It has been over 20 months since stalking became a specific criminal offence, and while attitudes are changing for the better, there is still a lot more work to do to ensure stalking and its victims are taken seriously.
Categorising stalking as a crime gives police the power to act early and arrest stalkers before their behaviour escalates, resulting in physical harm or worse. We are trying to train as many police officers, call handlers, Safer Neighbourhood teams and specialist officers, to be more aware of the behavioural patterns that constitute stalking and harassment, so they are better equipped to act sooner.
We are reminded however of the tragic incidents that led to the law being pushed through, and acted as a catalyst for attitude change at an institutional and societal level. Sadly I have reviewed too many cases where women and children have been murdered by their stalker. One of those cases was the murder of Clare Bernal by Harvey Nichols security guard Michael Pech in 2005, while he was out on bail. Unfortunately, while it is too late for Clare, we have to ensure that there is always a coordinated approach to stalking incidents, and perpetrators are not allowed to slip through the net.
In addition to changing attitudes among the police, Crown Prosecution Service and courts, another common challenge is helping victims recognise the signs of stalking. Far too many don't self-identify as victims of stalking. Many think only celebrities can be stalked. Experiencing any sort of obsessional behaviour such as being followed home, being bombarded by texts and emails, or receiving unwarranted gifts to your home, should set alarm bells ringing. A big part of our work is empowering and validating victims of stalking, to guarantee they are heard and a risk management strategy is in place to keep them safe.
Raising awareness is the key to ensuring that the change in the law transforms how society perceives stalking. All too often jokes are made about stalking, which threatens to undermine its devastating impact on victims' lives. We try and reinforce the message that stalkers steal lives and they also take lives. Just the other day, I walked past a hairdressers' that had a 'joke' displayed on the window- 'stalking is when two people go for a romantic walk and only one knows about it.' I immediately went in and challenged the owner, reminding him that stalking is now a crime that can cause immense physical and physiological damage. He was horrified and contrite when I highlighted Clare Bernal's murder and explained that one in five women and one in 10 men are stalked.
Since our inception in July 2013, we have assisted 269 victims. The introduction of the law was just the beginning: support and advocacy for victims saves both lives and money. However, stalking is much more prevalent than crime surveys suggest and demand for our service has outstripped capacity. With a growing team, we have recently expanded to meet demand given the prevalence of stalking and appointed two Independent Stalking Advocacy Case workers to support traumatised London victims of stalking and harassment, where we currently work with 48 victims with financial backing from the City of London Corporation's charity, City Bridge Trust and Trust for London. We have recently been awarded money for another Independent Stalking Advocacy Case worker from the Tudor Trust. We would also like to work on training more judges and magistrates, so that they can deliver informed and appropriate sentences to people convicted of stalking offences.
So what does the future look like? As the law matures and awareness grows, the ideal scenario is for early risk assessment and intervention to become commonplace. One of our clients, Helen Pearson, was referred to us only at the point of court for her attempted murder, despite the fact she was stalked for five years. She reported more than 125 incidents to the police including her car being vandalised, break-ins, abusive messages and threatening and sexualised letters. Helen did not initially know who her stalker was and the police did not progress the investigation. These cases need to be referred much sooner.
We welcome the launch of the joint protocol for handling of stalking offences between the Crown Prosecution Service and Association of Chief Police Officers which sets a clear outline of what victims can expect but specialist led training is vital and the lack of investment in prosecutors' training to date has resulted in many of our victims being continually let down and put further at risk. This must be made a reality in prosecutors' day-to-day practice to ensure stalkers are put before the courts and that there are appropriate sentences and treatment for perpetrators.
In addition to effective policing and legal action, there are of course many ways that people who are at risk can protect themselves and remain vigilant when it comes to stalking.
Check your digital footprint frequently - Type your name into Google, see what information comes up. You will be surprised at how easy it is to find personal details such as home addresses online. Remove anything that may increase your risk.
Change your passwords- Keep yourself safe online by regularly changing your passwords and not using the same password for all accounts.
Don't 'check-in'- Avoid geo-locating yourself on social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook. Only make reference to places you have visited once you have left- don't inform the world while you are there.
Be careful when giving out personal details - this includes when on the phone, using social networking sites online or with people you meet.
Trust your instinct- If you are concerned about someone's behaviour and they are forming an obsession, contact the police.