Essay: Police officers – attitudes to stalking reports in the UK

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  • Published on: July 15, 2019
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1- Introduction

Stalking episodes can last a few weeks, to a few years, with even brief periods of stalking resulting in emotional distress and physical harm (Mullen et al, 2009). Furthermore, around 20-40% of stalking victims are found to experience symptoms of mental disorder as a result of being stalked (Pathé and Mullen, 1997). Stalking can also impact other aspects of a victim’s life, with victims often feeling the need to cut themselves off from society by moving away, changing jobs, and being afraid to leave their homes. As with any crime, a victim can go to the police for support and information, but some victims feel that police officers have not shown to effectively intervene and protect them.

As effects can be so adverse, it is crucial for police responses to be efficient and taken as seriously as they would with any other crime. Victims of stalking have specifically expressed that they feel ‘let down’ by police officers and prosecutors across England and Wales in regards to the support given to victims, and the actions taken to tackle the crime (Bulman, 2017). One stalking victim in regards to the police response to her allegation, expressed “its got to the point where I actually said to my mum one night: ‘Do you know what? I’m going to be a story in the newspaper. I’m going to be another one of those girls that gets murdered by her ex’” (The Independent, 2017). It is thought that police officers often hold negative views towards stalking cases, with victims feeling that they are not receiving the help that they feel they should, often resulting in serious consequences. This research seeks to examine police officer attitudes towards such allegations, arguing that the overall attitude to stalking is of indifference to other crimes.

1.1 Research Aims

The main focus of this research is to analyze how police officers in the United Kingdom feel about investigating stalking reports, by looking at what these officers are most likely to do when stalking cases are presented to them. Specifically, the aims for this piece of research is to:

1) Examine police officer attitudes and experiences towards stalking cases.
2) Examine how police officers analyze and investigate reports of stalking, and consider the implications of the approaches that they employ.
3) Question the proportion of officers taking reports of stalking seriously

With the strategy and methodology of the study, these aims can be met through the use of an effective questionnaire, and the answers provided from the respondents. Careful consideration has been taken in regards to the particular research question and methodology, in order to gain a greater insight into the perspectives of police officers, in the most efficient way possible.

1.2 Stalking Terminology

Stalking is very closely linked with the term harassment, with the Crown Prosecution Service (PHA Section 2, 1997), addressing both terms as repeated and unwanted behaviour causing alarm or distress to the victim. In addition to these terms linking together, cases of stalking and harassment are often included under the domestic violence definition, resulting in domestic violence legal policies being relevant.

Stalking is a crime of power and control, with the intention of intimidating the victim, however it can be separated into two categories. Physical stalking is the first form, which includes the act of regular unwanted contact, loitering near the victim, sending unwanted gifts, the damaging of victims property, or threatening the victim (, 2015). The other form of stalking is cyber-stalking, which refers to online harassment, however this research specifically refers to the physical stalking information set out by the Protection from Harassment Act (1997), due to the wider understanding of its nature. The CPS specifically states online that the offence is not retrospective, and is available to act as a further option for prosecutors to consider when selecting charges. The Protection from Harassment act (Section 2A-3, 1997) states some of the specific behaviors associated with stalking as opposed to a strict legal definition, as:

(a) Following a person
(b) Contacting, or attempting to contact, a person by any means
(c) Loitering in any place
(d) Interfering with any property in the possession of a person
(e) Watching or spying on a person.

2- Literature Review

The key ideas of the academic literature are reviewed and addressed within this chapter, separated into subheadings, in order to clearly identify each of the ideas. This literature review will address previous research surrounding stalking and how cases have been handled by the Criminal Justice system, as highly documented within the media, in order to justify the need for this research.

Existing literature specifically regarding police responses to stalking is rather limited, with the behavior often escalating over a period of time, so it is necessary to understand police perceptions on other types of crime in order to understand how serious officers take matters of stalking. The Crown Prosecution Service figures revealed that during 2013/14, only 743 stalking cases were prosecuted, in comparison to 9,792 harassment cases being prosecuted, stating how only 1% of all reported stalking cases resulted in a charge and prosecution, in comparison to the 16% of harassment cases (Paladin, National Stalking Advocacy Service, 2015). These figures of responses to domestic violence were even found to be less than adequate (Hattendorf and Tollerud, 1997, page 15). The criminal justice system carries a responsibility to all individuals, no matter what the level of seriousness the reported crime may be, however figures have suggested that only a tiny proportion of all stalking cases are being recorded by police, with the British Crime Survey (2015) reporting only 7,706 of stalking cases were recorded by police throughout England and Wales, although 1.1 million people had experienced stalking over a period of a year. From this, the Suzy Lamplugh trust (2016) stated that only about half of stalking victims go to the police, as those who are reporting such crimes are being made to feel “like a nuisance and not a victim” (Stalking victim to the Guardian, 2016).

