“Stalking victim Helen Pearson rejects police apology over stabbing.”
“She had made 125 reports to Devon and Cornwall Police.”
– BBC News, 29 June 2017
The current and past practice of dealing with cases of stalking and harassment is failing both victims and perpetrators and contains important lessons. The recent cases of Shana Grice, Bijan Ebrahimi and Molly McLaren in the U.K. and of Lauren McCluskey in the U.S. are unfortunate illustrations of why the current practice of dealing with serious stalking and harassment behaviors is inadequate and why random police officers should stop having to play a role in mental health assessments. These four individuals were all murdered by their stalkers/harassers.
Each of these victims had contacted police. Shana Grice was subsequently fined for having wasted police time (see for example BBC News, 2017a), in spite of the fact that the man who ended up killing her previously been reported to police by thirteen other victims (Roberts, 2017). Police victimized Bijan Ebrahimi in a gross case of discrimination (see for example BBC News, 2017b and Morris, 2017, 2018). In the case of Molly McLaren, a police officer may have unwittingly provoked the murder as well have missed the stalker’s announcement of that murder (see for example Harrison, 2018; BBC News, 2018). In the case of Shana Grice, her stalker had indicated that something was wrong with him and that he might need “to be locked up or something” (Le Duc, 2017). In the case of Lauren McCluskey, the required IT expertise was not at hand. That expertise could have identified her stalker as the sender of various spoofed communications timely, which might have saved her life (Anderson, 2018).
These four cases alone highlight the main cause of the problem. Random police officers lack the expertise needed to assess such cases (in the area of mental health and IT).
Unfortunately, there have been many more cases. Alice Ruggles was killed by her ex-boyfriend days after she reported him to police for stalking (Wilford, 2017) and Helen Pearson was stabbed in the face and neck after 125 reports of stalking she made to police (Bulman, 2017a).
2. Status quo
When a stalking victim in Britain goes to the local police station, usually a version of the following happens. The current practice in other countries is likely not very different. The officer at the desk will respond with what comes across as boredom and/or annoyance (certainly when compared against the response police officers give when someone claims to have a tip about ongoing money-laundering).
If the victim is persistent, a police officer may tell the victim to be prudent and to try and take a photo of the stalker. If the victim brings any evidence along, the police officer will take this at face value and assess it without any applicable knowledge. A print of an e-mail, whether genuine or faked, is likely to be accepted because it can be scanned. Anything that cannot be scanned is only likely to be lost (according to an officer on duty at Southampton’s central police station). The police officer may tell the victim to call police if the victim is being attacked (also if the victim’s phone has been hacked and the victim may not even be able to make such a call). He or she may also tell the victim frankly that investigating stalking takes up too many resources, particularly when digital technology is involved, but that honesty is still much better than offering the victim false reassurances or giving her the impression that the officer in question is dismissing the victim’s report.
The police officer may also advise the victim to go to the location where the first report was filed, if an earlier report was filed, stating that it is not possible for police to access the information on the computer system. If the victim, who may have to wait a long time to be able to scrape the travel sum together, finally makes it to the police station in the other town, the officer at that desk may refer the victim back to the police station in the town where the victim just came from.
What can also happen is that a police officer at a main police station advises a stalking victim to do her or his own investigating if the identity of the stalker is not known. If the victim follows up on this, however, it may then prompt officers at another, smaller station in the same town to inquire as to what the victim is doing as those officers seem to have no knowledge at all of the communications between victim and officers at the desk of the main police station. In fact, even at the same station as where the advice is given, other police officers at the same desk may be completely unaware of that advice and the request to report back to police, causing them to ask the victim why she keeps handing in reports. This lack of coordination or access to their own files was also a problem in for example the cases of Shana Grice, and possibly also in the case of Katrina Makunova.
Doing one’s own investigating can pose risks to the victim, as 1) the stalker or someone in the stalker’s environment may respond with anger and 2) the stalker or someone in the stalker’s environment may report the victim for criminal harassment and may leave the victim with a criminal record. The victim is unlikely to be aware of the details of the applicable legislation that do allow a victim to carry out such activities. A duty solicitor may well choose to disregard the applicable details of the law that allow the victim to engage in a behavior for the sake of stopping or detecting crime (at least in England and Wales) for the sake of his or her time management.
