Dr Emma Williams, Dr Linda Maguire, Dr Arun Sondhi and Richard Harding, The Open University, Centre for Policing Research and Learning. Operation Soteria Bluestone team, Pillar 4
Welcome to the fifth and final (but no means least) blog in this special series celebrating International Women’s Day. Today’s blog shares important insights about the ground-breaking project currently underway to transform the police response to Rape and Serious Sexual Offences.
Investigating Rape and Serious Sexual Offences (RASSO) is complex and is one of the most challenging aspects of violence against women and girls for the criminal justice system. It requires specialist knowledge input and officers who are confident in their roles to undertake this task. The complexity arises partly from the fact that many of the victims of these offences often have many vulnerabilities. This means that many RASSO victims are far removed from the notion of an ‘ideal victim’ and it is often these factors that impact on their receiving a fair process. Hence, women with the most serious vulnerabilities and likely to be targeted and groomed by perpetrators and as a result, are also those most at risk of their cases resulting in attrition.
Further complexity arises from the fact that many investigations involve difficult interpersonal relationships, where there are often no independent witnesses, and where victim accounts and behaviours can be misinterpreted through many false lenses, including misogyny, homophobia, myth and misconception, and ignorance of the effects of trauma. All of these factors require investigators to have specialist and expert knowledge. They should have completed appropriate learning and development opportunities to enable them to have the knowledge, attitudes and skills to understand and effectively engage with the complexities of RASSO investigation and the related trauma.
Operation Soteria Bluestone is a UK Home Office-funded programme designed to improve the investigation of RASSO in England and Wales. Our findings confirm the systemic challenges that police services are facing in trying to manage the demand for RASSO investigation. In our review of learning provision and officer welfare we found that investigators, at all levels, are aware of the impacts of cases being allocated to officers with, often, limited experience or learning. Where experienced investigators were available, particularly in supervisory roles, they often had limited knowledge refresh since their initial courses and were sometimes struggling to support less experienced colleagues whilst managing their own caseloads. Collectively we heard investigators express their frustration at wanting to fulfil their mission to solve crime, bring perpetrators to justice and do the right thing for victims, whilst working in an environment that made achieving those goals increasingly challenging. Morally this presents huge challenges for officers involved in investigating this crime type.
Part of our approach was to explore the relationship some of these issues may have with the concept of occupational burnout. The notion of burnout is well established in policing. Over recent years it has been considered to be increasingly prevalent as a result of austerity measures and changing operational demands. Factors relevant to RASSO investigations also include the increased requirements for processing and investigating digital evidence, the need to provide a victim-orientated service alongside the changing relationship with the Crown Prosecution Service, which has all added to an increased workload for officers.
Factors encompassing burnout include exhaustion, feelings of negativity or cynicism and reduced levels of personal accomplishment. People who are emotionally exhausted tend to feel over-extended and physically drained. Cynicism can manifest itself in greater detachment or depersonalisation from victims, with feelings that officers have achieved little success at work. Symptoms of burnout tend to report physical and mental exhaustion and reduced ability to care for the victims with which they work, leaving a sentiment that their work makes little difference. Despite the prevalence of burnout symptoms, police officers are unlikely to seek help or support within their organization or externally for professional treatment due to fear of stigma or loss of job role.
Our work on Operation Soteria Bluestone has explored the learning, development and wellbeing climate for officers investigating RASSO. A key finding is that predictors are not specific to a single police force, but common to all forces. The findings suggest the importance of the wider organisation in influencing emotional exhaustion and depersonalisation. The causes of burnout are consistent with the literature on policing including perceptions of workload, large caseloads and the detrimental perceived effect on an officer’s work-life balance. We identified high levels of stress and ill-health, alongside pressures to come to work despite being unwell. Whilst those involved in the management and investigation of RASSO cases are exposed to vicarious trauma through their work with victims, they have additional and varying degrees of trauma through the organisational process itself.
In addition, the high number of caseloads places a burden on the learning climate, reducing the time that officers have to receive specialist training to do their job. We believe that if officers are equipped with the proper resources and specialist training, they will be empowered to do their job and this will impact positively on their wellbeing. If these resources are low and demand is high, as our findings suggest, burnout can occur. Therefore, the knowledge to date from the work on Soteria Bluestone offer really important insights into the relationship between the police organisations’ commitment to enabling their staff to deliver professional police investigations in the context of RASSO. The connection between officer competence and confidence and the provision and ability to access learning, to support their development and officer wellbeing, is vital.
With a new National Operating Model for investigating RASSO in development for implementation, police organisations will be better prepared to improve the current situation for their workforces. Organisational change is needed to really enable, involve and equip officers, not only to enhance their own wellbeing, but ultimately to improve outcomes for victims. As a research team we are excited to be working with forces and helping them to prepare for managing the provision of specialist learning, development and wellbeing support RASSO officers, to enable policing to make transformational change in this crucial area of justice.
Thank you for reading our blog posts this month. As you can see, here at OU Policing we are committed to conducting research about issues that affect the lives of women. The project we have shared this month are underpinned by a desire to improve women’s lives – be that through the criminal justice response to domestic abuse and rape, girls experiences of criminal exploitation, or women’s experiences as mothers in the police. If you would like to know more about our work, or you would like to work with us, please don’t hesitate to contact us at OUPC@open.ac.uk