Stalking became a crime in 2012 but, six years later, it is still not properly understood. An online search of the word shows that many people regard stalking as something that only affects the rich and famous.
Thirty years since the movie Fatal Attraction saw Glenn Close turn up the heat on Michael Douglas and his screen son’s pet rabbit, stalking is still laughed off as something that happens to philandering men or unattainable celebrities. ‘Bunny Boiler’ became an acceptable shorthand for obsessed women, usually older ones.
The misogyny persists to this day across the media and misconceptions of stalking often undermine the ability of the police and prosecutors to recognise, investigate and prosecute it. The reality is that thousands of ordinary women and men are being harmfully stalked by former partners, casual acquaintances and, very often, complete strangers.
Part of the problem is that there is no single legal definition of stalking.
The Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 amended existing Harassment legislation. CPS guidance provides examples of the types of behaviour which could be an offence but, taken in isolation, these may appear innocent, unconnected and without malicious purpose. The key aspect of the legislation however, is whether the effect of the stalker’s behaviour “curtails a victim’s freedom.”
Victims of stalking will tell you that it is the cumulative effect of these incidents that can be so frightening and debilitating and the fact that, when they report incidents, police all too often look for a specific offence, rather than joining the dots between reports and recognizing a pattern of harmful behaviour.
We need a cultural change to position stalking as a crime, not a nuisance and we most definitely need to train police officers to spot the signs of stalking.
Our prosecutors need help to understand the range of offences that a stalker can potentially be committing, from more recent legislation covering malicious communications and sexual offences, to Victorian-era (1861) Offences Against the Person.
In Sussex we have sadly had some awful cases of stalking, one of which led to the murder of Shana Grice. More recently, we had the case of a St Leonards’ woman who was stalked and tormented by her own husband who was pretending to be someone else.
I had my own experience of stalking over a five year period which led me to seek an injunction against a local man who had followed me online and in person, and written and posted hundreds of pages of false news and dozens of malicious videos.
I am physically and psychologically robust and married to a no-nonsense Falklands veteran. In my professional life I have access to the best advice about dealing with stalkers and I spend many hours with police officers. With the confidence of all that knowledge and support, I know how I still felt over those five years, and I know how relieved I was when the High Court ordered the harassment to stop.
So I have every sympathy for the thousands of mainly female victims and I understand their frustration when it appears the system doesn’t respond in a compassionate and constructive way.
That is why I am committed to providing support to victims of stalking, including funding for a local specialist stalking service, Veritas Justice.
I am really pleased that Sussex Police have acknowledged their training and development needs and that senior officers are as committed as I am to ensuring the Force understands stalking.
I invested a large part of last year’s precept rise into the Public Protection Unit and the Force is now better equipped and better trained to recognise and deal with stalking. Last year, Sussex Police saw an average 300% increase in reports of stalking and three times as many cases have been solved compared to the previous 12 months.
One of the tools I have as a PCC is to bring independent, external scrutiny to policing. That is why I have commissioned HMICFRS (the independent Inspectorate) to conduct a thorough review of the way Sussex Police now deals with stalking, and to help me understand where they need to improve.
I know that all police forces can, and must, do better. We can all remember when violence between couples was more often dismissed as ‘just a domestic’. We may even have friends or relatives we knew were being abused but who didn’t want to report it for fear of not being believed or supported and the negative impact it might have on their family.
It seems to me that, as a nation, we have pigeon-holed stalking as a minor problem. Is that because victims are not showing up with bruises and broken bones?
Does the current police ‘threat, risk and harm’ assessment approach mean that officers are misreading patterns of ‘low risk’ behaviour and missing chances to intervene?
We need to give stalking victims more ways to fight back, which is why I was pleased to support Dr Sarah Wollaston’s Private Members Bill regarding new Stalking Prevention Orders, and the Government’s doubling of the available sentences for stalkers.
Unfortunately, prosecution and imprisonment of stalkers only comes after the victim has already suffered probably years of frightening and life-inhibiting harassment and abuse. Remember, stalking can be defined if the behaviour is fixated, obsessive, unwanted or repeated.
Don’t suffer in silence; report stalking and make sure police understand how the behaviour is making you feel. There are many people who have experienced stalking who are ready to listen to you and help you take the next steps to get your freedom and your life back.
Katy Bourne is the Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner