Victims of harassment and stalking are being left at risk because of failings by police and prosecutors in England and Wales, say two watchdogs.
Crimes were not being recorded, said a report by the Inspectorate of Constabulary and the Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate.
It also said too many investigations were poorly run and failed to give victims legal protection.
Police and prosecution chiefs have pledged to improve performance.
Stalking and harassment cases were often misunderstood, despite powers being available to protect victims, the inspectors said.
The report also said police officers would fail to recognise repeated signs of a stalker, by treating each complaint in isolation rather than being part of a pattern.
That, in turn, meant police and prosecutors did not see the bigger picture and appreciate the full scale of the harm being suffered by the victim.
According to a report on the authorities’ response to stalking, victims have faced stalking and harassment in their homes, at work, and on social media.
It says one threat made to a victim stated that: “I will stay in your life forever… I will make sure nothing in your life or your family’s ever runs smoothly”.
One victim told a researcher: “And it got to the point where I actually said to me mum one night that ‘Do you know what? I’m going to be a story in the newspaper. I’m going to be another one of these girls that gets murdered by her ex’.”
A female bank employee told police that a male stranger kept visiting her at work, leaving gifts and following her after she finished work, to a bus stop – he had acted in a similar way with the victim’s colleague.
The employee was transferred to another bank branch, but the man tracked her down. She then confronted him, and he became angry.
Police did not arrest or interview the man, but instead issued him with a Police Information Notice – a protection order designed to help prevent this type of offence.
But the report said PINs were misused and did not cover all types of offences.
Wendy Williams, who led the inspection for Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, said: “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.
“While we found some evidence that the police and CPS understand the risks of the repeat behaviours… we found worrying failings at every stage, including reporting, investigation and prosecution. Changes need to be made immediately.”
The report calls for:
- A review of the key law on harassment
- More clearly defined offences
- Better risk assessments for victims
- Expanding court orders to cover more circumstances
One procedure used to warn a suspect that they would be prosecuted if they do not stop harassing a victim was found to be so misused that the inspectors said it should be scrapped.
They also warned that a proposed court order to protect victims of stalking would not help victims of harassment, such as people fleeing domestic violence.
What is stalking?
- The report says stalking is “a pattern of unwanted, persistent pursuit and intrusive behaviour… that engenders fear and distress in the victim and is characterised by an obsessive fixation with the victim”.
- It can include following the victim, repeatedly contacting them or trying to do so and monitoring their activity online.
How is harassment different?
- Someone commits a crime of harassment if their behaviour is oppressive or unreasonable to such an extent that it causes alarm or distress, or puts someone in fear of violence.
The Suzy Lamplugh Trust, which runs the National Stalking Helpline, said the failures identified in the report were unacceptable.
And Director of Public Prosecutions Alison Saunders said she would introduce mandatory stalking and harassment training for all prosecutors.
Assistant Chief Constable Garry Sherwan, the National Police Chief Council’s lead for stalking, said: “I will be writing to all chief constables to make sure officers are aware of the powers they have to tackle cases of stalking or harassment and that cases must be recorded and monitored.
“We want to see numbers of people prosecuted for stalking and harassment increase.”