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The Bristol Cable

Inside Avon and Somerset Police’s new ‘whole story approach’ to catching rapists 


In 2021, Avon and Somerset found itself at the forefront of Operation Bluestone, a groundbreaking initiative to increase rape prosecutions. But is it making a real difference for survivors?

Illustration: Sophia Checkley

Content warning: This story contains references to rape, sexual violence and suicide  

In April, Chrissy* wrote to me about her daughters rape case, a few before it was due to be heard in Bristol Crown Court. “There are many issues with the way rape cases are handled, more with the CPS than the police in our experience.”  

Since then, the Cable has been investigating what it was like for Chrissy’s daughter, Katie*, to report her rapist Luke Thompson to the police and see her case through court. 

In the first part of this special investigation, we followed the trial through Bristol Crown Court. Thompson was found guilty of raping Katie and another woman, and sentenced to 16 years in prison. 

The national picture is this. In 2020, a damning report by women’s charities stated that outcomes for victims were so poor, rape was effectively being “decriminalised.” While the number of women reporting rape to the police had risen dramatically – by 250% between 2010 and 2019 – criminal charges and prosecutions plummeted to record lows. 

Amid the growing outcry from campaigners and extensive media coverage, the government in response announced an “End to End” Rape review of the criminal justice system to find out what was going wrong. 

Published in 2021, its core action was the £6.65 million Operation Bluestone – a new approach to investigating and prosecuting sexual crimes. Bluestone was groundbreaking; a team of academics conducted deep dives into the police response to rape in forces across the country, and it was first piloted here in Avon and Somerset Police. 

Two years on, the findings formed the new ‘national operating model’ for prosecuting rape, which is ‘victim-centred, suspect-focused and context-led.’ In July 2023, Operation Bluestone was rolled out across all 43 police forces in England and Wales.

So did Operation Bluestone help bring Katie’s rapist to justice? What does Operation Bluestone mean for victims navigating the criminal justice system – and do the changes go far enough? In part two of this investigation, the Cable spoke to key players behind the scheme to find out. 

Chapter 1: Bluestone in Bristol 

“We’re caught up in a pretty failing criminal justice system, and that’s been apparent for a very long time,” Ed Yaxley tells me. With some 23 years at ASP under his belt, he now heads up Operation Bluestone. 

Avon and Somerset had a specialist rape team more than a decade ago, but it was disbanded during the years of austerity, when police forces lost 15% of their officers.

In 2019, then Deputy Chief Constable Sarah Crew became the national lead for Adult Sex Offences and met renowned criminologist Professor Betsy Stanko. Together they successfully bid for the pilot ‘Project Bluestone’.

Professor Stanko, her colleague Katrin Hohl, and a team of academics arrived in Avon and Somerset in January 2021. “We basically gave them free reign to go through investigations, talk to investigators to do surveys and have access to anything they wanted to research,” says Yaxley. 

Three months later, the force was presented with a report of findings. “And that’s been followed by 18 months of very hard graft on improvement work. We’ve come a long way since then,” adds Yaxley.  

And the stats do show improvement. Before Bluestone, ASP ranked 40th out of 43 forces for its performance on tackling rape and sexual assault. Now it has risen to 22nd. 

“One thing that became apparent was the need for specialist knowledge around rape,” Yaxley tells me. “Before we’d have these omnicompetent detectives who’d be dealing with a drugs case one day and a rape the next.”

“A lot of rapes were handled by quite inexperienced, young people, because that’s the demographics of the police service these days,” he adds. “Half of our frontline staff have less than two years on the job.” 

“Now there’s a new course and updated accreditation course for rape investigators who will be the real subject matter experts.”

To train and support more specialist officers is one of the six principles in the new investigating model. A specialist unit within Avon and Somerset was established, using much of the recent boost to police officer numbers to invest in it. Now the Operation Bluestone unit has 145 investigators. 

A new role of ‘disruption officer’ was also created to get in the way of the most skilful offenders, those who deliberately target people who won’t report, by using tactics such as going undercover. 

