As the online world becomes increasingly entangled with our everyday lives, almost every crime leaves a digital footprint — either on social media, messaging platforms or beyond. Birkbeck researchers are working to help police forces collect and use this evidence more effectively when investigating and prosecuting rape and serious sexual offences (RASSO).
“The hope is to make the criminal justice experience less harrowing for victims”
Data from the Office of National Statistics show that 2021 saw the highest recorded number of rape offences to date at 63,136, with only 1.3% of these resulting in a charge or summons, compared to 8.9% in 2017.
Birkbeck’s Institute for Crime and Justice Policy Research (ICPR) is taking part in a Home Office-funded research and change programme that aims to transform the policing response to RASSO. Tiggey May, Senior Research Fellow at ICPR, is focused on improving how digital evidence is extracted, stored, analysed and utilised in the investigation of these cases.
“We are looking at the reporting and investigative journey, and mapping this against the digital evidence journey. This helps us see how these systems interact and where the issues lie. The main problem with digital evidence is that the police are always playing catch up. The technology evolves much faster than legislation and procedure, and the vastness of data our phones collect poses significant problems for the police and Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).”
The findings show gaps in both technological resources and capability, with protocols around digital data storage either unknown or not followed. Tiggey’s research suggests that specialist digital knowledge within RASSO teams needs to be improved and that when considering what digital material to include in an investigation, officers need to follow a proportionate approach, rather than an intrusive one:
“New approaches for this are evolving, but slowly. There’s technology being trialled that will enable police to selectively extract relevant data from phones to minimise the intrusion to victims and witnesses.”
By bringing together police forces with academics and policy experts, the next stage of the project will create a National Operating Model for use by all 43 police forces in England and Wales, to guide them through RASSO investigations.
“Traditional forensics didn’t evolve as quickly as digital forensics has, but it did experience many of the same problems, particularly around the collection, storage and presentation of evidence in court. So, one of our approaches will be to examine the evolution of traditional forensics and look at the policies and practices that could be transferred into the digital world of policing.
“It is refreshing to see the will within government, policing, the CPS and academia to improve the investigation of RASSO cases and to see collaborative projects that allow all partners to engage and contribute. Ultimately, the hope is to make the criminal justice experience less harrowing for victims and to enable an increase in the overall conviction rate.”
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