Rape, murder and the value of research

The value of data and research in solving serial rape and serial murder cases can’t be underestimated say Sean Sutton, head of the NCA’s Specialist Operations Centre.

The role of the Serious Crime Analysis Section (SCAS), part of the NCA’s Specialist Operations Centre, is to identify serial rapists and serial murderers at the earliest stage of their offending.

Sean Sutton, head of the NCA’s Specialist Operations Centre

Police forces across the UK provide us with details of cases relating to serious serial offenders and we try to identify potentially linked offences and suspects in support of their investigations.

In our field research is vital, but historically many areas of policing have struggled to see the practical value of directed research to their field of experience. Add in austerity and you have the worst of both worlds — pragmatism dictates that front line services must be the priority.

I’d argue that we can’t afford not to apply research and develop our business, given that many of the innovations we come up with often directly lead to cost savings in the longer term. Without the significant stock of knowledge that’s been developed, tested, supported or piloted to breaking point with the help of academic professionals, real progress made in front line delivery would have been far slower.

For well over 15 years, I’ve been involved in getting significant academic support, directly related to the operational field I work in, at zero cost to the agency. I have been fortunate enough to be able to leverage millions of pounds of research to improve the service we deliver to policing.

Running on assumptions

SCAS runs on a number of assumptions. One of the most important is that it’s possible to map human behaviour associated with the most serious interpersonal violent crime because offending behaviour has enough consistency to enable trained analysts to identify patterns of emerging serial rapists and killers.

This assumption was supported by a Home Office funded 12-month research programme that, while recognising the complexity and difficulty, concluded it was indeed possible. SCAS has been helping identify and convict stranger rapists and murderers ever since.

Offending behaviour has enough consistency to enable trained analysts to identify patterns of emerging serial rapists and killers

It’s important to create an environment that encourages staff to look critically at the work they’re doing and to constantly ask themselves questions.

Are there processes that could enable me to do my job better or faster, is the advice I’m giving supported by a research base, is that research sound enough to warrant acting upon? We still ask those questions every time we develop a new approach to a new policing problem.

Research to reality

There are several examples of this approach working in reality. How reliable, for example, are the estimates of an offender’s age given by the victims and witnesses of crime?

This is important if you’re trying to match one crime to another and the witnesses descriptions are a decade adrift. If you look at the research the answer depends on many factors, but in simple terms the closer the age of the victim to the suspect’s age the more reliable their estimate. This has enabled us to link crimes that, on paper, had been initially discounted as connected.

Over many years we have been posing these questions to academics and they’ve been consistently coming up with the ‘evidenced’ answers for us.

Of course there are credible arguments that front line commitments are crucial.

But take a step back and it isn’t a clear cut conclusion. Investing in research today with a sound collaborative approach pays dividends in a not-too-distant future — when we can turn it into operational results and, in our case, continue to help forces catch serial rapists and murderers.

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