Stalking victims being failed, say watchdogs
Victims of harassment and stalking are being left at risk because of failings by police and prosecutors in England and Wales, say two watchdogs.
Crimes were not being recorded, said a report by the Inspectorate of Constabulary and the Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate.
It also said too many investigations were poorly run and failed to give victims legal protection.
Police and prosecution chiefs have pledged to improve performance.
The joint inspection looked at 112 recent cases of stalking and harassment in depth, but not a single one was dealt with properly, the report said.
One victim said police made her feel she was to blame for receiving abusive messages on social media. "It was my fault for being on Facebook," she said.
The report also said police officers were failing to recognise repeated signs of a stalker, by treating each complaint in isolation rather than being part of a pattern.
That, in turn, meant police and prosecutors did not see the bigger picture and appreciate the full scale of the harm suffered by the victim.
Helen Pearson, from Devon, reported her stalker to the police 125 times over five years.
"They literally didn't want to know," she said. "I was a nuisance."
She reported every case of gunged-up door locks, threatening letters and phone calls, bricks through windows, slashed car tyres, even a dead cat left on her doorstep but police never linked them all together, she told BBC's Victoria Derbyshire.
"You could see it escalating - you felt like you were screaming with your mouth shut," she said. In 2013, she was stabbed and left for dead by her stalker.
Such cases are known as "murder in slow motion", said Laura Richards, from the National Stalking Advocacy Service, Paladin, who is calling for better training and leadership from the police.
Victims' stories from the report
"I will stay in your life forever... I will make sure nothing in your life or your family's ever runs smoothly" is one female stalker's threat to her victim, also a woman.
One person told researchers: "It got to the point where I actually said to my mum one night that 'Do you know what? I'm going to be a story in the newspaper. I'm going to be another one of these girls that gets murdered by her ex'."
The report said many victims felt "constantly on edge".
One victim, stalked by her ex-partner, said: "Every time my phone went, it made me nervous... Every time the doorbell went, or there was a bang on the door, me and the children would be really scared."
They interviewed a female bank employee, who told police a male stranger kept visiting her at work - leaving gifts and following her after she finished work to a bus stop.
The employee was transferred to another bank branch, but the man tracked her down. She then confronted him, and he became angry.
But police did not arrest or interview the man, instead issuing him with a Police Information Notice (PIN).
This takes the form of a written warning which is signed by the recipient. It is not a formal police caution, nor is it covered by legislation. However, they can be used in future legal proceedings to show the suspect knew their behaviour was considered to be harassment.
The report said such notices were being misused and did not cover all types of offences.
Wendy Williams, who led the inspection for Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary, said: "Police forces must act quickly to protect victims, including survivors of domestic abuse leaving coercive or controlling relationships.
"It is not acceptable that victims and their families are left to live in fear.
"While we found some evidence that the police and CPS understand the risks of the repeat behaviours... we found worrying failings at every stage, including reporting, investigation and prosecution. Changes need to be made immediately."
The report calls for:
- A review of the key law on harassment
- More clearly defined offences
- Better risk assessments for victims
- Expanding court orders to cover more circumstances
Instead of thoroughly investigating stalking cases and protecting the victim, police officers were issuing Police Information Notices (PINs), said the inspectorate.
By signing one, a person is not admitting any wrongdoing, but that means there is no right of appeal.
In 2015, a government report acknowledged that the lack of any appeal procedure against a PIN "can feel very unfair to recipients".
The inspectorate wants to see them scrapped immediately.
It also warned that a proposed court order to protect victims of stalking would not help victims of harassment, such as people fleeing domestic violence.
What is stalking?
- The report says stalking is "a pattern of unwanted, persistent pursuit and intrusive behaviour... that engenders fear and distress in the victim and is characterised by an obsessive fixation with the victim".
- It can include following the victim, repeatedly contacting them or trying to do so and monitoring their activity online.
How is harassment different?
- Someone commits a crime of harassment if their behaviour is oppressive or unreasonable to such an extent that it causes alarm or distress, or puts someone in fear of violence.
The Suzy Lamplugh Trust, which runs the National Stalking Helpline, said the failures identified in the report were unacceptable.
And Director of Public Prosecutions Alison Saunders said she would introduce mandatory stalking and harassment training for all prosecutors.
Assistant Chief Constable Garry Sherwan, the National Police Chief Council's lead for stalking, said: "I will be writing to all chief constables to make sure officers are aware of the powers they have to tackle cases of stalking or harassment and that cases must be recorded and monitored.
"We want to see numbers of people prosecuted for stalking and harassment increase."