You wouldn’t warn a burglar so why are perpetrators of stalking and harassment warned?

Firstly, please let me start off by saying this is my first blog, so please bear with me! I do not profess to be a writer, so any constructive feedback will be welcomed. As it states on my website, (www.abusefreelife.com) my objective is to assist victims of abuse directly or indirectly and I hope my blog will assist with this. More of this shortly


Secondly, I am proud of having been a being police officer for over 28 years retiring from the service in 2016. Being a police officer or a member of police staff is a difficult and tough job but generally a rewarding one, despite the horrible incidents you must deal with, the abuse you put up with, the injuries you receive and the lives that are lost despite trying your hardest not to lose any. I was not alone in the type of work I dealt with. Many of my colleagues dealt with similar incidents and those officers still serving still must. Quite rightly I worked hard and like the vast majority of police officers and police staff that I worked with over that time they joined the organisation (as I did) to help victims and to do a good job. I have also worked with many other organisations who are there to help people and like the police many of those professionals also joined to assist victims. Did I always get things right? Sadly no. Do they always get things right? Again, sadly no. For example, I reflect on the way I dealt with domestic abuse incidents when I was a young officer and despite trying my best, I did what I did based on my own life experiences and with little or no training around such complex issues. Did I want to do things correctly? Of course, do other professionals? Of course. Why do I raise this? I raise it because none of my blogs should be seen as "bashing" the professionals. Having worked until recently in the police service, I personally know how busy professionals are and how the public expect that those same professionals should be experts in everything. Sadly, it just cannot happen, they would never be out of the classroom. That being said, there is always room for improvement and improvement there must be. You can’t go back and change the past, so look to the future and don’t make the same mistake twice.


Bearing in mind my background and what I continue to do now, it will not surprise you to know that I believe the priority of all agencies should be to protect the vulnerable. Victims and the media quite rightly castigate services for the way victims have been dealt with by professionals and quite rightly so on many occasions. Victims have been let down. I am not making excuses for that but what I do know is that without proper advice, guidance and training is it any wonder agencies do not always get it right? Knowledge, understanding and training is key.


You will often hear me say to professionals that I train in areas of abuse;


“Unfortunately, there are more perpetrators of abuse than people trying to help victims of abuse. However, I like to think that those of us that are trying to help are smarter than the perpetrators and by working together whether as individuals, charities or other organisations and using the skills and expertise that we all hold, then one day abuse can be defeated. It may be a long way away, but we must try.”


Hopefully then my blogs will serve to assist victims directly by giving them information and raising awareness whilst helping them indirectly by assisting the agencies and professionals who assist victims of abuse whether that be the police or other agencies.


So, Blog number 1. Here goes;


You wouldn’t warn a burglar so why are perpetrators of stalking and harassment warned?


Many of us are lucky enough to wake up in the morning and can think about what we are going to do next month and next year and plan what we are going to do or where we may go on holiday for instance. Sadly, victims of abuse wake up each morning wondering how they are going to keep themselves safe and/or their children safe, that day. Not next week or next month or next year, just that day. They are not able to think past the “here and now”. Horrendous, it is absolutely horrendous!


If you are a professional reading this and you deal with victims of abuse and you have never been a victim of abuse, this is very hard to understand but understand it we must to ensure victims are properly safeguarded and perpetrators are dealt with properly and appropriately.


Context


For the year ending 31st March 2016, The Crime Survey of England and Wales estimated that 15 percent of adults aged 16 to 59 had been victims of some stalking and/or harassment behaviours since the age of 16. Of these, 54% of the stalking crimes in the 12 months to 31st March 2016 were domestic abuse related and therefore there is a clear evidence that shows a link between coercive control, stalking and harassment. Indeed the 2015 Coercion and Control legislation effectively mirrors nearly word for word the 2012 Stalking legislation and for good reason.




Please note the word “behaviours” above. I say this because police officers (and indeed many other agencies be they the Crown Prosecution Service, Social Care, Health etc.) will only look for substantive offences that they know about, can prove and understand. They do not always look for those behaviours that are having the greatest mental and psychological impact on the victim and because they don’t look for these or understand them in the context of what is going on the problems then start to spiral out of control further for the victim and the victim is not properly protected and safeguarded. Research in 2015 by SafeLives (a national Domestic Abuse charity) showed that 85% of victims of domestic abuse sought help on average five times from professionals in the year before they got effective help to stop the abuse. Five times!


