London’s Metropolitan Police is to combat stalking with a “world-leading” multi-agency unit, launching next month. The Stalking Threat Assessment Centre (STAC) aims to rehabilitate repeat offenders, but critics say police are still unable to properly identify and prosecute those responsible, and that focusing on culprits risks overlooking victims.
The momentum to tackle stalking has gathered pace in the UK, where the annual number of reports of the crime has increased threefold to over 10,000 recorded offences but prosecutions have dwindled.
Stalking, behavior that is fixated and obsessive that causes victims to suffer physical or psychological abuse, is often described as a “hidden crime”. But its consequences are far-reaching. A 2017 study by the University of Gloucester found that stalking had taken place in 94 percent of homicides in the UK.
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According to the Metropolitan Police, the new “centre of excellence” will combat stalking and work to make victims safer. The Met says the STAC will improve responses to stalking across the criminal justice system and health sector with rehabilitative intervention for stalkers. The centre is funded by £1.4 million ($1.8 million) made available by the Home Office.
Throughout the two-year pilot, a cohort of around 20 stalkers will be screened, have their threat levels assessed, and go through a rehabilitation programme created and developed during the first six months of the pilot.
In some cases the police will put preventative measures in place, such as electronically tagging more high-risk offenders, making the homes of victims more secure, and even installing panic rooms in their houses. After the pilot, the success and outcomes of the model will be assessed and considered for roll out nationally.
The coalition of police forces, health professionals, and victim advocacy groups leading the centre include the Metropolitan Police, the National Probation Service and the Barnet, Enfield and Haringey Mental Health NHS Trust that manages the National Stalking Clinic, a specialist service that provides assessment and consultation for people who have engaged in stalking behaviour.
Day-to-day, the STAC will be staffed by eight police officers, two nurses, a nurse manager, a psychiatrist and a psychologist, supported by a victim advocate, Crown Prosecution Service lawyer and a probation officer, according to the Met Police.
The centre will be launched as part of a wider initiative to combat stalking across the country from the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, which runs the National Stalking Helpline. The trust says current criminal justice solutions fail to address the complex psychological issues associated with the crime.
But critics of the initiative told WikiTribune that the scheme risks victims being overlooked and raises questions about wider issues with how stalking is dealt with by the police. They say more wide-reaching solutions are needed to combat the devastating crime, such as a legal definition for stalking.
Putting offenders at the center of reforms
According to the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, rehabilitating offenders to prevent them from stalking again will protect victims from further occurrences of stalking. Fifty-five percent of stalking perpetrators reoffend, and 36 percent have a previous conviction for harassment, according to research cited by the Suzy Lamplugh Trust.
More than 20,000 people have contacted the National Stalking Helpline seeking help since it was established in 2010, and more than 1,000 reports of stalking were recorded by police in London in 2017. But Met Police officers believe that the introduction of the agency will lead to an increase in the number of stalking offences recorded, as awareness and support increases.
Victoria Charleston, policy and development manager at the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, told WikiTribune that solutions for stalking in the current criminal justice system do not deal with the problem adequately.
Restraining orders can be breached, custodial sentences end, and offenders can continue to stalk from prison using letters or people they know on the outside, Charleston said. “Victims don’t feel they’re being taken seriously, and feel unsafe despite having gone to the police.”
Over the past three years, 49 women were murdered by former partners, despite having already reported them to the police, according to data obtained via Freedom of Information laws by women’s publication Broadly.
Charleston explained that the Stalking Threat Assessment Centre will be a “world-first” in tackling the root cause of stalking – the motivations of perpetrators.
“For quite some years now we’ve been talking about the need for intervention with perpetrators. This is what people who call the National Stalking Helpline tell us. They just want it to stop, they want these behaviors to go away.”
The program will “use traditional criminal justice methods in a more nuanced way” by rebuilding the lives of stalkers, explained Charleston. This will include exploring the background stories between perpetrators and victims to work out the best form of treatment for offenders.
Fifty-five percent of stalking is perpetrated by ex-intimate partners, said Charleston. But, according to one academic report, there are several types of stalkers.
These include the “resentful stalker,” someone who feels they’ve been wronged by their victim, and the “incompetent suitor,” someone who tries to create a relationship but doesn’t understand refusal.
Based on their stalker “type,” perpetrators may be referred by STAC for mental health treatment, drug and alcohol programs, and could receive help with assistance for housing and jobs.
Allegations dealt with improperly
Police action to combat stalking has repeatedly fallen short, according to anti-stalking charities, researchers and victims.
Broadly journalist Sirin Kale revealed police failures to protect victims after 23-year-old Molly McLaren was stabbed 75 times by an ex-boyfriend in 2017. According to Kale, 14 out of the UK’s 45 police forces did not respond to her requests for information.
The lack of a legal definition for stalking and police failures to identify it have also prevented dangerous stalkers from prosecution, said Jan Berry, a retired police officer who works with victim support charity Protection Against Stalking.
Too often police forces in the UK are not identifying stalking, Berry said. “They might identify harassment, but where harassment stops and stalking starts is this obsessional and fixative behavior. If you don’t pick that up, if you’re not asking the right questions, you won’t be able to put in the level of support and protection that person needs.”
Police can respond to allegations of stalking by issuing a harassment notice, known as a Police Information Notice (PIN). But a joint report in July 2017 by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and the Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate disputed the effectiveness of PINs and recommended that police should stop using them immediately.
The report also criticized the Crown Prosecution Service’s response to stalking cases, saying they were routinely badly handled and recorded incorrectly. Complaints of stalking were often not investigated or dismissed as not serious.
The gap between the number of stalking cases reported and those that have led to convictions is vast. According to 2018 figures, the number of recorded offences of stalking trebled from 2,882 in 2014-2015 to 10,214 in 2017-2018.
At the same time, the number of people convicted has decreased significantly from 49 percent in 2014-2015 to 30 percent in 2016-2017.
But proposals like STAC are under scrutiny from critics who told to WikiTribune they risk “forgetting” victims.
“If all [victims] see is perpetrators being given this support, it just reinforces their feelings of being a victim,” said former police officer Jan Berry.
Berry, who produced a government report in 2009 on reducing bureaucracy in policing, told WikiTribune that while “you have to support” perpetrator programs to stop reoffending, the new approach falls short.
“The Met Police are not going to prevent stalking on their own…It will need people working together,” she said.
“They have to work in conjunction with all the other professionals and all the other agencies, and with charities as well to identify stalking early on, give the victims the support and safety that they require, and the direction that perpetrators require, to maybe change their behaviors.”
Last year, the families of two women who were murdered by abusive ex-partners launched a petition to set up a Stalkers Register, a database of men who have been convicted of stalking that campaigners say would protect victims. It received nearly 160,000 signatures and was debated in the House of Lords, parliament’s upper house, but failed to convince ministers. Anti-stalking charities like Paladin Service, which advocates for the launch of a Stalkers Register, say it could save lives.
Currently there are no known plans to publish a legal definition of stalking or institute a Stalkers Register. The College of Policing is drawing up new guidelines on harassment notices and how police should deal with cases, but publication has been repeatedly delayed.
The Metropolitan Police declined WikiTribune’s request for comment.