In the interactions between victims and police officers, police officers may come across as considering themselves experts in the areas of IT, mental health and stalking techniques as well as stalkers’ motives. In reality, however, most police officers have no more knowledge of these areas than a typical industrious takeaway owner without website or the average homeless drug addict.
Police officers for example tend to assume that stalkers always contact their victims under their own names. In reality, some stalkers may even sometimes deliberately hand police officers proof of their activities, safe in the knowledge that the police officers will not recognize it as such. In the U.K., particularly the work of Sheridan and coworkers (e.g., Boon and Sheridan, 2001) should be well known among police forces, yet does not appear to be at all.
In the U.K., a possible reason for much of the present problem may be a relatively recent update in legislation, which on the one hand was a positive development, but on the other hand results in police officers now often being confronted with many reports of “he said she said” interactions that may not pose a threat to anyone and getting snowed under by them. Police officers often have to follow up on these simpler complaints because these cases tend to offer a relatively high degree of clarity. Alleged victim and alleged perpetrator are clear, names and addresses often known, so in practice, police officers will often have no choice but to assume that the reported stalking and/or harassment is a legitimate complaint and travel to the alleged offender’s address to deliver a written warning, without having to do any investigation or verification.
I can set up an e-mail account under someone else’s name, send myself a horrible e-mail, print it, take it to a police station and it is likely to be accepted as evidence of someone else having sent me a horrible e-mail. Depending on the exact nature of the e-mail, an officer will then be dispatched to the home of someone else, who did not actually send that e-mail and who will not even get to see a copy of the email but will receive a warning.
In some cases, police officers decide to target the victim after he or she contacted the police, perhaps because they are of the opinion that the victim’s age or physique makes it unlikely that he or she is being stalked and suspect that the opposite is the case.
In summary, going to the police tends to victimize victims of serious cases of stalking further. Firstly, because the victims feel not heard and secondly, because when a stalker becomes aware of the fact that the victim has contacted the police, the stalker may become enraged as a result and subsequently feel empowered upon the discovery that police are not responding to the victim’s complaints. In some cases, stalkers even have friends among police officers. Thus, victims of severe forms of stalking may struggle for years or be murdered by their stalkers soon after. At the moment, the best advice to victims is to refrain from contacting police at all in any cases of stalking and harassment, but instead to relocate immediately and start living under an assumed name. Unfortunately, none of us know how stalking begins if we have never been stalked before. It is neither logical nor feasible to expect everyone to be a possible stalker.
A “joint report by the Inspectorate of Constabulary and the CPS released in July 2018 looked at 112 cases of stalking in England and Wales and found that not one of them had been dealt with properly” (Ditum, 2018; HMIC, 2017).
3. Proposal for solutions
Investigating stalking should not be a standard police matter at all. Instead, I argue for the establishment of independent national organizations, which have teams containing specialized IT professionals, specialized psychologists and psychiatrists as well as experienced specialized investigators. Ideally, this would have the following advantages:
Reported cases of stalking can be swiftly and accurately assessed for their risk levels (triage, for example according to Sheridan’s classification).
Professional mediation can take place. Some police stations have posters on the wall about organizations who can mediate in cases in which people with certain learning disabilities engage in behaviors that pose no risk but are experienced as puzzling, worrisome or upsetting by others and reported as stalking.
Individuals at risk of committing serious crimes are not ignored, as happened in the case of Shana Grice, but receive the assistance they need.
It would take a big load off the police forces, would put a stop to the large effort currently taken up by “he said she said” reports and the resulting mental fatigue among police officers.
It would result in a much more effective use of the funds that are currently associated with all reports of stalking and harassment.
It could save lives, both of victims and of offenders.
These teams might have to acquire the power to add various types of brain scans to the practice of taking DNA and fingerprints (standard in England and Wales), as individuals who may be more likely to engage in serious stalking behaviors, such as those with a narcissistic personality disorder or with antisocial personality disorder (“psychopaths”), have structural brain differences. Not only could this help in the assessment of the risk in individual cases, it could also stop potential offenders from becoming actual offenders, as it might enable them to receive timely specialized support. Health care for such brain-related conditions and other mental health conditions lags behind considerably on health care for physical conditions.
