Stalking and harassment crimes routinely badly handled, UK report says

Report by joint inspectorate team finds victims’ complaints often not investigated or dismissed as not serious by police

The full extent of stalking and harassment in England and Wales is unknown because police and prosecutors often do not recognise the crimes, or record them incorrectly.

A highly critical report by a joint inspectorate team has found that victims’ complaints are frequently not investigated and are dismissed by informal police information notices (PIN) being issued to perpetrators. In one case, a PIN was used after a violent domestic abuser armed with a knife threatened to cut the throat of a victim.

Out of a sample of 112 cases of stalking and harassment examined by HM Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate and HM Inspectorate of Constabulary, none were found to have been dealt with well. More than 60% showed no evidence of a risk management plan being prepared to protect victims.

In 95% of the case files reviewed, care for the victim was deemed to be inadequate; three-quarters of the cases were not even handled by detectives.

“Harassment and stalking are crimes of persistence,” the report says. “It is the unrelenting repeat behaviour by the perpetrator ... which seems inescapable and inevitable, that has such a detrimental effect on the victim.”

One stalking victim recalled her pursuer telling her: “I will stay in your life for ever ... I will make sure nothing in your life or your family’s ever runs smoothly.”

The number of recorded offences has, nonetheless, been rising. There were more than 1,200 cases of stalking and more than 5,000 cases of harassment in the three months to December 2016.

Almost anyone can become a victim of stalking, the report warns. The crime survey for England and Wales estimates that 15% of adults aged 16 to 59 had been victims of some form of stalking or harassment during their life.

Harassment became an offence in 1997 and stalking was added to the criminal statute book in 2012. Police and the Crown Prosecution Service frequently struggled to separate the two, the inspectorate report said.

“We found that stalking in particular was misunderstood by the police and the CPS,” the study said. “As a result, it often went unrecognised. The police sometimes mis-recorded stalking offences, or, worse, did not record them at all. Prosecutors on occasions missed opportunities to charge stalking offences, instead preferring other offences, particularly harassment.”

The absence of a single accepted, consistent definition of stalking is said to be a “very significant contributory factor to the unacceptably low number of recorded crimes and prosecutions”.

Many cases involve online stalking, sometimes through accounts created under fictional names spreading baseless allegations. Victims are sometimes afraid to turn on their computers.

“We found that if an investigation was started, victims were often badly let down throughout the criminal justice process,” the inspectorate report concludes. “One reason for this was the failure to impose bail conditions on perpetrators, which sometimes left the victim at risk of further offending.

“The increasing prevalence of the use of digital media gives perpetrators another easily accessible method by which to torment victims.”

PINs should be withdrawn from use immediately, the report recommends. The government’s commitment to introduce a stalking protection order (SPO) to target offenders is welcomed.

“We found compelling evidence in some cases that the use of PINs meant no thorough investigation had taken place and there had been little positive action to protect the victim,” the report says.

Laura Richards, the founder and director of Paladin, a stalking advocacy service, said: “These cases are what I call murder in slow motion. In all cases that I have reviewed, there was stalking, threats to kill, high levels of fear, and women not being believed.

“These are the most dangerous of cases, yet more resources are dedicated to burglaries and robberies than public protection, and there is little investment in specialist-led training.”

Clive Ruggles, whose daughter Alice was murdered by an obsessive ex-boyfriend, said: “Her stalker had a history of abuse, was issued a police information notice that was not enforced when breached, and we believe Alice’s fear was dismissed due to her polite and respectful demeanour.

“We have to stop this from continually happening. It seems clear to me that the warning signs are there in many cases, and there are stark lessons to be learned.”

Alison Saunders, director of public prosecutions, said: “We know that, compared to other types of threatening behaviour, perpetrators of these crimes are significantly more likely to escalate their behaviour.

“The CPS has made significant strides over recent years in identifying, understanding and successfully prosecuting these cases and I am pleased to note that the report highlights many instances of good practice.

“In order to drive forward improvement in our performance we will be taking a range of steps, including the introduction of mandatory stalking and harassment training for all prosecutors.”

Harry Fletcher, director of the Digital-Trust and one of the drafters of stalking laws, said: “The report underlines what victims of stalking have been saying for the last four years. The police are not properly trained and still do not take stalking complaints seriously. This puts victims at risk of further harm. Now is the time for a major change of attitude.”


Owen Bowcott Legal affairs correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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