Part 3: Detailed findings on adult sexual assault investigations

Response of the New Zealand Police to the Commission of Inquiry into Police Conduct: Final monitoring report

In this Part, we discuss the Police's progress with adult sexual assault investigations. We discuss the Police's progress with their:

We then describe the differences these changes have made to:

Improving policies and procedures

The Police have set out comprehensive policies and procedures for investigating adult sexual assault. The main features of the policies and procedures are to:

  • keep a strong focus on the needs of victims;
  • use suitably trained staff; and
  • have a planned approach to investigations.

The policies and procedures are clear, and police staff know what the Police expect of them when investigating an adult sexual assault complaint.

More focus on supporting victims

The Police have put a team in place that provides senior level leadership to, and oversight of, adult sexual assault investigations.

The Police have worked hard to build a culture that is supportive of victims of adult sexual assault. For example, the Police have established a strong victim-focus in the Police's core values.

The Police's victim-focused approach is now an integral part of the way they do business. The Police also have better relationships with victim support and specialist support organisations. Victim advisors have spoken about the significant improvements in how police staff show empathy towards victims.

The Police are working well with specialist medical and support organisations. Support organisations report that the Police are leading efforts to secure better facilities and support for adult sexual assault victims throughout the country. The Police have also been working to help local specialist support groups apply for funding.

In our review of investigation cases, we saw better communication with victims during investigations. Managers we talked to said that good supervision, case management, and other systems are in place to make sure that all adult sexual assault investigators treat victims well. Examples of this from the Police's reviews include the Police liaising with the victim's ACC claims manager, crown prosecutor, and other organisations to provide the right support for the victim.

The Police's website now has better advice for victims of adult sexual assault, and invites victims to give comments directly to the Police on their experiences with police staff. The Police have made it compulsory for police staff to provide adult sexual assault victims with written advice on the victim's options, information on what happens next, and guidance on what support is available.

The Police are carrying out much prevention work to reduce the incidence of sexual assault. Examples of this prevention work include:

  • visiting licensed premises that victims and offenders visited before an assault, talking to bar staff, handing out cards with contact details for support organisations;
  • educating high-school students about healthy and respectful relationships and consent; and
  • doing detailed analysis of the circumstances preceding adult sexual assaults, including profiling of the offender's characteristics. This helps the Police to target future prevention work.

Providing better training

The Police have 105 trained investigators who specialise in investigating adult sexual assault complaints. In 2007, there were no trained investigators.

The Police have a training review group that consists of internal and external experts. The group reviews the quality of training for adult sexual assault investigation to ensure that the training still represents best practice.

In 2013, the Police introduced a training programme for adult sexual assault investigation. All new police recruits get Level 1 training at the Police College before becoming constables. Police staff do Level 2 training on entry to the Criminal Investigation Branch as adult sexual assault investigators. Investigators do Level 3, including evidential interviewing, when they become detectives.

Criminal Investigation Branch supervisors do Level 4 training for adult sexual assault investigation as a week-long, victim-centred course. In 2017, the course included presentations from:

  • specialist support groups;
  • doctors for sexual abuse care; and
  • Louise Nicholas, a sexual assault survivor whose bravery and tenacity led to the Commission's investigation.

The Police include a session in the Level 4 course that is aimed at learning from problems of the past when some police staff treated sexual abuse victims poorly. The purpose of the session is for supervisors to "understand … the responsibilities placed on them as Criminal Investigation Branch leaders to challenge any similar behaviours or culture within their own work environment".

We reviewed the training content and found that each level of training matched the Police's policies and procedures for investigating adult sexual assault. Police recruits receive 90 minutes of training specifically on adult sexual assault investigation as part of their 16-week course at the Police College. Recruits are also required to pass an assessment on the adult sexual assault investigation process. Although most police officers will provide only the first response to victims of adult sexual assault, the first contact is important.

The Police have introduced an online training package for any staff who interact with the public. The training covers the appropriate behaviour and attitude towards people reporting a sexual assault. This training is recent and not all front-desk staff have received it yet. Victim advisors report that contact with front-desk staff is still variable in quality.

