Why Are The Police Still Failing Women Who Are Being Stalked?

Cyberstalking is now more common than physical harassment - so why aren't police would take it more seriously?

Why Are The Police Still Failing Women Who Are Being Stalked?

by Georgia Aspinall |
Published on

Stalking is a dulled-down word, much like anxiety and depression, the true meaning has been lost as we overuse the verb in informal ways. We may think stalking is checking your ex-partner’s social media every once in a while (or every week), or getting lost in a cyber ket-hole ending up on your new boyfriend’s cousin’s ex-girlfriend’s dogs Instagram. In reality, stalking is a much more serious, harrowing crime that despite extensively impacting every aspect of a victim’s life, goes largely unnoticed as a serious offence.

Just last week, Emily Maitlis, BBC Newsnight presenter, made headlines after she opened up about her 20-year stalking experience. Comparing it to a ‘chronic illness’ she told BBC’s Emma Barnett, ‘it makes you jumpy – and that’s stressful and it’s tiring and it’s time-consuming’. Perhaps the most stressful part of dealing with a stalker is just how little control you have to combat it. Police are notoriously slow at handling stalking cases, with online stalking being especially ignored thanks to a flawed legal system that puts abuser’s privacy over victim’s safety.

In a report last year by the HMIC (Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary) and HMCPSI (Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate), every single case of stalking and harassment was mishandled. That’s 112 cases, where every victim felt afraid enough to go the police, only to be failed by the police and Crowns Prosecution Service. In 95% of cases, care for the victims was considered inadequate with 75% not even handled by detectives.

Emily Maitlis could certainly attest to this, having dealt with her stalker for over 20 years, claiming the prosecution process is like ‘bashing your head against a wall’. She told the BBC that while individual officers where attentive, there was little co-ordination between departments:

'You give a statement and you give an impact statement; you've got a prosecution and you've got a custodial sentence, and it's been meted out - and then 12 months later it happens all over again.

'By that time, it's a different policeman or a different investigator or people have changed jobs and somebody turns up at your house and says “Right so what's all this about?” or “Where did it all begin?”, and for somebody who's been through this to have to relive that, it's punishing and it's humiliating.'

Unlike other crimes, for victims of stalking there is a huge burden to provide evidence, consistently report incidents and constantly push the police for further investigation. She continued:

'I think there is clearly a systemic failure in this. So, for example a couple of years' ago, he broke his injunction, and it's my responsibility to then have to sort that out.'

Emily’s stalker was a former friend from Cambridge University and attempted to contact her for 27 years, bombarding her with letters even from inside prison. This daunting experience left her jumpy and fearful of where she could go and what time she would be getting home. Despite this very real threat, police left her unprotected. So, what about all of the cases of online stalking, where police are even less willing and able to protect people?

Ashley* was a victim of online harassment for over two years, with her stalker creating fake accounts of her, spreading rumours to her friends, messaging her parents, sending pictures of her to other men and beyond. Armed with 200 screenshots from one week of stalking, Ashley reported it to the police only to find her case wasn’t taken seriously at all. She said:

‘I guess because the perpetrator is physically removed from their victims’ real life they don’t see the damage.’

‘Precisely because there’s no physical aspect, the authorities just don’t see online harassment as a top priority.'

Considering cyberstalking is now more common than physical harassment, according to the University of Bedfordshire, you would think police would take it more seriously than they do.

So why aren’t the police taking stalking seriously? According to legal expert Rachel Horman, it’s down to a culture of disbelief and victim-blaming within the police that is tantamount to gender-based discrimination. She’s heard police justify stalkers behavior countless times, and where their ignorance results in fatalities, a meaningless apology and promise to do better.

Rachel told The Debrief: ‘I’ve heard the phrase “lessons will be learnt” so many times that it’s meaningless now.

‘Stalking sentences have been increased to 10 years [since she first began campaigning] but that’s not going to be used if the police aren’t getting these cases to court.’

‘I think there’s a cultural problem, there’s a lack of training and that this is a crime that effects women predominantly and [they] don’t seem to be taken as seriously. Stalking, domestic violence, sexual offences, rape, those are the offences that don’t get prosecuted often, it can’t be a coincidence that all of those are the ones where women are the victims predominantly’

Hearing anything described as a cultural problem is immediately heart-sinking. Where it’s cultural, you know it’s so deeply-engrained that there’s little hope for change. It’s because of this very reason that Rachel believes the police need to be held accountable where they fail victims.

‘I think if there were very serious consequences for failings then it would change it really quickly. Officers very rarely lose their jobs in these cases, they get “words of advice” and “training” but if they lost their jobs and in some cases faced a criminal prosecution then that cultural change would happen very quickly.’

At a time when two women a week are murdered as a result of domestic violence and stalking, and a further three will commit suicide, it seems incredulous that the police aren’t held seriously accountable where they are known to have failed victims. And it shouldn’t need to go as far as murder, for that to be the case.

The psychological torture of stalking can be so severe that victims are experiencing serious mental health issues. Rachel can attest to this:

‘I’ve known women who’ve had to leave the country because of it, left their job, had a breakdown, lost their children to social services because they’ve been unable to cope with the behavior.’

The spiraling of your entire life, coupled with the feeling of being ignored by the institution that’s meant to protect you, should surely amount to more than a thinly veiled apology and promise to do better. If this were a few cases over a year, it would be different, but this is a systematic failure. Rachel is adamant of it:

‘Women are losing their lives over this, two women a week are still being murdered by their ex partners and that statistic hasn’t decreased over the last 30 years. Police have had a lot more opportunities to access training and we now a lot more about it but that statistic hasn’t changed.’

Thirty plus years of ignorance, of brushing aside crimes that impact thousands of women every year because of an entrenched sexism that perpetuates the view that women are liars, over-sensitive, or as if we owe something to men- as if they are somehow entitled to treat us however they want. When you look at everything else going on in the world right now, it seems naïve to have not realised this is anything other than another case where women are treated as less deserving of respect than men.

It is past due that stalking is taken seriously as a crime. Theresa May has pledged to review stalking legislation, and while there’s no concrete evidence of this yet we can hope that if it becomes apparent, police officers facing punishments for their failings will be on the agenda.

Until then, you can help campaign with Paladin, National Stalking Advocacy Service, to ensure that the fight doesn’t die when the story of Emily Maitlis is out of the press.

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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