Victims of harassment and stalking left at risk by the police and Crown Prosecution Service
People who have suffered repeated harassment or stalking are frequently being let down by under-recording, inconsistent services and a lack of understanding by the criminal justice system, according to a report published by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) and Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate (HMCPSI) today.
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A joint inspection found that crimes of harassment and stalking were often missed or misunderstood by both the police and Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). As a result, inspectors found cases where offenders were allowed to continue their persecution of victims, or victims were not protected with the powers in place to prevent this kind of personal and persistent crime.
The victims described the lasting and life-changing effects these offences can have – but also said that, all too often, police officers failed to recognise the repeat and targeted actions as a pattern of behaviour, instead treating them as isolated incidents.
HMIC and HMCPSI worked with the University of Worcester to speak to victims and gain an insight into their experiences of harassment and stalking.
One victim told HMIC:
“You carry it all the time. You carry it and it’s with you day in day out. Day in, day out. And you breathe it, and … it’s in the back of your mind all the time, ‘What is he going to do? What are we going to find … Who’s going to come knocking at our door?”
Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary, Wendy Williams, who led the inspection, said:
“We spoke to many victims of harassment and stalking during this inspection and found that these are crimes of persistence and control. Repeat patterns of behaviour can have a devastating effect on a person’s quality of life. Sadly, in the digital world, crimes of harassment and stalking are occurring more frequently.
“Police forces must act quickly to protect victims, including survivors of domestic abuse leaving coercive or controlling relationships. It is not acceptable that victims and their families are left to live in fear, or have to change their lives because of someone else’s behaviour.
“While we found some evidence that the police and CPS understand the risks of the repeat behaviours, as well as some examples of positive practice where victims’ needs were prioritised, we found worrying failings at every stage, including reporting, investigation and prosecution. Changes need to be made immediately and the recommendations in the report should be acted upon without delay to protect victims from further harm.”
Inspectors reviewed 112 cases of stalking and harassment as part of this inspection, examining both police and CPS actions. These were taken from six force and CPS areas across England and Wales. While there was some evidence of good service provided by police or prosecutors, none of these 112 cases was dealt with well overall.
Inspectors found that incidents of harassment and stalking are often dealt with in isolation by both police and prosecutors. As a result, victims are being given varying advice, including in many cases that the individual incidents are not significant. Often, therefore, the severity of the overall situation is overlooked.
While there are powers and protection orders in place to help prevent this kind of offending, such as Police Information Notices (PINs), inspectors found most of these were constantly misused and did not cover all types of offences. These measures also rely on the officer correctly identifying incidents as harassment or stalking – which was found frequently not to be the case.
Forces need to improve their understanding of harassment and stalking. Some of these victims are at considerable risk, and failing to identify and tackle this can have fatal consequences. Police leaders across the service need to grip this issue urgently – especially as the findings came as little surprise to the victims’ groups consulted as part of this work.
Additionally, inspectors found that prosecutors were charging stalking offences as harassment, meaning charges did not reflect the seriousness of the offence and victims were not receiving the support they required. There were also varying practices in different CPS Areas on whether decisions to alter or reduce charges had to be approved by managers.
Chief Inspector for HM Chief Inspector for the Crown Prosecution Service, Kevin McGinty, said:
“There is no doubt that harassment and stalking can cause untold suffering to victims. This report has heard from many of them about the devastating effects it has had on their lives. A number of recommendations have been made to both police and CPS on how they need to improve the way they respond to these crimes.
“While Inspectors found examples of good practice there is still a great deal to be done if victims are to receive the protection existing legislation was intended to give them. One area where the CPS can make a significant difference is to ensure that offences charged reflect the seriousness of the offending more accurately, particularly with regard to stalking. By not doing so, they fail to use all the means available to deal with this damaging and dangerous behaviour.”
In order to be able to give victims the service they deserve, inspectors have made a series of recommendations to the Home Office, the College of Policing and the National Police Chiefs’ Council, as well as forces and the CPS.
The recommendations include carrying out a review of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, making clear the definitions of offences, conducting risk assessments for victims and the extension of prevention orders to help victims.
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- This inspection was conducted by HMIC and HMCPSI.
- The six forces which were included in the inspection were Gwent, Avon and Somerset, Hampshire, Sussex, Durham and Greater Manchester. These forces were inspected in February 2017.
- The CPS areas that were included in the inspection were CPS South West, CPS Wales, CPS South East, CPS Wessex, CPS North East and CPS North West. These areas were also visited in February 2017.
- This is the first time inspectors have carried out inspections of harassment and stalking.
- Recommendations have been made to the Home Office, College of Policing, National Police Chiefs’ Council, Crown Prosecution Service and police forces in England and Wales. A full list of the recommendations is available in the report.
- HMIC is an independent inspectorate, inspecting policing in the public interest. It assesses and reports on the efficiency and effectiveness of police forces to tackle crime and terrorism, improve criminal justice and raise confidence. HMIC inspects all 43 police forces in England and Wales together with other major policing and law enforcement bodies.
- HMCPSI is an independent inspectorate, inspecting the work carried out by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and other prosecuting agencies. The purpose of its work is to enhance the quality of justice and make an assessment of prosecution services that enables or leads to improvement in their efficiency effectiveness and fairness.
- For further information, HMIC’s press office can be contacted from 8:30am – 5:30pm Monday – Friday on 020 3513 0600. HMCPSI’s press office can be contacted from 8:30am – 5:30pm Monday – Friday on 020 7241 2440.
- HMIC’s out-of-hours press office line for urgent media enquiries is 07836 217729. HMCPSI’s out-of-hours pager for urgent media enquiries is 07623 946316.