Planning and reviewing adult sexual assault cases

The Police already had a case-managed approach8 for child protection investigations and have extended it to investigations into adult sexual assault.

The Police review whether staff are meeting the policies and procedures for planning their investigation into adult sexual assault. The Police review samples of cases at three levels, including a national review that "reviews the reviewers". The reviews check that investigators are meeting the policies and procedures, which include:

  • the investigator meeting their duty to the victim, including providing written information on adult sexual assault and offering crisis support to the victim;
  • the investigator and the investigation supervisor having the right training; and
  • the investigator completing an investigation plan that is well thought out, detailed, and supported by the investigation supervisor.

Investigators support the case-managed approach and the review system. They see it as a big improvement on how investigations were previously managed. Investigators welcome the rigour it brings to their work, even if the administrative parts of the job sometimes take a lot of time. Those investigators say it gives them confidence that they are doing the right things.

The co-ordinators of adult sexual assault investigations (co-ordinators)9 we met would like to see more prompts built into computer applications so investigators can get more tasks right first time, rather than reviewers picking up errors later. For example, investigators could receive prompts about missing information.

The Police have put in place well-designed and effective training. However, there are still a few poor-quality investigations, especially when the Police assign cases to officers who have not been trained in investigating cases of adult sexual assault.

We saw that the Auckland police district was giving specialist training to all of its Criminal Investigation Branch staff. Waikato had a full-time staff member focusing on adult sexual assault prevention and best practice for investigating cases of adult sexual assault. In our view, both of these examples show good commitment to providing consistent quality of service for victims.

Attitudes towards victims have improved

The Police's culture, beliefs, and attitudes towards victims of adult sexual assault have improved significantly. There is still some variation in the attitude of individual police staff, although those staff are increasingly in the minority.

In 2017, police staff showed greatly improved attitudes towards adult sexual assault victims. The 2007 Police College graduate cohort (our cohort) pointed out that police staff showed more empathy and respect to victims than before. This included far less blaming of victims for having "encouraged" the assault in some way:

The way we treat sexual assault victims from when I started in 2007 and now, it's night and day. The way that they took away the investigating to people who have actually been trained properly, that's been awesome, and it's been huge for sexual assault victims.10

Our cohort told us that the culture of disbelief surrounding allegations of sexual assault had all but disappeared. The Police treated victims as credible and police staff generally investigated incidents on this basis:

Unless there are big holes on face value, everyone is believed.

In a 2017 survey, the responses of 27 female police officers who entered the Police College in 2012 and 2013 reflect the improved confidence in the Police's treatment of sexual assault victims. Twenty-four respondents to the survey said that if they were a victim of a sexual crime, they would report it. However, nine respondents said that they would not report it if the offender was also a police officer, although they might report at a different police station.

Victim advisors agreed that the Police's culture has changed significantly and attitudes towards victims have markedly improved. However, victim advisors also pointed out the inconsistent quality of service some victims get (see paragraph 3.36). The victim advisors attribute some of this inconsistent quality of service to a minority of "old school" investigators who may not have had specialist training in adult sexual assault investigation or have not put into practice that training. Our cohort also noted discrepancies between more recent training in adult sexual assault investigation and the earlier way of training senior officers, resulting in different approaches by some staff.

Some of the people we spoke to, including victim advisors, expressed frustration that police staff who resist the changes the Police are trying to implement remain in positions they are not suitable for. In Part 7, we discuss the Police's plans for ensuring that improvements in attitude and values continue in the future.

Empathy, communication, and involvement have improved

People we spoke to, including victim advisors, told us that introducing specialist training for adult sexual assault investigations had significantly improved the quality of service police staff provide to victims. For example, investigators who have had level 3 training in interviewing victims of adult sexual assault are able to help victims report their own experiences in their own way and at their own pace. A more informal interview setting also showed increased respect to victims and provided greater dignity:

victims [I work with] are surprised when they are sitting on a beautiful couch and it is really casual and they are literally telling their story being comfortable… They feel human. They feel heard.

