How has the Covid-19 pandemic altered sex offender behaviour?

Researchers at the University of Birmingham are investigating how sex offenders have changed their behaviour in response to the Covid-19 outbreak.

The insights generated by the research will provide urgently needed information about how to protect vulnerable people to police and other stakeholders including victim support organisations.

Project lead, Professor Jessica Woodhams, of the School of Psychology at the University of Birmingham, explains: “Sex offenders are versatile, and will change their behaviour according to circumstance and opportunity. The Covid-19 outbreak is a crisis that will alter offender behaviour – as well as who is vulnerable to sexual violence. Our research to understand these changes is urgently needed so that we know how best to protect those vulnerable people in uncertain and changing times.”

The project, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), as part of UK Research and Innovation’s rapid response to COVID-19 will enable the team to examine extensive data on sex offenders collated by the Serious Crime Analysis Section (SCAS) of the National Crime Agency. This analysis will enable the team to determine how offender behaviour has changed since March 2020. They will continue to track these changes over the next 12 months and compare them to data collected in the 12 months prior to the start of the pandemic.

“Our aim is to support SCAS, and UK policing more widely, in its efforts to tackle serious sexual offending by ensuring the unit’s understanding of sexual offences remains contemporary and comprehensive in changing and unprecedented times,” says Dr Heather Flowe, Reader in Forensic Psychology at the University of Birmingham.

The study will also collate detailed, county-level information about the national lockdown and social distancing measures implemented during the pandemic and relate these to changes in patterns of offending.

By cross-referencing between these different data sets, the team hope to be able to draw conclusions about what social and economic changes have led to changes in offender behaviour and victim vulnerability.

Using machine-learning techniques to analyse the data, the team will be able to identify sex-offending patterns, including rates of offending, geographical and temporal patterns, and any changes in the time between the date of the offence and the date of reporting it to the police.

“This work will enable law-enforcement agencies and other organisations to put detailed and immediate measures in place to target offenders and safeguard victims most at risk,” adds Professor Woodhams. “In the longer term it will enable policy makers to be better prepared for future lockdowns or periods of restriction.”

Sarah Rock, Principal Analyst at the NCA’s Serious Crime Analysis Section said: “The pandemic has highlighted the readiness of serious criminals to adapt to changing circumstances, making it all the more crucial that law enforcement is one step ahead.

“This research will enable SCAS to have an up to date understanding of how Covid-19 has impacted the behaviour of sexual offenders against strangers in the UK, both temporarily and permanently.

“Our data will support UK policing by establishing models of sexual offending behaviour, which can then be applied to behavioural analysis to detect serial rapists and murderers at the earliest stages of their offending. We believe that this will shape future operational practice and assist behavioural analysis units across the world.”

Notes to editor:

  • For media enquiries please contact Beck Lockwood, Press Office, University of Birmingham, tel: +44 (0)781 3343348.
  • For NCA/SCAS related media queries, please contact the NCA Press Office, tel: +44 (0)20 7979 5835. 
  • The University of Birmingham is ranked amongst the world’s top 100 institutions. Its work brings people from across the world to Birmingham, including researchers, teachers and more than 6,500 international students from over 150 countries.
  • SCAS (Serious Crime Analysis Section) is part of the NCA’s National Investigative Capabilities department, delivering specialist capabilities to UK police forces.
  • SCAS holds the Violent Crime Linkage Analysis System (ViCLAS) which maps the behaviour of sexually motivated murder and stranger rape offending across the UK and conducts comparative case analysis to identify behaviourally similar offences, supporting police forces in catching serial killers and rapists at the earliest opportunity.