2.1 HMCPSI and HMIC Inspection

The only inspection to look at the police and Crown Prosecution Service responses to harassment and stalking was carried out by Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary. The inspection was conducted in 2016/17 and aimed to address the responses to harassment and stalking crimes. The report claimed to find evidence that their services understood the risks of such crimes, and found examples of positive practice where victim’s needs were prioritized (HMIC, 2017), in addition to finding individual officers and prosecutors who took positive action to protect victims and investigate and prosecute the perpetrators. However, positive action was only illustrated after the victim made numerous reports. In addition to this, the investigation process was found to be good, however it was consistently followed by poor victim care during the criminal justice process, and successful prosecutions were followed by failure to apply for restraining orders.

The number of prosecutions for stalking also remained the same between 2014/15 and 2015/16, even though there was an increase in stalking crimes being recorded within the same period (HMCPSI and HMIC report, 2017, page 13). The inspection report also looked into the use of DASH forms, a model which was implemented across all police services in the United Kingdom in 2009, which provides a checklist of questions to ask victims of domestic abuse, stalking, and honour based violence (Dash risk model, 2009). The report found the DASH form to be a well-establish method of assessing risks to victims, and is in common use in the majority of police forces. The form provides a risk assessment for victims of crime, allowing information to be gathered in a consistent method, with a comprehensive view of risks faced by the victim (HMIC report, 2017, page 41). However the use of the form does not explain the full extent of the crime, and provides no freedom within the answers. The questions within the form are not always relevant to certain stalking victims, and can often be dismissed with officers feeling that the questions are not appropriate with the certain case in hand. It is also essential for officers to understand the true definition of stalking, and for them to correctly identify a stalking victim. If an officer is without such knowledge, they are unable to effectively use the DASH model, making it an incompetent and inconsistent risk assessment tool.

The inspection was conducted within forces by the use of interviews with respondents consisting of senior and operational lead officers, and focus groups consisting of frontline officers and partner agencies. The senior-staff who were responsible for harassment and stalking prosecutions were also interviewed, along with focus groups with prosecutors (HMIC report, 2017, page 108). With such high-ranking individuals being interviewed by well-established teams, respondents may become dishonest in their answers, in order to prove that they are doing their jobs to the correct standards. In opposition to the inspection, this particular research on police responses to stalking can provide an honest piece of research, as police officers are responding to the questionnaires with complete anonymity, therefore providing more honest answers. As the researcher in this dissertation holds no prejudice towards the police service, complete biasness is avoided in this experiment, allowing more reliable data to be collected and analyzed.

2.2 Criminal Justice Responses

In order for police responses to be effective, police officers should understand the nature of the crime in question, the legal definition of it, its various forms, its relationships with other crimes, and the impact the crime can have on the victim(s) (Velazquez, Garcia, and Joyce, 2009, page 258). However, stalkers are often able to continue on with their unwanted behaviour which have often resulted in increasingly violent acts, with the Metropolitan Police Service finding that 40% of domestic homicide victims were also stalked (ACPO Homicide Working Group, 2003), which can be explained by the unwillingness or inability of the criminal justice system to effectively intervene (Model Stalking Code Revisited, 2007, page 258). The police are the gatekeepers of law enforcement and criminal justice systems, which therefore explains the importance of police duties being carried out consistently and effectively.

Stalking as an offence on its own was only introduced in 2012, with harassment being the referenced crime prior to this date, so police officers were unable to respond to allegations with any type of suggested action. The Protection from Harassment Act 1997 was introduced to deal with stalking and harassment behaviours, but did not specifically define or name stalking as an offence, and instead defined two types of harassment (Stalking Briefing Paper, 2017, page 3). After many campaigns suggesting the Act was not effective in dealing with stalking, the Act was amended in order to specifically accommodate for the offence of stalking. The Protection of Harassment Act 1997 was amended by the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012, and created two new specific stalking offences (Section 2A-1) (Crown Prosecution Service, 2012), those being:

(a) Pursuing a course of conduct which amounts to stalking
(b) Involving fear of violence or serious alarm or distress.

The Crown Prosecution Service also published legal guidance on stalking, along with the College of Policing website creating stalking guidance on their website specifically for the police, and the National Police Chiefs’ Council launching a new protocol on how to handle stalking cases (Stalking Briefing Paper, 2017, page 3). However, the reformed act and newly formed guidance had only created brief guidelines, in addition to very brief definitions. Although stalking was made a crime on it’s own, the crime is still heavily linked with harassment, and only provides a very brief add-on to the harassment offence. The legislation and guidance does not present harassment and stalking as two different offences, and can therefore lead to police officers and prosecutors charging individuals with the wrong offence, and supporting victims with insufficient advice and support.

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