So, what can be done when a victim contacts the police or other agency?


For a victim of abuse to report abuse to the authorities is a very difficult thing to do (a whole separate blog post) but when they do I can virtually guarantee it will not have been the first incident or behaviour. Indeed, if it is domestic abuse related then the research by SafeLives from 2015 shows there will have been on average 50 incidents before the victim is able to report the matter.


Now my advice is, that you must approach every incident that is reported to you with an open mind. However, whilst taking this into account, when it comes to domestic abuse and coercion control you must realise that there could have been up to 50 incidents even before the victim picks up the phone to a service and reports it. (For stalking then for 77% of victims, Dr. Lorraine Sheridan’s research showed 100 incidents). Why do they do it then? because for the victim, they are in real crisis at that point and need help. They have been dealing with the abuse and risk themselves up to that point but now they need to see the cavalry come charging over the hill, the need to be listened to, they need to be believed and their real worries and concerns validated.


Therefore, it is vitally important that agencies firstly listen to the victim and gather all the information by asking right and proper questions. Secondly, they must look at all the incidents/behaviours (including the minor ones and those that seem benign and harmless to the professional but are not to the victim) and then ascertain whether there is a course of conduct. Professionals must stop treating incidents as a single event and look for the patterns of behaviour.


What is a course of conduct?


A course of conduct must involve conduct that on at least two occasions, leads to the victim being alarmed or distressed. The defence in law to harassment is whether a reasonable person in possession of the same information would think the course of conduct amounted to harassment of the other.


Professionals must also remember that unlike most other crimes, stalking, harassment and coercive control is ongoing. It’s really important to monitor the case to see if the behaviour from the perpetrator continues even when they are dealing with it. In other words, it needs to be kept under constant review as does any Risk Management Plan that is attached to the enquiry after a Risk Assessment has been completed. Best practice (joint inspection report by the HMIC and HMCPSI, “Living in Fear – The Police and CPS response to harassment and stalking”) states that a DASH Risk Assessment should be completed for all harassment, stalking and domestic abuse cases. The S-DASH should additionally be used for stalking cases. Whilst not all the questions will be relevant to victims of non-domestic abuse harassment and stalking completing the DASH enables consistent information to be gathered and therefore a detailed view of all the risks to the victim.


Finally, and of vital and critical importance, professionals need to put the incidents and behaviours into context for that victim. What might seem to be inconsequential to the professional dealing with the case, will certainly not be to the victim whose life is potentially being torn apart by the behaviours. These can include behaviours that are occurring online and are often in the public domain via social media websites. e.g. two twitter messages directed to an individual (victim) that perpetrator knows or ought to know amounts to harassment which causes the victim, alarm or distress.


That brings me back to the question in the title, you wouldn’t warn a burglar so why are we warning perpetrators of stalking and harassment?


This was a question I would sometime ask police officers as a DCI when I reviewed, and dip sampled crimes of harassment and other offences they were investigating, when I found that a written warning (a PIN (Police Information Notice) had been issued. A PIN informed the perpetrator that should they continue with their actions (which were causing harassment, alarm and distress to the victim) then a prosecution would follow. My findings were that on most occasions, where a PIN had been issued to the suspect, it had been issued inappropriately. Indeed, the matter had generally been crimed incorrectly as harassment when it was a stalking offence. On occasions, the PIN had been issued more than once. In effect, giving the perpetrator not just one warning but two, despite a continuing course of conduct.


Additionally, in my experience even when a harassment or a stalking file was submitted correctly to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) the CPS would often not continue a prosecution without first asking whether a PIN had been given to the suspect and if it hadn’t they would return the file. This, even though PINs had no legal or statutory basis. Additionally, victims themselves were also under the impression that a PIN had some form of legal authority, and that to breach a PIN was a further crime and a further extension in the harassment and stalking and that would therefore lead to an arrest and positive action.


All in all, PINs were bad news.


The PIN is dead, long live the robust investigation!


I was personally delighted when “Living in Fear” was published in late July 2017 because it echoed exactly what I had been saying for some time, (and indeed had stated as a guest speaker at a Stalking Conference in London just a couple of weeks before the release of the report) that the police should stop using PINs or their equivalents immediately.