Yaxley says Operation Bluestone feels different to past initiatives. “It’s just been a really concerted kind of effort to have academic depth, but also translate that into something that’s actually useful for an investigator at three o’clock in the morning who’s trying to do their best with a new report of a rape.”

But how is the new approach making a difference in reality?

Chapter 2: The whole story approach

I met DC Bethan Doyle in the tall, glass Kenneth Steele House, off Feeder Road. She’s a detective on Operation Bluestone, and the investigating officer in Katie’s case. We spoke a few days after the verdict. 

I tell her what Katie said to me after the conviction: “To everyone in the courtroom it was just another case. But with the police I feel like it’s more personal to them, to Bethan, she also needed to win this.” 

“It was definitely a win,” Doyle agrees. “That’s what we’re here for – to get guilty convictions for victims, and we’re really passionate about it.”

Like Yaxley, she praises Operation Bluestone for creating this specialist knowledge and dedicated unit. 

To explain the training she’d had for the role, Doyle handed me a book titled, ‘The Whole Story Approach’ by Dr. Patrick Tidmarsh. “We’ve had all the training on it. It looks at perpetrators, who they target, why they do it, and how they do it,” she says. 

Dr. Tidmarsh, a prominent criminologist from Melbourne, specialises in understanding perpetrators’ behaviour and the dynamics of sexual crime. His work was the bedrock of the ‘context-led, suspect-focused’ approach of Bluestone. 

At the start of Bluestone, researchers found ASP’s investigative units were most focussed on ‘victim credibility’, putting survivors through an intrusive and exposing processes, including a ‘digital strip search’ of their social media and even the disclosure of private medical and counselling records, with little in the way of support. 

“Now we have things in place to support victims along the way,” Doyle says. “They have a dedicated Independent Sexual Violence Advisor (ISVA) allocated to them, who will work with them throughout the entire police process and even up to a couple of months after the trial.” 

Katie had said her ISVA made the process more bearable. “She was lovely – she came to my house,” she says. “She really believed me, I could tell by her face. She called me all the time and made sure I felt safe.” 

Similarly, the suspect- and context-focused approach means investigating and understanding the behaviour of the offender, rather than the victim. Have they tried to exploit an opportunity or vulnerability? For example, picking someone out who is on their own in a nightclub.

“It’s about building a whole picture, as opposed to looking at the incident narrowly,” explains Doyle.

Now that the National Operating Model has been launched, these principles are being enacted throughout UK police forces.

But the police are just one part of the criminal justice system. So how can the police work more closely with the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to secure more convictions for sexual crimes?

Chapter 3: What about the CPS? 

A core part of getting perpetrators prosecuted is about how the Police and the CPS work together. “The relationship hasn’t always been great – that’s not a secret,” Yaxley tells me, adding: “But we’ve really turned that ship around as part of this work.”

I speak to Vicky Gleave, who heads the Rape and Serious Sexual Offence (RASSO) unit at the CPS, to learn more. Thanks to Bluestone the team has grown to include 22 lawyers, 10 paralegals, and victim support staff, she tells me. 

“It’s all about closer partnerships with the police – working together closer and earlier on,” Gleave explains. Key to this is better use of the Early Advice Mechanism (EAM), which allows police officers to seek early advice from the CPS during investigations. “We’re using the EAM three times more than we used to, and now we’ve seen a 606% increase in cases coming through from ASP,” Gleave says.  

Doyle agrees this makes a real difference to investigations: “It’s helpful to build the case. We can email the lawyer directly, we build better relationships and it’s quicker than going through the main lawyer. They become as invested as we are.”

Better victim support has also been part of the CPS’ work through Bluestone: “We offer meetings with the claimant when we charge a case,” says Gleave. “We can apply for special measures to support them through the case, we can select the right barrister for the case.”

