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The power of collaboration: Technology’s role in tackling the challenges of VAWG and RASSO

At last month’s Police Digital Summit in the UK, a panel of police, tech specialists and criminal justice stakeholders discussed how technology could help to meet the challenges of rape and serious sexual offences, and violence against women and girls; techUK’s Georgie Henley, who chaired the panel, highlights some of the key points from the discussion, and the collaborative approaches that can ensure improved responses in the future.

"With significant efforts to combat both VAWG and RASSO, I jumped at the opportunity to showcase the work of the tech sector to respond to these challenges… more needs to be done, and we all have a part to play".

techUK’s Justice and Emergency Services (JES) Programme is one of 21 programmes run by the association, and aims to champion the role of technology in the delivery of justice and public safety services. As Head of the JES programme I work closely with over 300 of these 850 members, blue light and justice stakeholders to understand how technology can help overcome the challenges facing the sector, unlock innovation and improve public and private sector collaboration.

My aim is to create strong relationships between members and public sector customers, and to act as a critical friend while on their digital transformation journeys.

I was recently asked by the Police Digital Service (PDS) to organise a panel of subject matter experts to speak at their annual Police Digital Summit on the topic of technology and its role in addressing challenges surrounding the investigation and prosecution of rape and serious sexual offences (RASSO) and violence against women and girls (VAWG).

With significant efforts to combat both VAWG and RASSO, I jumped at the opportunity to showcase the work of the tech sector to respond to these challenges, and the role of technology in streamlining processes and delivering justice for victims; more needs to be done, and we all have a part to play.

The panel – How can technology address the challenges of Rape and Serious Sexual Offences (RASSO) and Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) – included representatives from the Forensic Capability Network (FCN), PDS, Home Office and the VAWG Taskforce.

Problem statements and priorities surrounding RASSO and VAWG

VAWG and RASSO have been brought into sharp focus by a number of recent tragic and high-profile cases, especially the abduction, rape and murder of Sarah Everard in March 2021. With this, the Government and its agencies have faced some tough questions around their promised reforms.

The End-to-End Rape Review published in June 2021 sets out the Government’s action plan for improving the criminal justice system’s (CJS) response to rape in England and Wales, looking at evidence across the system including those cases leading to a charge, prosecution and conviction.

“As digital-based crime has increased, particularly as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the greater reliance on technology, so too has the volume of evidence, from CCTV footage and social media data to information stored on mobile devices"

Following on from the Review, a Ministerial Technology Summit was held, hosted by the Home Office and Ministry of Justice in December 2021. This brought together industry and CJS partners to discuss innovative technology solutions and how to build lasting partnerships. Three key promises came from this event:

  • Enhancing force capabilities – build frontline policing capability in local forces through piloting of existing technology solutions.
  • Generating new innovation – identify new and innovative technology solutions, with development through pilots where appropriate.
  • RASSO Technology Partnership Board Proposal (sustaining industry-CJS collaboration) – establish long-term, sustainable relationships with industry and CJS partners to ensure policing is a fast follower of innovation.

So, what are the technology challenges for the investigation of RASSO and VAWG, and what did our panel have to say?

In short, a lot. With only half an hour on the clock it was not possible to cover all the work going on in this space, but as a snapshot, here are some of the challenges our panel highlighted:

  • Providing an effective service and delivering justice for victims.
  • The ability to extract data from both physical devices and the online world.
  • Harnessing the data so it can be used and shared effectively – while ensuring those who need the data understand what it actually means.
  • With 43 police forces comes 43 different ways of doing things.
  • How to use pursue perpetrators and create safer spaces physically and online.

As one panel member noted: “Rather than policing saying, ‘this is what we want’, we are saying, ‘these are the challenges and, with your innovative brains – what are the solutions?’.”

Technology has the ability to provide police with new solutions to prevent crime, but it also provides suspects with new tools to commit crime. And as digital-based crime has increased, particularly as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the greater reliance on technology, so too has the volume of evidence, from CCTV footage and social media data to information stored on mobile devices.

Rather than just ‘evidence’ we now have ‘digital evidence’ – and a lot of it. We need new ways for evidence to be used, managed and shared efficiently, effectively, ethically and securely, from policing into the Crown Prosecution Service, courts and the defence to deliver justice for victims.

VAWG and the tech sector

We heard at the Police Digital Summit that a VAWG Digital Strategy Intent (DSI) is due to be published shortly, highlighting the digital direction for policing, commonalities forces are struggling with, and what victims are telling policing relating to crimes of VAWG.

One element of the DSI will be to explore the responsibility of all organisations to ensure they develop an ‘upstander not bystander’ culture. It’s a key message, and one that every organisation across every sector should consider.

Included in this, we will see the need for better data exploitation to understand the breadth and depth of VAWG across the UK, with a specific call to action on how to extrapolate data.

Collaborative working with the tech sector here is vital; the panel acknowledged that the interface between police and the public needs to improve, with a move away from traditional methods to, for example, an online platform.

New technologies, ideas, methods and ways of working have brought significant changes to policing. Equipping forces with the digital tools they need to combat VAWG is key, but we must ensure we have a competent and confident frontline. With a large workforce, forces need to ensure they make use of technology to the best of their ability and adequate training is essential.

So with the DSI due to be published soon, what can the tech sector do to support the strategy?

