Detectives from the Victoria Police Sexual Crime Squad are urging anyone in the south-west with experiences of sexual assault or other threatening behaviour linked to people they have connected with on dating apps to contact officers.
While many people choose to initially report the behaviour via functions on the apps, contacting police is the only way to initiate an investigation into potentially criminal behaviour.
This report allows police to take a number of steps - the information can be carefully assessed by specialist detectives to determine if any criminal offending has taken place, a formal police report can be lodged, and police will connect victims with a range of support services.
Officer in charge of the Sexual Crimes Squad, Detective Inspector Juliann Goldrick, said it was important that the community understands there are no barriers in reporting these matters to police.
"I want to assure the community and victims of sexual assault that Victoria Police is committed to investigating these matters and holding offenders to account," she said.
"We believe that these matters are under reported and that can be for a range of reasons, including fear or embarrassment, and sometimes feeling unsure if an offence has occurred or if they will be believed. "
"In terms of dating apps, we might have people who are unsure about making a report because the person has blocked or removed their profile on the app, or maybe a lengthy period of time has passed and victims are worried it has been too long."
Detective Inspector Goldrick said it was crucial for police that we play a role in clearing up any misconceptions around reporting sexual assault, especially where the victim has connected with the offender via a dating app.
"I cannot stress enough that it is never the victim's responsibility to determine whether or not there is enough evidence to investigate a sexual offence or solve a crime," she said.
"While a victim may believe there may be limitations to proving the identity of an alleged perpetrator, police have a number of methods to identify suspects and we have specialist investigators who do this successfully.
"Police can also request information from dating apps to assist in solving sexual offence investigations, however this is only one avenue of inquiry in which police can identify suspects and bring a case before the courts.
"I think it's crucial that victims understand that reporting to the dating app is not reporting to police, and so we encourage people to speak to us when they have been subject to concerning behaviour."
Police say dating apps have become a common way for people to connect and many people who use them have a positive experience and find lifelong partners.
Police also recognise that with restrictions in place on movement across Melbourne and Victoria more generally, it's become one of the few ways for people to initially connect with a new partner.
However, on occasion, police do see instances of predatory sexual behaviour on dating apps.
This can take the form of people meeting up in person where consent is not provided for sexual activity and one party is then sexually assaulted. It also includes instances where unsolicited illicit images are sent via the messaging ability on the apps.
On other occasions, the dating app may simply be the function for people to connect and predatory or criminal offending occurs some time later.
"We know that women are far more likely to experience violence - both physical and sexual - from a family member in their own home, than a stranger or someone they have just met," Detective Inspector Goldrick said.
"However, we also acknowledge that in some cases online dating sites and applications are used as a means for offenders to form a relationship with victims and groom their targets.
"Something we commonly see with victims is a sense of obligation - a feeling that they "owe" the offender something because this person has spent time messaging them, or travelled to see them, or bought them a meal or drink.
"I really want to be absolutely clear that you do not owe anyone anything, ever.
"Everyone in our community has a right to go about their lives, meet new people or start a relationship without fear of being a victim of crime, including sexual harassment or assault."
One of the most important things police are able to do for sexual assault victims is give them advice on and connect them to a wide range of support services.
Even if someone ultimately decides they do not want to make a formal report or for an investigation to be conduct, police can still assist them with seeking further support such as medical services or counselling.
Further information and links to key organisations are available at the following: https://www.police.vic.gov.au/sexual-offences
Important things to note:
- If you are subject to any type of concerning behaviour from someone you met via a dating app, we strongly encourage you to contact police and discuss the circumstances with us,
- Anyone who contacts police will be supported and treated with respect, courtesy and dignity,
- COVID-19 restrictions do not stop you from leaving your home to make a report to police or seeking further assistance,
- While we encourage victims to report as soon as possible, it doesn't matter how much time has passed, we are always able to investigate a sexual offence,
- Dating apps are not investigators - police are the only ones able to conduct a criminal investigation and hold perpetrators to account,
- Police can also conduct a criminal investigation even where one party has blocked or deleted someone from the app,
- Support services are available for anyone who is the victim of a sexual assault, even if you do not choose to make a police report,
- Consider your safety plan when meeting a stranger for the first time for any reason - this could include choosing a location with lots of people around, meeting during daylight hours, and sharing your location with friends,
- Always view an app's community guidelines, terms of service and safety tips prior to using their service to ensure that you are comfortable with how they will support you if you encounter an issue, and
- While a dating app user can take steps to minimise their risk, the responsibility is always on the perpetrator who commits these crimes, and never the fault of the victims
Anyone with information is urged to contact Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000 or submit a confidential report online at www.crimestoppersvic.com.au
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