Some of this chimes with Katie’s experience. “The paralegals and the woman from the witness support team were lovely,” she says. But she couldn’t say the same for her barrister. “He was a mean man,” she says, referring to his lack of empathy when she’d had a panic attack on the stand. 

But what about the long wait times, I ask Gleave. This year a report said court backlogs were pushing rape vicitms to ‘breaking point’, and contributed to the 70% dropout rate among claimants. 

“Well we’re hoping using the EAM process will help to reduce the backlog,” she says, but adding that the pressure on the courts at the moment mean the CPS have their work cut out.  

The national pictures is that the backlog of adult rape cases is now at an all time high and four times higher than in 2019, due in part to cuts in legal aid and the recent barristers’ strike.  

Like the police, the courts were also hit by austerity, which saw a 30% reduction in staff. The Guardian also reported in 2021 that the CPS were privileging “stronger” cases to meet charging targets, which meant rape cases were often dropped – the CPS has always denied this.  

Putting this to Gleave provokes a defensive response: “There’s hugely positive news out there, which isn’t widely reported in the media. Our conviction rates are at 77% at the moment.” 

“Claimants need to know it’s worth it – and we’ll support them as much as possible,” she adds.  

The fact remains that Katie says the court case “retraumatised” her, while praising the support she was given. Initiatives are underway to improve the court experience – in Soctland Judge only trials are being rolled out, and the Law Commission has recommended a raft of proposals to reform trials in order to counter rape myths.

Chapter 4: Resisting rape myths 

“Some of the failings have absolutely been the police’s,” says Yaxley, “But that’s not the whole story. It’s always been bigger than that. It’s also about societies understanding of violence and sexual violence against women and girls, including rape myths.”

An issue I hear time and time again is the existence of rape myths. Gleave told me how under Bluestone, judge’s will now give directions on rape myths and stereotypes to the jury. 

Rape myths include things like victim blaming – if a woman drank too much, dressed or acted in a certain way she’s “asking” to be raped. The notion that women falsely accuse men of rape for attention, or for revenge. 

In Katie’s case, the Judge gave detailed directions on this. He dispelled the notion that a woman would fight back or report immediately if she was raped – this is not true. 

Doyle had emphasised the importance of challenging these myths. “Ensuring that juries understand that victims may not respond in ways expected due to trauma is crucial,” she says. “Societal misconceptions and stereotypes remain the biggest hurdles in obtaining convictions in rape cases.” 

Similarly, Yaxley says: “What I’ve seen is not so much the investigators themselves necessarily hold the rape myths, but what they’ve internalised is a sense that they expect juries to hold those myths. So what they’ve ended up doing is writing these case files that spend a lot of time trying to justify why a victim had drunk X amount on the night or explain away why somebody had dressed in a certain kind of way.”

Something Katie had said to me felt particularly poignant: “About nine out of 10 women I’ve spoken to about my case will tell me, ‘Oh yeah, something like that happened to me too. But none of the guys I speak to say, ‘yeah I did that’ or ‘one of my mates did that.’” 

The scale of the problem is huge, the term ‘rape culture’ describes the fact that we live in a society where sexual violence is normalised. 

In a report by Rape Crisis and other women’s charities looking at the progress made two years after the government’s Rape Review, they praised the reforms of Operation Bluestone, but conclude: “The plans to return to 2016 volumes of rape cases lacked ambition, and we raised concerns about a lack of commitment to the prevention of rape.”   

Yaxley tells me that year they’d received a staggering 1,500 reports rape, not to mention a similar number of other serious sexual offences. “And research would have us believe that that’s probably only 10% of the rapes that are actually going on.”

It’s a terrifying statistic. All the key players involved in Operation Bluestone encourage people to come forward and they’re taking earnest steps to improve – but if criminal justice is struggling already – how will it cope to account for the scale of the problem? 

And yes, we can prosecute more rapists – but how can we tackle the problem at its source? 

*Names have been changed to protect identities

You can read the other part of this investigation: the story of on survivor’s journey through the criminal justice system

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