The Police communicate with victims more often than before. Many people we spoke to reported that there was a better victim focus in investigations. Victims can now make important decisions and have greater involvement throughout the investigation. The Police's policies and procedures on how, and how often, they should communicate with victims played an important role in keeping victims updated throughout the investigation:

The whole electronic reporting means there's more accountability… there's a running log of all contacts, accessible by anyone in the country.
It (communication) is well monitored and controlled, and you have to do it. And that's right – they (victims) should be the centre of attention.
Getting good comments from victims, for example, one told me her detective was "so good".
Police communication with victims has improved, the Police are explaining the approach a lot better, and are using the booklet of written information well.

Acting on comments from victims

The Police have a form on their website where adult sexual assault victims can provide comments to the Police, which the Police can and do act on. Between December 2016 and August 2017, 163 adult sexual assault victims provided comments about their experiences with the Police during investigations. Some of these comments related to incidents that happened many years ago.

The Police responded to the comments in several ways. Some examples include:

  • apologising;
  • finding out whether the victim wants to take further action;
  • providing advice on reporting and the available support services;
  • contacting more senior staff about delays in an investigation or other issues; and
  • passing on praise to staff where the comments were positive.

Complaints about the Police from adult sexual assault victims highlight the inconsistency of service. However, victims identified examples of where the Police were doing well, including:

  • responding quickly;
  • locking up and prosecuting the offender;
  • conducting the video interview well;
  • keeping them informed and willing to answer questions;
  • being caring and compassionate and treating them with sensitivity and respect;
  • connecting them to specialist support; and
  • confirming their experience, listening to them, believing them, accepting information provided, and not making them feel like it was their fault.

Where victims were unhappy with the service, they reported the opposite of what was identified in paragraph 3.35. Additionally, victims commented on the lack of female officers.

It is hard to draw definitive conclusions on police behaviour and practice from the website comments. There are more negative comments than positive ones, but people who have poor experiences may be more likely to comment. In context, the total number of complaints about adult sexual assault case management is low and falling.

We can see that the Police have acted on the victims' comments. The Police's policy on adult sexual assault investigation and training aligns with what victims are looking for. If the Police can ensure that their staff fully apply the policy, victims should get a standard of service that meets their expectations.

The quality of adult sexual assault investigations has improved

The quality of investigations into adult sexual assault has improved significantly. Investigators are complying with the Police's policies and procedures more consistently. However, some districts and investigators need to improve compliance with the policies and procedures.

The Police sample investigation cases and capture data, for each of the 12 police districts, on how well investigators follow the policies and procedures for investigations into adult sexual assault.

We analysed almost four years of that data from February 2013 to December 2016 (see Figure 1). In February 2013, 52% of sampled cases failed to meet the policies and procedures for investigating adult sexual assault. In December 2016, 7% of sampled cases failed to meet the policies and procedures. The data we looked at shows that the quality of adult sexual assault investigations has improved significantly since 2013.

Figure 1 shows an overall improvement in compliance with the policies and procedures for adult sexual assault investigation cases. However, this overall view does not show the inconsistency in performance that exists among the districts. Figure 2 shows the best and worst performance each month in meeting quality standards for investigations, from February 2013 to December 2016.

Figure 1
Proportion of sampled adult sexual assault cases meeting and not meeting quality requirements – all districts

Source: New Zealand Police.

Figure 2
Proportion of sampled adult sexual assault cases not meeting quality requirements – best and worst performance each month out of all districts, February 2013 to December 2016

Source: New Zealand Police.
Notes: It is possible (although unlikely) for a district to be the worst performer one month and the best the next month. The Police did not provide this data for August 2013.

From August 2014, at least one district each month had sampled cases that met all the requirements of the policies and procedures. In October 2016, eight districts produced sampled cases that met all the requirements. This has come a long way from February 2013 when, in one district, every file reviewed failed to meet requirements. In December 2016, the worst performing district had about one in five sampled cases that did not meet requirements.

We looked at the May and June 2017 quality reviews of district adult sexual assault investigation cases carried out by Police National Headquarters. These quality reviews emphasise the victim's experience. Police National Headquarters collate the results of those individual reviews and report the results to the districts. The report identifies weaknesses and strengths in investigations. By June 2017, the collated results showed that there were more strengths than weaknesses.

