says Crew. “I think all of that is sending a message to a perpetrator that actually this behaviour is not risk-free for you. We’re watching you.”

But disruption is only part of the picture – it has to be accompanied by victim support, says Crew. In April, a Home Office select committee report said the trauma of investigations and delays (an average of 706 days for rape cases, more than twice the average for other crimes) contributed to the high proportion of cases (63% between July and September 2021) that were dropped because victims pulled out.

Through the charity Safe Link, which supports survivors of rape and sexual assault, the Guardian meets Rosie (not her real name), who recently reported a historical rape to Avon and Somerset police after a decade of building up her courage.

In the Georgian townhouse that houses the charity in Bristol, she says the experience was traumatic – and surreal – as she had to outline her case in a busy waiting room of a police station. But since meeting her engagement officer a few weeks later, she has felt “safe, heard”.

“Without that, I wouldn’t have stuck with this,” she says. “I knew it was going to be hard, but I didn’t really understand how harrowing it would be.”

Sitting alongside her, often holding her hand, is her independent sexual violence adviser, Tina Decadenet. A woman you might suspect does not suffer fools gladly, Decadenet describes feeling like a “nuisance” for years. “You were constantly trying to get in contact with them [police], constantly emailing and you’d get nothing back – even though you knew they’d read it because you’d put a receipt on it,” she says.

Now emails are returned, calls answered, she says. “It makes you feel like you’re actually doing a really good job, and helping victims as quickly as possible. That’s worth its weight in gold.”

Police are talking differently, too, says Nicola Shannon, a service manager for The Bridge, a sexual assault referral centre in Bristol. They use “reflective practice” – where colleagues assess each other’s work – and talk about being “trauma-informed”. “I’m really hopeful that with Bluestone there will be a growing understanding that the best outcome should be the wellbeing of the victim. First and foremost,” she says.

At the Bridgwater police centre, Horsfall explains that dealing sensitively with victims isn’t just about doing the right thing, but about building better cases. This might mean delaying a victim’s first interview, making sure they are picked up in an unmarked car, telling them they are believed.

Is he concerned that critics will argue that a starting point of belief could lead to false accusations (despite the fact that the CPS says false accusations are rare, and data suggesting a man is more likely to be raped than falsely accused of being a rapist)?

“We have to investigate impartially and assess evidence neutrally,” says Horsfall. “But we also need to empower people to feel confident and trust us – because that’s how we get our best evidence. And, you know, on a human level, just saying ‘we believe you’ is the right thing to do. I don’t think we should be criticised for that.”

Avon and Somerset had a specialist rape team more than a decade ago, but it was disbanded during the years of austerity, when police forces lost 20,000 officers, 15% of their number. The same thing happened in dozens of forces across England and Wales.

In Avon and Somerset, much of the post-2020 police uplift has been reinvested in tackling rape, and an additional 119 roles have been created. But other forces are under no obligation to do the same.

Another key element in the uptick in arrests and charges in Avon and Somerset is an improvement in its relationship with the CPS, according to multiple officers. Police sought “early advice” from prosecutors an average of 24 times a month in 2022, up from just three time a month in 2020, according to the force.

The CPS (which saw a 25% budget cut and a 30% reduction in staff during austerity) has been accused of being increasingly risk-averse in its charging decisions in recent years, including by police.

Vicky Gleave, the head of the rape and serious sexual offences unit in CPS South West, says that in her experience there was a “disconnection” between police and prosecutors, not open hostility. “For me, the challenge is trying to have that personal connection between the two teams to generate that level of trust,” she says. “Down here, we’ve been able to achieve that.”

The rape review ordered police and prosecutors to work together to return prosecutions to 2016 levels before the end of this parliament. In the last quarter, the south-west region hit that target. “I have to accept that I feel pleased,” says Gleave. “But I also think we still know where we’re at and where we need to be – and we have to be better.”

While national statistics are also showing signs of improvement, campaigners such as Rape Crisis fear that the change seen in Avon and Somerset will be difficult to replicate across 43 forces – many of which, it fears, have chief constables less committed to the tackling the crime, or which come up against prosecutors who resist scrutiny. “We absolutely need it to work,” says Amelia Handy, the policy lead at the charity. “There is a risk, without total commitment from all agencies, that it won’t.”

But Crew believes Soteria’s impact will be felt not just in policing but across the criminal justice system. “Everyone wants to get involved,” she says. “And change doesn’t usually happen like that in policing, not that infectious way.”

She pauses. “It’s definitely working. I can see change in the dials – but I can also feel it. You can smell it in the air.”