We need to see an improvement in the interface between policing and the public, to enable victims to report easily and to access the support they need. We must develop that competent and confident workforce, exploiting data and harnessing the power of technology. And we must make online environments hostile for perpetrators.

We all have a part to play, and one element of the DSI will be to explore the responsibility of all organisations to ensure they develop an ‘upstander not bystander’ culture. It’s a key message, and one that every organisation across every sector should consider.

Justice for victims

Operation Soteria was launched as a response to the Government’s End-to-End Rape Review, and the Home Office’s pledge to increase the number of rape cases making it to court.

“It was made clear that we need to think more about how to improve the quality of data, to improve confidence for both investigators and victims as well as those frontline police officers acting on this data".

The demand for a police response has primarily been led by victims who have been bringing their experiences to police attention. The response was first trialled as Avon & Somerset Police’s Project Bluestone, which aimed to build a national operating model for RASSO investigations.

These suspect-focused investigations aim to streamline the processes of extracting the evidence and data needed for court, particularly the data extraction from mobile devices, which can be a distressing and intrusive process for the victim.

There is a vast amount of information available that needs to be harnessed and gathered safely and not intrusively. This data then needs to be sifted and blended with other sources, which can be both time-consuming and hugely challenging for investigators.

Another comment from the panel was that: “When it comes to forensics, we need to think about standardisation.” There are lots of methods being used for lots of data, and it was made clear that we need to think more about how to improve the quality of this data, to improve confidence for both investigators and victims as well as those frontline police officers acting on this data.

The importance of data quality, data standards and interoperability were key themes running throughout the Police Digital Summit, and have the ability to make significant time savings, taking a targeted approach and making better use of the workforce.

“We want an offender-focused investigation, but a victim-centred approach,” added one member of the panel. “Engagement must be victim centred and we need to ask how we can ensure we reduce attrition, increase engagement and use tech to support investigations?”

Improved collaborative working

At the launch of is Transforming Forensics project to improve the response to RASSO, the FCN stated: “The aim is to ultimately deliver a faster, safer and more sensitive service for those affected by RASSO and other crimes, better evidence entering courts, and increased confidence in the criminal justice system.” So how can collaboration help us to deliver this aim?

“With improved collaborative working there are opportunities to share learnings and challenges across forces, bringing things together under one banner to understand what technologies, solutions and approaches are working well, and what aren’t".

Sharing learning and breaking down siloed working is vital. It may be easier said than done, but a great example of this is the joint working between the FCN, Home Office, PDS and techUK on RASSO, feeding into the aforementioned Technology Partnership Board.

This board enables industry and key actors from across the CJS to come together, co-ordinate and align on priorities for technology adoption.

Also, with the launch of the VAWG DSI and its similar strategic objectives and challenges to RASSO, we can see this work being brought together under one umbrella, with both areas of work committed to working with the technology sector and partners to achieve similar desired outcomes.

A huge challenge is having 43 different police forces, 43 different ways of innovation and 43 different ways of testing things. With improved collaborative working across both VAWG and RASSO, there are opportunities to share learnings and challenges across forces, bringing things together under one banner to understand what technologies, solutions and approaches are working well, and what aren’t.

Driving innovation

Early market engagement with suppliers – particularly small and medium enterprises – is essential, and policing needs to change the way it relates to industry.

Changes are happening – and this can be seen with the introduction of the RASSO Technology Partnership Board and the VAWG Taskforce engagement via techUK surrounding its DSI.

This indicates an awareness from policing to ensure the tech sector is part of the conversation, and promotes a two-way dialog.

Looking ahead

As the Police Digital Summit panel discussion came to a close, the panellists reflected on what needs to change and the key improvements needed for the future for policing’s response and investigation of RASSO and VAWG. These included:

Providing the digital tools and services to support victims and police in their investigations is an essential step towards enabling a faster, safer and more sensitive service for victims.

  • An operating model for investigating RASSO and VAWG which sets out forces’ capabilities. We need to find what digital technology we are bringing together, and deliver it to forces effectively. With 43 police forces that have differing priorities, we need to build the capability that suits their needs.
  • A confident and skilled workforce where officers can draw on forensic experts and data scientists as required to progress a case, with the ability to draw on different intelligence from different sources.
  • A ‘whole system’ way of working which brings technology, data and forensics together to understand what we need them to do in this process (designing the forensic requirements is the first step).
  • For women to live without fear, in a ‘call it out’ culture; in relation to VAWG, we must work together to create safer online spaces, and digital platforms which reassure victims that services are there to support them.

Alongside these improvements, the panel also identified the most important elements of technology’s role in helping to deliver a more effective approach to VAWG and RASSO:

  • Building public confidence in the CJS is vital if we are to tackle RASSO cases effectively.
  • Victims must be able to report abuse with confidence.
  • Multi-agency collaboration can ensure an effective, fair and respectful end-to-end criminal justice system.
  • Providing the digital tools and services to support victims and police in their investigations is an essential step towards enabling a faster, safer and more sensitive service for victims.

If you would like to learn more about techUK and, in particular its work across the justice and emergency services space, please contact Georgie Henley, Head of Justice & Emergency Services at techUK.

Channel website: http://www.techuk.org/

Original article link: https://www.techuk.org/resource/the-power-of-collaboration-technology-s-role-in-tackling-the-challenges-of-vawg-and-rasso.html

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