Written by Katy Bourne

Police & Crime Commissioners have a statutory responsibility for commissioning services to support victims of crime. One aspect that I am particularly proud of in Sussex is our unique approach to commissioning specialist stalking services.

Stalking became a crime in 2012 but, over the next three years, just 240 crimes of stalking were actually recorded by Sussex Police.

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, even when they report incidents, police all too often look for a specific offence rather than joining the dots between reports and recognising a pattern of harmful behaviour.

We still need a cultural change to position stalking as a crime and not as a nuisance - and we most definitely need to train police officers to spot the signs of stalking. Coupled to this, our prosecutors need help to understand the range of offences that a stalker can potentially be committing.

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.

My own experience of stalking over a five year period led me to seek an injunction against a local man. I was fortunate to have excellent advice and support from colleagues but the relentless harassment and the laborious process to get it to stop are very wearing. It is not surprising that I have huge sympathy for other stalking victims. I fully understand their frustration when it appears the system doesn’t respond in a compassionate and constructive way.

Three years ago, my office looked into whether there was a compelling need for a specialist service in Sussex to support local victims of stalking. I commissioned a pilot to prove the service concept and this showed that:

- 100% of service-users were women
- 70% cases were stalked by an ex-intimate partner
- (100% of those ex-intimate partner cases involved children
- 70% of those cases involved Family Court proceedings)
- 30% of people were stalked by so-called strangers
- 50% of cases include police involvement
- 80% cases involve an online (cyber) stalking element
- 12% of cases were signposted in to Veritas Justice locally by Sussex Police
- 20% were signposted to our service by a national Stalking Advocacy Service
- 68% were self-referrals

What was unacceptable to me was that charges were only pursued in one of 21 stalking cases.
It was clear that a comprehensive response was required so I provided a two-year £92.5k grant (co-commissioned with Sussex Police) to fund a local, specialist service provided by Veritas Justice.

Since August last year over 650 police officers and professionals have been trained by Veritas Justice, including 18 prosecutors. 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 police Public Protection Unit and the Force is now better equipped and better trained to recognise and deal with stalking. We also now have in place a multi-agency stalking and harassment governance group.

The results speak for themselves. 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’. 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 officers are misreading patterns of low risk behaviour and missing chances to intervene? What we do know is that we need to raise awareness of stalking with all our statutory agencies and we need to give victims the confidence to report it and more ways to fight back. Unfortunately, prosecution and imprisonment of stalkers often 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.

So 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.