A new sexual assault referral centre (SARC) for Bedfordshire has been heralded as a centre of excellence in the provision of facilities for victims of rape and sexual assault.
A standalone, purpose-designed facility, it contains two state-of-the art, fully equipped forensic examination suites which, while being technically compliant, are designed to put victims at ease by having a less clinical ambience than a hospital or medical centre. The centre also boasts tailored facilities for adults, teens and children, and working spaces for SARC staff and police officers.
But roll the clock back three decades and you’d see a very different landscape in the investigation of such cases, and in victim care.
In 1984 an incident room was set up to deal with a series of burglaries that emerged in Leighton Buzzard and surrounding areas. It was recognised the offences were linked, and that it was highly likely that one man was responsible.
Alwyn Oakley, then Alwyn McWilliam, was a Sergeant at Dunstable Police Station, and became involved in this investigation into the crimes committed by Malcolm Fairley, aka The Fox, whose offences escalated into a spree of sexual assaults and rapes, targeting both female and male victims.
Alwyn, whose role included interviewing each of the victims, said: “It was my core belief throughout my career to get the best from each victim, as they’re your best witness. But they need to be supported and given time to tell their story.
“Back then, an incident of rape or sexual assault was dealt with on a case-by-case basis by a uniformed female constable. Women detectives were scarce, and there was no dedicated victim support.
“There were no specialised centres for victims of sexual assault and, following a high profile case in another force area, there was a lot of criticism in the media of the police’s handling of such offences.
“A CID officer on call would be assigned the case, regardless of their suitability for dealing with vulnerable victims, and the duty police surgeon on shift at that time conducted the medical examination.
“We were in an era where there were often preconceived ideas about rape, and of victims.”
The Fox case was a springboard to setting up a working party that gained permission to install the county’s first sexual offences suitesin a converted flat in Dunstable Police Station. One quickly followed at Luton Police Station, in the former caretaker’s flat, and a similar one was set up at Bedford.
Alwyn says: “It was the experiences of those who suffered at Fairley’s hand that shaped the future of victim care within Bedfordshire Police.”
Alwyn was a member of a women’s networking group, and persuaded them to sponsor the kitting out of the suites. Toiletries were donated by a local branch of Boots.
Shortly after this, the suites were also equipped to deal with child victims; something that had been unheard of until this time.
Officers with suitable demeanour and skills for the role of Victim Liaison Officer (VLO) were identified, and were called upon when needed to do interviews, however, this was not a dedicated role, and it had to be carried out alongside the officer’s regular duties.
This often put pressure on the officer, who may have then had to account for themselves to two bosses; the CID boss needing the victim engagement and support in order to progress the case, and the patrol supervisor, wondering when they’d get their officers back on the beat.
Alwyn recalls: “It was intensive, emotional work, and required the skills and the network to support the officers carrying it out; at that time, it did not exist.”
But this really was the fledgling start of specialisation within detection of sexual offences in Bedfordshire, and indeed in policing. Today the force has the Emerald team – a dedicated team for the investigation of rape and sexual offences, with specially trained police officers, and staff whose role is committed to victim engagement.
Alongside the new SARC, offering the gold standard in forensic facilities and medical care, the force also calls upon a wealth of resource through multi-agency and partnership working with the local authorities, charities and healthcare providers, to ensure that victims are cared for throughout an investigation and beyond.
Victims of rape and sexual assault can receive support and guidance from Bedfordshire Police and partner agencies including the SARC, as well as support through the criminal investigation process, regardless of how long ago the offence occurred.
If you have been a victim of sexual assault, reports can be made to police on 101.
You can also contact the SARC through the Emerald Centre, by visiting http://www.emeraldcentre.org, emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 01234 897052.
Call us on 101, or report your concerns via our online reporting tool.
Always call 999 in an emergency