Just over one year on and most police services have stopped using the PIN. Great news! Alas not, because increasingly I am aware of incidents where the perpetrators are now receiving a verbal warning or a written warning letter instead.


These verbal warnings or letters are given to the perpetrator instead of a robust investigation being conducted. As a result, positive action is not being taken despite there being a course of conduct of unwanted communications and contact upon a victim in a manner that could be expected to cause distress or fear by any reasonable person. This therefore causes further fear and distress for a victim. Additionally, if the correct action is not taken in terms of recognising the seriousness of the harassment offending police powers are limited, including search powers, victims are not protected by bail conditions and the powers of the court to sentence will be limited, victims may not be referred to specialist support services, the nature of the offending may not be fully understood and therefore the risks to the victim will not be understood and also there is likely to be inadequate provision of victim support services.


In effect, despite the good work by the joint inspection around PINs, we are back at square one unless changes to policy and procedures are made and made soon. You could argue we have taken two steps back if only a verbal warning is given. In my view, this generally isn’t about professionals taking the easy option, it’s about a lack of knowledge. This is why face to face training is of necessary in these areas of harassment and stalking.


What should be done?


1. If the police receive an initial report and the victim tells you they are afraid, alarmed or distressed and it is not the first time an incident or behaviour has occurred and that the incidents (two or more) are a course of conduct then a crime should be recorded. The National Crime Recording Standards of 2018 state that “a belief by the victim (or a person reasonably assumed to be acting on behalf of the victim) that a crime has occurred is usually sufficient to justify its recording.”

Remember the 50 and 100 figures from the SafeLives and Dr. Sheridan’s research? It is highly unlikely to be the first time an incident or behaviour has occurred.


2. Once a crime is recorded a warning or a warning letter should not be issued instead what should happen is,


3. the risk to the victim and others should be assessed via a DASH and S-DASH if relevant.


4. A Risk Management Plan should be completed to remove or reduce risks as identified by the Risk Assessment


5. Victim is to be kept updated and informed as outlined in the Victim Codes of 2015


6. A robust investigation should be completed and where the evidence allows positive action should be taken against the perpetrator.


7. Once completed statutory charging procedures should be followed in line with the 2018 Protocol on the appropriate handling of stalking or harassment

offences between the National Police Chiefs’ Council and the Crown

Prosecution Service.


If further harassment or stalking continues prior to dealing with the suspect, whilst the suspect is on police bail for harassment or stalking offences or, following No Further Action after an interview under caution, then further investigation should be completed, evidence seized, and relevant statements taken to evidence the ongoing harassment or stalking. In effect it is additional evidence of the original behaviours. They should not be dealt with in isolation.


If the police receive an initial report and the victim tells them they are afraid, alarmed or distressed and it is the first time an incident or behaviour has occurred then clearly there would be no course of conduct. This would be the one and only time where words of advice could be considered. Clearly, this needs to be documented by way of a notebook entry, an endorsement of the log that is created when the victim calls, and the intelligence systems updated so should there be a further incident (course of conduct) it can be followed up quickly and knowledge of the background will be available to an officer that is given the investigation to investigate.


What are the benefits of a robust investigation?


The benefits of a thorough investigation are that the risks to victims are better assessed, understood and therefore managed. More perpetrators are brought to justice and victims are better protected by bail conditions and restraining orders.


In my experience the longer you spend on an investigation the more you see what the victim has been trying to tell you all along. So as professionals we need to take off our “work” heads and try to understand by walking in the shoes of the victim. Be under no illusion however that this is very difficult to do if you’ve been fortunate never to have been a victim of abuse. But by trying to walk in the victim’s shoes, by imagining waking up in the morning and all you think about how you are going to make yourself and your children safe that day, then (and only then) will we start to see the whole picture. Once we do that, then we don’t discount and downgrade, we deal correctly, we thoroughly investigate, we locate the suspect (from the police perspective), take positive action and prosecute. So, let’s please stop giving warnings to perpetrators of harassment and stalking and instead investigate thoroughly. By doing this, the law and society does what it is supposed to do, it protects the victims.


John Trott

www.abusefreelife.com


John has delivered Stalking Investigative SPOC training to a number of Police Forces in 2018. Details can be found at www.abusefreelife.com



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