Officers urged to 'trust stalking victims'
Police officers need to have a better understanding of the risks stalkers can pose to their victims, ACPO's lead for stalking and harassment has urged.
Garry Shewan, an assistant chief constable with Greater Manchester Police, said one of the difficulties with tackling stalking is that it is not defined in law and there is no specific stalking offence.
He said stalking often got 'lost in the system' and could prove difficult because it was not defined by the actions of the offender but by the reaction of the victim.
'What we are trying to do is ensure officers understand that just by asking what the offender has done does not necessarily help the officer understand the level of risk,' he said.
He warned that the past 10 years were 'littered' with victims of stalking who have lost their lives, including Rana Faruqui, who was murdered in 2003 by a former boyfriend who stalked her and received a life sentence, and Clare Bernal, who was murdered by a stalker in 2005.
'If we had understood the level of risk at an earlier stage and put decisive action in place to protect the victim we may have been able to protect lives better,' he said.
Mr Shewan said the victim's first experience with the police was critical in establishing trust and warned that many victims of stalking tended to underplay the risk to their safety rather than overplay it.
'If a victim of stalking believes they are at risk then look further because there is a likelihood that there is a risk there,' he warned officers. 'Believe the victim, listen to the victim and let the victim lead the investigation because that is what is going to protect lives.'
A group of psychologists have designed a set of questions to help police officers and staff assess a victim's level of risk, such as 'is the victim very frightened?', 'has the stalker engaged other people to help him or her?' and 'has the stalker turned up unannounced more than three times a week?'
The first dedicated helpline for people affected by stalking or harassment opened in April and the Crown Prosecution Service released new guidance on stalking in September to emphasise the existence and widespread nature of stalking as a particular category of harassment.
Mr Shewan said the police service also had to recognise that the internet has given 'additional tools' to stalkers. Stalkers are finding it easier to find telephone numbers, friends, new addresses and work places from social networking sites, he said.
Mr Shewan was talking to Police Review following a stalking prevention event in London last Thursday (9 December), where single points of contacts from forces across England and Wales met to discuss the next steps in protecting victims of stalking.
Published in Police Review online Thursday 16th December 2010.
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