Specialist interviewers are bringing offenders to justice

DCI Scott MacKechnie of Portsmouth Police, who founded Operation Amberstone
DCI Scott MacKechnie of Portsmouth Police, who founded Operation Amberstone

Taxi driver assaulted by youth with knife in Southsea

  • Specialist interview team deals only with sex crime victims, human trafficking victims and vulnerable adults
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Opening up about being a victim of a sex offence is undoubtedly difficult.

Doing so means telling how you have been violated in an intimate way.

It’s incredible to see the dedication and the length they go to for some of the victims – spending hours and days with victims, trying to reassure them

Detective Chief Inspector Scott MacKechnie

And what about victims of crime who suffer from a learning difficulty and are unable to easily communicate – or if a person is being controlled and so feels they cannot speak out?

At Fratton police station in Portsmouth, a specialist team has spoken to thousands of victims, together with officers in two other offices in Hampshire.

Hampshire police’s Operation Amberstone officers are trained to get the best evidence to make sure those who commit crimes against the most vulnerable are brought to justice.

Officers interview those who suffer sex offences including rape, victims of human trafficking and also vulnerable adults who have been victims of serious crimes.

The team, based in Portsmouth, Southampton and Basingstoke, is the force’s response to an increase in such victims.

Since its inception in January last year to August this year, highly-trained officers have been deployed to speak to 1,672 sex offence victims.

And officers have been involved in dealing with 290 offences involving slavery, trafficking and vulnerable adult victims.

The dedicated team works 24 hours a day.

When a crime has been reported, the assigned officer is the single point of contact for the victim for the duration.

The detectives have carried out interviews in British sign language, the sign and symbol language Makaton and, in one recent case, just through a person’s blinks in replying to questions.

Detective Chief Inspector Scott MacKechnie, based at Fratton police station, leads the team.

He said: ‘If someone calls our control room or force enquiries centre, unless there’s an immediate risk to them then the case is passed to our staff.

‘The first point of contact is the call handler and then it will be a member of the Amberstone team.’

Some of the officers in Amberstone are trained to the highest level, having undergone intensive training with an accreditation test.

But DCI MacKechnie is clear what makes a good member of his team.

‘The strongest thing they need to have is an investigative mindset, an approachable manner but also good questioning style.

‘Ultimately, not everyone can do that.

‘Everybody on the team volunteered, wants to be on the team and actually it’s incredible to see the dedication and the length they go to for some of the victims – spending hours and days with victims, trying to reassure them.

‘We had a victim of human trafficking and they spent five days trying to get them to engage.

‘We did get there eventually and got a positive outcome.’

Finite numbers of officers mean it is not possible for Amberstone officers to always be the first to arrive as planned.

DCI MacKechine added: ‘The force has learnt from previous bad experiences of victims to put this team in place.

‘One of the force priorities is dealing with vulnerability and how we tackle it.

‘I see Amberstone at the forefront of that with the most extreme vulnerabilities.’

When unavailable to directly interview, they can still be involved in other ways.

Last year, all of the team was tied up when the three women who were stabbed by Ben Moynihan in Portsmouth were interviewed.

Moynihan, then 17, of The Ridings, Hilsea, was found guilty of attempting to murder the women in single-blow stabbing attacks over the course of last summer and jailed for 21 years.

But officers were able to assist with guidance for the interviews conducted by officers from the Hampshire Major Investigation Unit and local CID.

For experienced interviewer DC Ian Borsley, the most important thing is getting a clear picture of what happened to the person.

DC Borsley is used to carrying out difficult interviews, sometimes including the use of intermediaries – who are trained professionals who help communication with vulnerable people.

A lot of planning goes into the interviews ahead of them taking place.

He said: ‘I’ve interviewed a person that had very limited vocabulary.

‘We could only get two or three words at a time.

‘It was a slow process but we got there.’

In such cases prompt cards can be used to help the person communicate.

‘As the interview went on we got to eight words.

‘It’s progress, trust was built throughout the interview.

‘It’s challenging but the challenge is to get the best from that person.’

Even in less challenging interviews the team have to be careful about how they phrase their questions.

‘When you are talking to people you have to be mindful that you’re getting an open account,’ DC Borsley added.

‘They’ve got to be open questions, I can use certain questions but I have to start with the open account.

‘I know a little about the case but the aim is not to know too much because then you work harder.’

He said: ‘Our goal is to get the clearest picture as to what’s happened as soon as we can.’

If a person does not want to support a prosecution, then the Amberstone team is clear that they will not leave them without help and do involve other agencies.

They include Independent Sexual Violence Advocates and the Treetops Sexual Assault Referral Centre in Cosham, who can support the people involved.

DC Borsley added: ‘There’s got to be that level of trust, it’s professional but professional whereby that person begins to trust people again.

‘By the nature of what’s happened to them that’s kind of been taken away in certain circumstances.

‘If going forward with a prosecution is what is right for them, whilst we can never make promises we’ve got to help that person through it all.’

Once an interview – which can be recorded on DVD – is completed in a safe location then it is handed over to the officer outside of Amberstone leading the investigation work.

Ultimately, the evidence interview can be used in court in a prosecution if the case eventually progresses that far.

But the message from DCI MacKechnie is clear – anyone suffering such serious crimes can know Amberstone officers will help then.

‘If that does happen to you then you’ve got some people here who will go that extra bit for them,’ he said.

n Portsmouth Area Rape Crisis – Women’s crisis line (023) 9266 9511, Men’s crisis line (023) 9266 9516. Lines are open Monday, 1pm -3pm, Wednesday and Friday 7pm-10pm.

n The Sexual Assault Referral Centre in Northern Road, Cosham – also known as Treetops – is available to anyone aged over 13 who has been a victim of rape or serious sexual assault.

Call (023) 9221 0352 between 8am and 6pm.