Researchers investigate how COVID-19 pandemic has changed sex offender behavior

Researchers at the University of Birmingham are investigating how sex offenders have changed their behavior 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 organizations.

Project lead, Professor Jessica Woodhams, of the School of Psychology at the University of Birmingham, explains: "Sex offenders are versatile, and will change their behavior according to circumstance and opportunity. The Covid-19 outbreak is a crisis that will alter offender behavior - 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 behavior 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 offenses remains contemporary and comprehensive in changing and unprecedented times."

Dr Heather Flowe, Reader in Forensic Psychology, 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 behavior and victim vulnerability.

Using machine-learning techniques to analyze 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 offense and the date of reporting it to the police.

"This work will enable law-enforcement agencies and other organizations 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 behavior of sexual offenders against strangers in the UK, both temporarily and permanently.

"Our data will support UK policing by establishing models of sexual offending behavior, which can then be applied to behavioral 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 behavioral analysis units across the world."

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