The role of a police Sexual Offences Investigation Trained officer as described by PC Charlotte Donovan.
Police Constable Charlotte Donovan is one of Hampshire Constabulary's dedicated Sexual Offences Investigation Trained (SOIT) officers. Below she describes how her role as a SOIT needs a patient, empathetic but impartial approach combined with vital investigation skills to examine the sensitive evidence relating to a serious sexual offence case.
"I became a dedicated Sexual Offences Investigation Trained (SOIT) officer in December 2010. I was a uniformed shift officer up until September 2010 when I then joined the unit I currently work in, which at the time was called the Public Protection Investigation Unit.
"I joined as a full time SOIT when an opportunity came up. I wasn't a qualified SOIT on my previous uniformed role but I was one of the only females on the shift of predominantly male officers and so a lot of the serious sexual offences often came to me.
"But I enjoyed being deployed on these cases so when the opportunity came up to do more of this kind of work I jumped at it. I have always liked the victim side of policing. I like helping people and I come from a customer services background so I think it's a natural fit for me.
"Impartiality is very important in the role of a SOIT. In fact the role of any police officer is not to judge. You need to be able to keep an open mind, even at difficult times when you meet a very upset person who has described these horrendous things that have happened to them.
"The SOIT role requires you to be quite a patient and tolerant person because some of the people we deal with can be very vulnerable as a result of what they have been through. And in addition you can be supporting people with mental or physical health problems and learning difficulties. Whatever the situation, everyone needs to be dealt with without prejudice and with respect. We are not here to do the work of the rape crises support workers, we are police officers, but you've still go to have that empathy with people. You have to be able to establish good rapport with the victim which helps when explaining the process involved and to listen to and answer any concerns they may have.
"Victims can be assigned to us in different ways. Sometimes we get referrals from the Sexual Assault Referral Centre (SARC) in Cosham; people might self refer to them and together they will discuss police involvement and whether this is something the victim would be interested in. If they are happy with police involvement, then we will be called down to provide some advice about what would happen if they came forward. We also get a lot of jobs come into our office in the force - the unit that I work in deals with domestic rapes - if something like that comes in it will be allocated to a SOIT to look after.
"When a victim is first assigned to a SOIT building trust and gaining their confidence is paramount. How easy this is can depend on the person and their previous experience with the police. But is vital for the relationship we establish with the victim.
"I will always meet with a victim before anything proceeds further to explain all the processes to them. I think people appreciate honesty about the fact that we can't make guarantees but giving them all their options means they feel they've had all the facts to make informed decisions.
"The welfare of the victim is paramount and we work closely with other agencies such as the SARC, independent sexual violence advisors and crisis workers to ensure they are supported all the way. We will be asking a lot from the victim as we work through the process - asking them to complete a medical if it's still within the window of opportunity, undergo the interview and the uncertain wait while the case is being investigated for confirmation about where it is going to go. If it does move forward beyond the investigation then it heads into the court process and then the waiting for the trail. I think it's a massive ask of people and we do understand that.
"We try to explain the medical side of things to the victim as much as we can. I think if we explain why taking samples is important it helps to relieve some of the anxiety around this part of the investigation - it tends to be the bit that worries people the most. Officers have training with a crime scene investigator to gain a better understanding of what forensic evidence we need to preserve. Every case is different and medically we have to take different samples based on what has happened to that person. So it does help to have an understanding and forensic awareness.
"SOITs are heavily involved in the interview with the victim and complete all the safeguarding. We can also be involved in the interviewing of the suspects. Often no one can really quite understand the case like the SOIT because they have had the account from the victim and know what to challenge the suspect on as they are going through their account.
"The SOIT will keep in touch with the victim as often as they want. Some people only want to be updated when there are significant things and then others really need a lot of help and support. We try and work with the ISVAs who are able to take on the emotional support side of the case while we can get on with the investigation. But generally most contact with the victim will go through the SOIT. If the investigating officer or CPS needs to go back revisit some further points about the case or needs more information I will be that point of contact.
"When a case does go to court I will go with that person on the first day of the trial or whenever they are called to give evidence. I will sit in the waiting room with them. It's not surprising that victims find going to court a massively daunting process as it is for most people but we help to make things as easy as possible.
"We will have met prior to going to court to re-watch any filmed accounts to refresh the victims memory, sometimes there has been a years gap since giving the account and it being shown in court. We will have spoken about the process of going to court and any special measures - the screen, video links or whatever has been authorised for that person. I will keep in touch with them throughout the trail and as soon as we get the result from court I will let them know, which I like to do in person.
"Whether the final result is a conviction at court for the offender or not, victims are often relieved to have been able to tell their story and it have been taken seriously."
"Unfortunately it is still difficult to know how many people are reluctant to come to the police after an assault. I get the feeling that there are lot of people that don't report these types of crimes.
"From speaking to the ISVAs (independent sexual violence advisors) there are a lot of women they are supporting who don't have on going cases with the police. The process, through nobody's fault, puts people off.
"However, we do want people to come forward to seek justice. We can always guarantee that the complaint will be taken seriously and thoroughly investigated."