Panorama’s recently aired “Stop stalking me” (January 31st, 2011) was a good insight into what has historically been an overlooked and misunderstood issue – it really captured the essence of what it is like to be a victim of long term stalking.
The most important thing I can say is that those who feel vulnerable should be in no doubt that stalking and harassment is taken extremely seriously by the police service and its chief officers.
That point is vital because if we are to continue improving the response to this crime the first thing we need is victims to come forward to the police. They have to have the confidence to do so.
We are all too aware that the experience of being stalked can destroy the lives of victims, and tragically, in some cases, may end in violence or murder.
The police service is in many ways unique in the public sector – openly acknowledging mistakes is part of our culture. And it’s fair to say there have been cases where things have gone wrong, where it can rightly be said that victims have been let down. Such cases have raised the need for what could perhaps be described as a fundamental change in attitude to stalking across the service as a whole. We might not have achieved that just yet – but we’re getting there.
The problem is complex - caused in part by the lack of a legal definition of what constitutes stalking. Stalking is commonly made up of a variety of behaviours, which in themselves, aren’t criminal. A series of incidents that when taken in isolation can appear trivial, however, when put together, become far more sinister. In the past, a lack of understanding around the risks associated with stalking has led to some officers not recognising the cumulative effect of such behaviours, and crucially, the harm this causes to the victim.
It’s important that any victim of stalking should be sure that when they make a report to the police, they are receiving the same high standard of service – regardless of where they are in the country. The way the service has dealt with stalking has historically been fragmented, so it is critical - through ACPO - to encourage forces to adopt a standard approach all such cases.
We’ve achieved a lot in recent years. Effective guidance, encouraging forces to adopt a dedicated stalking and harassment policy, and a standard approach to training is integral to what we’ve been doing. The challenge, of course, is making sure all 43 forces use them!
So a massive part of this is actually about raising the profile of this really horrific crime, ensuring it’s taken seriously. It’s also about recognising the effect the behaviour of stalkers has on victims (the service has, in my opinion, led the criminal justice system in recognising the harm that stalking causes) and ensuring that officers have the right understanding of the issues so they can identify, and ultimately protect, victims.
We believe that working with the charity sector (and victims), is crucial to a better understanding of how we can improve the service we provide. With the support of ACPO, a National Stalking Helpline was launched in April last year, in collaboration with victim’s charities. We’ve also established one contact in each force whose job it is to work closely with the helpline, taking referrals where appropriate, and who has a key role in raising force-wide awareness of stalking issues.
It has to be said that the issue is undoubtedly one for the criminal justice system as whole, however. At a time when public sector budgets are under pressure, finding ways to share good practice and improve our response is absolutely essential.
Last year, the CPS produced guidelines on prosecuting stalking at the request of the police service, which highlighted the need for agencies to work together to ensure that the best evidence is gathered and presented to the court, as well as emphasising the importance of providing support to victims through access to support groups. The Association, alongside the Home Office also hosted a stalking and harassment conference in December, with the aim of sharing good practice, promoting guidance, and imparting victim experiences across all 43 forces and other criminal justice agencies.
While I’m truly encouraged by the good work that is being carried out across the CJS, there is always more can always be done. The challenge for the future will be to continue in our commitment to raise awareness of this awful crime, and ensure that all 43 forces are using the tools and guidance available to them.