Criminal Justice

The Police Service of Northern Ireland

Why should you tell the police?

It is important to report to the police service what has happened so that they can find the person responsible and try to prevent the same thing happening to you again or to someone else.

Whilst it is the responsibility of the police to investigate what you have reported, your welfare will always come first.

It is the responsibility of the police service, working in partnership with The Rowan and with other criminal justice agencies, to protect the public, to investigate criminal offences and to gather evidence that may be later used in court. Evidence and other information gathered during the course of the police investigation will be submitted to the Public Prosecution Service who will then decide whether or not the person who did this to you should be prosecuted and, if so, for what criminal offence. The Public Prosecution Service will provide police with prosecutorial advice during the investigation, make a decision as to prosecution, prepare the case for trial and either present the case at court or instruct a barrister to do so on their, and your, behalf. Your role as a victim of rape or sexual assault is as a witness in these proceedings.

If you decide to involve the police, if you can, do this as soon as possible so that forensic evidence can be gathered from your clothes and body.

Once the case reaches the Public Prosecution Service (PPS), the PPS Community Liaison Team or Crown Court Office should keep you informed of key milestones in the case.

What the police do

The main role of the police is to investigate what happened. They do this by gathering evidence. This may include tracing witnesses. Depending on the evidence available, they will arrest and charge the person they suspect of harming you. The police service will send a file to the Public Prosecution Service who will decide what action should be taken next.

The Rowan Centre helps the police service by providing that initial support to people, men, women and children, who have been raped or sexually assaulted. This includes making sure people get medical assistance, if required; giving them information and advice; and telling them about other agencies which can help.

The police service also has specially trained staff to deal with rape and sexual assault of children and adults and are sensitive to victims needs and concerns.

When you report directly to the police

You may feel isolated and alone but you don’t need to, take this first step and call. Your first contact could be with any officer but you will very quickly be seen by a police officer who is specially trained in working with people who have been raped or sexually assaulted. They know that rape and sexual assault is distressing and traumatic, and they will be as sensitive as possible while continuing to investigate the crime. If you require a forensic medical examination you will be taken to The Rowan centre.

If you need emergency medical help, the police will arrange for you to get this.

Investigation and prosecution

Recent assault

When you report rape or sexual assault, the police gather as much evidence as possible. This is used to prove what happened. So, if the incident has just happened try NOT to:

  • Wash yourself (but if you do, wipe yourself with tissues first and keep these; don’t use household cleaning products, such as bleach, to wash yourself);
  • Clean your teeth;
  • Clean your fingernails;
  • Change or wash any clothes you were wearing, if you do please keep these for the police investigation;
  • Eat or drink anything;
  • Take any alcohol or drugs;
  • Go to the toilet (if you do keep any tissues you use; also keep any sanitary protection);
  • Change or wash your bedclothes if the assault took place there.

If you do these things it can destroy important evidence such as the attacker’s semen, saliva, or blood.

But, if you do any of these things, this does not mean necessarily that there is no evidence for the police to find.

The Rowan

The Rowan has special forensic medical facilities for people who have been raped or sexually assaulted. These are designated to be as comfortable and private as possible and, if you require a forensic medical examination, you may be taken there by the police.

You can arrange to have a family member or friend with you to offer you support.

Investigation and prosecution

The police will carry out their procedures as soon as possible but sometimes people may have to wait with police while arrangements are made by The Rowan staff for a forensic medical examination to take place. There may be delays, for example, depending on how soon the doctor (Forensic Medical Officer) can attend. If you are having a forensic examination, it is helpful NOT to eat or drink anything until it is known whether or not samples from your mouth are needed as evidence may be damaged or lost.

If there is anything you are unsure or unhappy about, tell someone, either the police officer or a member of the Rowan team.

The police also need to find our exactly what happened to you, including where and how it happened and what you can tell us about the person responsible. Your account of this may be taken at The Rowan at the time you initially attend or the next day when you are feeling stronger. If it is the next day and you live some distance away, or you do not require a forensic medical examination, your account may be taken at another venue. This will be discussed with you.

Giving your account to the police

The police officer will ask you questions about the assault. This is to build up a picture of what happened, find out about your attacker and check if you think anyone else saw or heard anything. Some questions may seem awkward and difficult but are necessary for the police to take the case to the next stage. You should not be asked questions about your sex life that do not relate to the incident. However, the police may need to ask you if you had recent consensual (agreed) sex with someone as that may affect any forensic examination. If you are not sure of the reasons for any questions, you can ask for an explanation.

Your witness statement needs to be as detailed as possible, so it may take a long time to complete. It is best to be as open and honest as you can. If you can remember what happened, it is better to be upfront from the start rather than change the details later. For example, some people are reluctant to say that they were drunk or had taken drugs at the time of the assault. But, it is important to remember that the attacker is responsible for the assault and not you. Rape and sexual assault are never OK, in any circumstances. Don’t let embarrassment prevent you from telling police all the details you can remember. You will be speaking to an experienced police officer and no one will be judging you.

You may find it difficult to remember anything much. This is not unusual and a normal response when something traumatic happens. You may not remember anything if you were raped or assaulted when you were asleep or unconscious.

The information you give is recorded by police. This will be in your own words and in your first language. There are different ways that this can be recorded, for example by video, but this will be explained to you by the police officer.

