Training to transform response to rape and sexual abuse rolled out by PSNI

More than 500 frontline officers have now received bespoke ‘in person’ training to transform the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s (PSNI) response to rape and sexual abuse crimes.

Jun 19, 2024
By Paul Jacques

Launched in August 2023, it has been delivered by the sexual abuse and abusive relationships charity Nexus, which has now skilled up Public Protection Branch detectives to deliver this training to future cohorts of frontline officers.

In April 2018, the Gillen Review was commissioned by the Department of Justice, setting 253 recommendations to improve criminal justice outcomes and the experiences of victims. A key recommendation for all criminal justice partners was to raise awareness and challenge any internal unconscious bias that may exist.

In the past 12 months until April, 4,022 sexual violence and abuse reports were made to the PSNI. However, there is a concern that while the number of reports of serious sexual offences to the police have steadily increased over the years, the attrition rate also remains high.

Detective Chief Superintendent Lindsay Fisher from the PSNI’s Public Protection Branch said: “Sexual crimes are incredibly complex to investigate and it cannot be underestimated the impact they have upon victims, their families and the wider communities. This is why we have dedicated rape crime investigators who are committed to getting victims the best possible outcomes.

“We know a huge barrier that stops victims from coming forward is the fear of their report not being taken seriously or the evidence not being robustly investigated. By implementing this bespoke training, we want to bolster victim confidence and increase our frontline officers understanding of the nuances of these crimes.

“The training package will go a long way to ensure that our language and behaviours towards vulnerable victims is more consistently appropriate and that they feel supported. It will debunk common myths and misconceptions and give our frontline officers and investigating detectives a deeper understanding of how a reporting victim may be thinking, feeling and acting at the time of reporting to better grasp the bigger picture.”

The PSNI said there are many common myths about rape and sexual assault that may make a victim blame themselves or question whether what is happened is even a crime.

It says these myths “have no place in the law” and it is making that clear to its investigating officers.

Common societal misconceptions challenged within the training are:

  • What the relationship is between the victim and alleged offender – that victims cannot be raped if they are in a relationship with the offender;
  • That the victim is somehow to blame if they were under the influence of alcohol or drugs, because of what they were wearing, or because there was flirting, kissing or consenting to other sexual acts prior to the alleged offence;
  • That the victim cannot be raped or sexually assaulted if they changed their mind mid-act and withdrew consent;
  • That anyone who is raped or sexually assaulted should be very upset;
  • Previous reporting or multiple reports means they could not have been assaulted this time;
  • That ‘too much time’ has passed since the incident/s occurred;
  • That the victim’s sexual orientation, gender, background or sexual history has any bearing on what has happened to them;
  • That men cannot be raped or sexually assaulted; and
  • That sex workers cannot be raped or sexually assaulted and therefore cannot make a report.

The reality is the opposite, says the PSNI

“Other very common myths that were challenged as part of the training were the ‘freeze response’, that someone didn’t respond ‘normally’ during the attack,” says the PSNI. “Freezing on the spot instead of fighting back. This response is very common.

“The issue of ‘false reporting’ was also debunked, officers were reminded that it is not easy to make an allegation/report of rape and that false reports are low and of a similar number to false reports of other types of serious crimes.”

Det Chief Supt Fisher added: “Unfortunately rape myths exist in our society, and the Police Service is a reflection of society. We want to make sure we root out and address any unconscious bias or harmful misconceptions that may exist within our ranks.

“We are constantly scrutinising our work in investigating crimes of this nature so that we can continue to improve our response and work in partnership to bring offenders to justice and support victims with informed understanding and empathy.”

Prosecutors from the Public Prosecution Service’s (PPS) Serious Crime Unit also took part in this week’s final training session.

Head of the PPS Serious Crime Unit Catherine Kierans said: “Sexual offences are amongst the most complex to investigate and prosecute.

“Our specialist prosecutors in the Serious Crime Unit are highly trained and experienced in dealing with sexual offences, including in recognising and challenging rape myths and stereotypes. We are also acutely aware of the impact of trauma on victims.

“Our sexual offences policy outlines all aspects of this difficult area, including ensuring that myths form no part of our decision making and are robustly challenged in court. We welcome the opportunity to refresh our knowledge in this area, learning from Nexus who support victims of these offences every day.”

Jan Winton, Nexus Early Intervention and Prevention manager, developed and led the PSNI training and said: “As advocates for victims and survivors of sexual crimes, it has been important for Nexus to support the PSNI to challenge any internal unconscious bias. We know, through our clients, that how they have been treated by Officers in the past, when they have reported sexual crimes, has been sometimes inconsistent and not always trauma informed. Through the training we challenged many common rape myths and upskilled officers to understand how trauma affects the human brain and the importance of the language used as first responders to allegations of rape and sexual abuse.

“In our evaluation of the training we found that an overwhelming majority of officers positively engaged with the training and left with increased knowledge of issues including the impact of grooming, trauma, barriers to reporting, rape myths and misogyny. Importantly they reported now having more awareness of how a victim may be feeling, thinking and acting and how to support them through the reporting process.

“We look forward to hearing how this is impacting on the ground with people who report these crimes.”

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