Key facts in relation to police investigation of a complainant’s allegation of sexual assault

Victim Empathy in Policing:

Key Points


  • High attrition of sexual violence cases from the criminal justice system.
  • Nationally, only 5% of sexual assaults that are reported to the police result in a conviction (and only 14% of cases of sexual assault are reported to the police).
  • We have the lowest rate of conviction for sexual crimes in Europe
  • Attrition is highest for sexual crimes despite the fact that 86% of offenders are known to victims and thus do not need to be discovered through investigation.
  • There appears to be a systematic bias against particular cases progressing through the criminal justice system. Less likely to progress if:
    • Offence is characterised as an acquaintance/date rape
    • Victim had been drinking or using drugs
    • Victim has made a previous allegation of sexual assault (although revictimisation is very prevalent)
    • Victim is known to have a learning disability or mental health problem.
  • Other factors that impact upon the complainant’s perceived credibility include:
    • The complainant’s sexual reputation
    • Inconsistencies in accounts (e.g. between initial statement and information provided at a later date).
  • One of the largest factors contributing to attrition is victim-withdrawal of the original complaint.
  • Why do victims withdraw their complaints?
    • Fear/experience of secondary victimisation by criminal justice agents and medical professionals
    • Feeling disbelieved or blamed by the criminal justice agents to whom they disclose.
  • From a policing perspective – between ½ and 2/3 of complaints are considered to not be genuine – but research on the Met. Police records indicate that only 2.7% of allegations are in fact fabricated (genuine false allegations).
  • The notion that women reported rape due to regretful sex is a myth which is possibly based on historic rhetoric.
  • Why is the police response to sexual assault complainants important?
    • Disbelieve and victim-blaming are associated with higher rates of post-traumatic disorder 9 months post disclosure.
    • Police are typically the first officials to whom the complainant discloses – if they receive a negative response this is likely to restrict their help seeking from other organisations (e.g. medical, counselling etc.)
    • On average non-convicted self-reported rapists whose average age is 26 admit to committing assaults on 12 people. This low conviction rate leaves a high number of offenders free to create further victims.
  • Factors associated with higher rates of disbelief:
    • Complainants who are manifesting symptoms of PTSD
      • Showing high levels of shame (avoiding eye contact)
      • Having problems remembering details of the event
      • Not showing ‘appropriate emotions’ etc.

How might empathy towards complainants enhance the rate of conviction?

  • Demonstrating empathy for victims is likely to lead to fuller disclosures (less contradictory information)
  • Complainants may feel better able to face the rigors of proceeding to court if they feel that the officers supporting them genuinely care for them.
  • Where victims feel cared for by the police they are likely to have a highly level of police satisfaction irrespective of the court outcome.

Enhancing empathy for complainants

  • We need to overcome a number of human errors in thinking that tend to promote victim-blaming or disbelieving tendencies. We normally engage in this erroneous thinking as a way of maintaining our own sense of safety.
  • Trust between individuals is central to feeling empathy – thus if you automatically distrust a complainant you are unlikely to demonstrate empathy
  • We need to be able to place ourselves in the shoes of the other to understand how they are thinking and feeling – and we need to recognise that we tend to find this difficult.
  • We need to recognise when we are being influenced by the prevalent but erroneous rape myths.
  • Remember that we might become desensitised to the suffering of others as we see it regularly – this their unique and possibly novel experience and they need to be responded to appropriately.
  • Remember complainants are not just a source of evidence – they have turned to you for support and protection – this may not be about securing a case

How do we demonstrate empathy?

  • Allow the complainant to tell their ‘whole’ story (not just the specific details of the event in question, but also circumstances that surround these events) and listen to them
  • Avoid questioning or responses that imply that the victim is incredible or in some way to blame for the events.
  • Comfort the complainant when they are showing distress. Eye contact, supporting smile, hand holding, hand or pat on the shoulder etc.
  • Respond to complainants as individuals rather than just cases
  • Keep the complainant informed of progress (or even lack of) on the case

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