You can take as much time as you need. You can ask for a break at any time. You can also add information later if other details come back to you some time afterwards.

The police will also ask you specific questions to establish your needs, particularly in determining whether you will be eligible for your account to be video recorded, to assist you in making your witness statement. This information will be used to inform the Public Prosecution Service so that they can make the necessary application to court which will assist you in giving evidence at a later stage.

Tell the police officer or someone at The Rowan if you are unsure or unhappy about what is happening.

Forensic Medical Examination

If the assault was recent, you will be asked if you are willing to have a forensic examination by a doctor who works for the police. This is to gather evidence and note any injuries to help investigate what happened. You can choose whether or not to agree to this. In the case of children a Paediatrician may sometimes be present as well.

Forensic examinations are done by specially trained doctors  The doctor will do everything they can to make you feel as comfortable as possible. You can ask for the examination to stop at any time.

You may  be asked to place any items of clothing touched by the attacker into a bag. This will involve you undressing, however The Rowan Nurse, who will be present, will arrange for other clothing to be provided.

The doctor will ask you what happened, and where on your body, so that they know where to look for any evidence. Depending on what happened, the doctor will examine you. They may take samples of anything which may contain evidence of the attacker such as semen or saliva.

The doctor may ask for a police photographer to take photos of any bruising or injuries. You can ask for a male or female photographer, although the choice of gender may not always be guaranteed e.g. in the middle of the night.

After the forensic examination, a police officer may want to go over your account as there may be information to add or change.

If the police keep your clothes, you may get them back once the case is over, if you wish. However, sometimes clothing may be damaged as a result of forensic testing. There are also some occassions when the clothes may be required to be kept indefinitely.

You may be asked to attend a second examination although this is rare. This is to gather more evidence such as bruising which might not show at first.

Other evidence

The police may gather other evidence. For example, if you were assaulted in your home, the police may come to your house to look for evidence. If you were attacked outside, the police may take you there so you can show them exactly where it happened. There may be CCTV images from any cameras in the area.

The police will also trace and interview any witnesses.

If the attacker is not known to you, you may be asked to go to the a police station to take part in an identification process. You will be guided safely through this process.

What the police are looking for

The police are looking for evidence which shows what happened. This is to help confirm that the assault took place and that you did not consent to it. This can be difficult as rape and sexual assault often happen when no one else is around. Your statement is an important piece of evidence. So, if the police do not charge someone, it does not mean they do not believe you or that they have not taken the assault seriously.

Finding the attacker

Your statement is used by police officers who will try to identify and find the attacker, if not already known. If the attacker is identified, police officers will interview him or her at a police station. After this interview, they may be charged or released pending report to the Public Prosecution Service (PPS)

Arresting and detaining the attacker

If the police have enough evidence to suspect that someone has committed a serious crime, they can arrest them and take them to a police station. The police will decide after charge whether to keep them in the police station (custody) until going to court the next day or may release them on police bail pending a report to the PPS. Bail means that the person must agree to report to a police station when required to do so. Police bail may place certain restrictions on them such as not contacting you or coming anywhere near you. If you become aware they have broken these restrictions, contact the police immediately.

If the police suspect someone has committed a crime but do not have enough evidence to charge, they can keep (detain) them in the police station to allow for further enquiries and to interview them. They can also release a person on police bail to allow police to carry out further enquiries when investigating the allegation. They must then release them unless they have enough evidence at that time to charge them. But they can still investigate the crime.

Whether a person is kept in custody or released from the police station depends on each case. If the assault happened some time ago, then they are more likely to be released. However, if the police think that you or someone else is at serious risk, then they are more likely to be kept in custody.

The Custody Officer in charge of the police station makes this decision along with the investigating officer. The police must be very sure about keeping someone in custody because the law states that a person is innocent until proven guilty by a court of law.

If threats have been made against you or you are at all worried about what might happen to you or someone else if your attacker is released, tell the police immediately.

The police will tell you what they decide and what will happen next.

If the police cannot identify the attacker

If the police cannot identify the attacker, they will record that the assault took place and keep any evidence and information they have gathered. They will tell you if no further action can be taken. If this happens, it does not mean that you were not believed or that the assault was not taken seriously. Many people find this upsetting and difficult. It may help to talk this over with a support agency.

Your safety

If it is not safe for you to return home, The Rowan centre staff will help to make sure that you are not at further risk. This might include finding somewhere safe for you to stay.


The police will keep you updated about the case and explain any decisions made. If you agree, they will pass your details onto Victim Support Northern Ireland who will also offer support. They can also tell you about other organisations which can help. The police officer you give your statement to is likely to be your contact throughout. They should automatically give you their contact details but before you leave the police station, make sure you get a note of their name and phone number.


  • You have a right to be treated sensitively and with respect and to be kept informed while you are either in a police station or at The Rowan Centre, and during the police investigation.
  • You have a right to complain if you are not treated sensitively and with respect and kept informed.
  • If your first language is not English or if you have a sensory impairment or other additional communication need, interpreters and other assistance will be given so you can tell the police or staff at The Rowan the details of what happened.
  • You can ask to speak to a male or female police officer.
  • It may be difficult to remember what happened and to answer all the questions. This is very common. You may remember more at a later date.
  • Tell the police or Rowan staff if you are worried about your safety or safety of someone close to you.