We also looked at another Police National Headquarters review, and conducted our own audits on a random sample of cases from six of the 12 police districts. There was a high degree of consistency in the review findings from these multiple sources.

Weaknesses highlighted by our file reviews and Police National Headquarters included:

  • delays in progressing investigation work;
  • lack of supervisor approval of case investigation plans (or no plan or plan lacking detail);
  • no evidence of supervisor review or long periods of time between supervisor reviews;
  • long periods without contacting the victim;
  • no evidence on the file or in electronic records of the Police offering specialist support to the victim; and
  • not updating the electronic record.

Co-ordinators told us that some of the problems were because of investigators deprioritising administrative work when they were busy. For example, investigators were communicating with victims, but the interactions were not formally recorded.

Allocating cases to investigators

The Police have dedicated more resources to adult sexual assault investigations, but some districts have a higher number of unassigned cases. Some districts face challenges in being able to offer victims the option of a female investigator, should the victim ask for one.

Ten years ago, the Police did not know how many adult sexual assault cases they had because there was no way to collect that information. The Police told us that unassigned cases could sit under desks or in cupboards for years.

In 2017, the Police's investment in good systems enables them to produce weekly national reports that show the total number of open adult sexual assault cases and the stage of the investigation for each of those cases.

We looked at reports for 2016. The Police were managing about 2000 to 2300 active cases on any one day. Nationally, the Police did not have an investigator assigned to, on average, 4.6% to 6.7% of the cases.

The Police also produce weekly reports at a district level that show adult sexual assault cases by stage of investigation.

Figure 3 shows the number and proportion of adult sexual assault cases that the Police have yet to assign to an investigator throughout the 12 police districts on 6 August 2017. Figure 3 shows marked differences between districts that is not visible in the national level reporting. Some districts have larger proportions of unassigned adult sexual assault cases than others. In August 2017, the five districts with the highest proportion of unassigned adult sexual assault cases were Auckland, Northland, Counties Manukau, Central, and Wellington.

Our analysis of adult sexual assault data suggests that staff resources for adult sexual assault investigations throughout districts are not equal. This increases the risk of inconsistent service for adult sexual assault victims, affecting especially the timeliness of investigations. Police data captures the age of adult sexual assault cases but the weekly national reporting does not contain any analysis of timeliness.

In our view, the Police could improve by having performance measures that cover timeliness and quality. Although resourcing is the responsibility of the districts, we consider that Police National Headquarters could provide more leadership by setting some minimum standards for all districts. This should help the Police to provide more consistent services for victims of adult sexual assault.

Figure 3
The number and proportion of adult sexual assault cases awaiting assignment, by police district, on 6 August 2017

Source: New Zealand Police – Weekly Adult Sexual Assault report for 6 August 2017.

It is important there be performance measures for both timeliness and quality to avoid investigators potentially closing cases quickly without good quality investigations so they can reduce the number of unassigned cases.

The people we spoke to were positive about the increase of specialist and well-trained adult sexual assault investigators. However, districts can sometimes assign these investigators to other policing priorities, such as prevention work. Some districts report difficulties in recruiting and retaining adult sexual assault investigators. We consider that putting in place standards would increase the visibility of the priority given to adult sexual assault investigations. There are inherent risks to the Police and victims having high numbers of unassigned cases.

Unassigned cases, or slow investigations, have the potential to reduce people's trust and confidence in the Police. Trust and confidence is important to the Police, and they have set targets to improve on their already high rating.

Victim advisors told us that victims suffer from investigation delays, such as delays getting a specialist response and follow-up. Victim advisors told us victims can see a slow response or lack of action as a sign that the Police do not believe them.

Victim advisors also told us that competing demands means the Police assign adult sexual assault investigators to other priority work, negatively affecting adult sexual assault investigations.

8: Case management is the planning, co-ordination, and monitoring of services for an individual person.

9: Co-ordinators have a number of priorities and responsibilities, including looking after the quality of adult sexual assault investigations and providing support to staff.

10: All unattributed quotes in this report are from our cohort interviews.