By Sarah.Aston

04 Feb 2015

A police detective discusses the funding cuts and staff shortages that have hampered specialist departments in the force. 

I am a police detective and have worked for the police force for several years, including seven years as a detective.  I currently work in a specialist department for rape and serious sexual offences. 

My job involves investigating allegations of rape and sexual offences, both current and historic, and my day-to-day duties include interviewing victims, witnesses and suspects, as well as other investigative tasks such as gathering CCTV footage, dealing with forensic evidence and conducting house-to-house enquiries. 

I thoroughly enjoy my current role and strive to do my best for each victim of crime. However, we regularly face criticism from the government about the low number of convictions for rape. The fact is, it has become increasingly difficult to maintain a high standard of work with ever diminishing resources as a result of funding cuts across the police force.

My department covers a large and diverse area that consists of both suburban and rural pockets and this offers its own unique challenges and requires a lot more resources than other, smaller areas – something that is not reflected in the available funding. In recent years the number of officers in my department and sexual crime departments across the country generally has decreased rapidly, but the workload has not; in fact, since the Jimmy Savile enquiry, the number of sexual offence cases reported to police has increased.

While the fact that victims are feeling confident enough in the abilities of our departments to come forward is a positive sign, and is something we have worked hard to achieve, the decision to reduce the number of staff through natural wastage still places a great deal of pressure on those who remain. Each detective constable (DC) in my department is now responsible for approximately 20 investigations at any one time. 

A murder enquiry team will generally consist of a detective chief inspector, two detective inspectors, four detective sergeants and 14 DCs. In contrast, a rape enquiry ‘team’ will consist of only one DC (although each investigation is reviewed after seven days and after 28 days by a senior officer) and it is not uncommon for an investigation to take over a year from reporting to charge. If we are to support victims and work to a high standard, staffing levels is an area that must be improved.

Recent announcements by the Ministry of Justice suggest that there is recognition of this and the recent overhaul of the code of practice for victims of crime means there is now more of a focus on helping victims to cope and recover. Anything to support victims is positive and will have a greater impact on the success of our role. 

Of course, it’s not just the police cuts that impact on how we deliver results, as delays have been further exacerbated by the extensive funding cuts that have also been made to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). With less funding readily available for staffing, we now have to wait weeks or even months for CPS advice on any one case and many victims often disengage and withdraw due to these delays. Victims of a rape or serious sexual assault are likely to be traumatised by the experience and their confidence can be badly affected by delay. 

In the rare cases where a charge is brought within a day or two of the incident happening, it is much easier for police to keep a victim ‘on board’ and we are able to throw all of our resources into achieving justice. More often than not, though, a victim will have to wait many months for an outcome, and some understandably just want to put the whole incident behind them. 

Although there is little being done to tackle delays or under-staffing head on, a positive step is the new proposals to allow vulnerable victims to undergo the cross examination needed for a trial in advance and by video. New pilots of this method are a step in the right direction and may mean that victims will have a better experience of giving evidence – something that I think will make a big difference.

Generally, recent discussions and policies from the Ministry of Justice about supporting victims do suggest that reforms may have a positive impact on the victim’s experience of an investigation. However, I believe that conviction rates and the standards of work that we have come to we expect from ourselves are highly unlikely to improve while the number of police officers keeps decreasing.”

Frontline is a column that explores how government policy affects working lives at the sharp end of public service

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