There are obvious ethical issues attached. However, while it may not be possible to support some offenders or potential offenders, perhaps notably those who have these structural brain difference without having experienced abuse, it may be possible to do something for those whose brains developed abnormally as a result of childhood abuse. As it is already standard police practice in many jurisdictions to take DNA and fingerprints from possible offenders (including people who may well be innocent), the step to scans may not be as large as it may initially seem.
In one of the afore-mentioned cases, the offender had indicated that something was wrong with him and in one other case, the offender killed himself after having murdered his victim.
Sheridan and her coworkers (e.g., Boon and Sheridan, 2001) examined a number of stalking cases, but mainly focused on the offenses as experienced by the victims. Part of their description of sadistic stalking is that these offenders seek out victims who at the beginning of the stalking are considered happy, “good”, stable, and content and seem “worthy of spoiling”.
This also points at another way in which police officers currently victimize victims of serious stalking further. In a way, they hold victims responsible for not knowing how to deal with a stalker, and for doing what he or she can in order to make his or her own life as livable as possible in the presence of stalking, which can include negotiating with a stalker, as this would be a normal behavior in normal circumstances, or attempting to find out who or what they are dealing with in the first place. Police also sometimes seem to blame the victim for not having recognized that someone was a potential stalker and (almost) for not having relocated instantly upon having met the person in question, in spite of the fact that this person may have been a stranger who the victim had not even met in person. Finally, the immense stress stalking victims experience, particularly when they are not heard by police and perhaps in particular when the stalking occurs anonymously can cause victims to act out, potentially leading to further victimization by police. Here too, having specialized teams deal with all cases of stalking could make a major difference.
It might also be a good idea to start local groups for stalking victims, in which they can support each other and prevent the isolation as well as ameliorate feelings of vulnerability that are common among stalking victims. While it may in first instance sound regrettable to put some of the onus on victims, the potential benefits for them far outweigh the downsides. The powerlessness experienced by stalking victims could be greatly reduced this way and lead to actual empowerment, with women educating each other on best practices, for example for women who run their own businesses and therefore have to be active and visible online.
Apparently, 1 in 5 women in Britain will get stalked in her lifetime, and 1 in 10 men. Based on data from a Crime Survey for England and Wales in combination with data from a study by Sheridan and coworkers (Boon and Sheridan, 2001), I arrived at a number of up to roughly 45 women being subjected to sadistic stalking in a town like Portsmouth (Hampshire, England), which has a little over 200,000 inhabitants.
According to National Stalking Advocacy Service Paladin, “data from the Crime Survey of England and Wales shows up to 700, 000 women are stalked each year (2009-12)”. If 12.9% of those cases concern sadistic stalking, as in Sheridan’s study, that could include 90,300 victims of sadistic stalking, then. The size of the combined populations of England (53.01 million in 2011) and Wales (approximately 3,063,456 in 2011) was 56,063,456. 700,000 stalked women represent a little over 1% of that total population, but that population also contains minors and men. So let’s say that about 0.5% of women are stalked. (This excludes stalking that is 100% cyberstalking.) For this calculation, I assumed that stalking is distributed evenly across the geography, which it won’t be.
Portsmouth’s population in 2010 was 207,100; its working-age population was 145,000. If I take 50% of that as the number of women, I end up with up to about 360 stalked women in Portsmouth alone. If 12.9% of those cases concern sadistic stalking, as in Sheridan’s study, then about 45 women in Portsmouth were targeted by sadistic stalkers in 2010/2011.
What this means in practice, is that the numbers of local victims appear to be sufficiently high for local victims’ self-support groups to have the potential to make a real difference. For starters, it could help victims break out of the isolation they are often backed into.
4. Cost aspects
Clearly, establishing a new agency that deals exclusively with cases of stalking and harassment would require funds. However, this could likely be simply a matter of reallocating funds that are currently spent by police forces on such cases. The 2017 report (HMIC, 2017) did not include budget data. (I e-mailed a request for information on this, but I did not receive a response.) As the police forces would be able to function much more efficiently from that point on, working on other types of crimes, and the new agency would undoubtedly be much more effective, the establishment of such an agency also makes sense from a budget perspective.
Victims of serious stalking and harassment are currently often left in the cold, along with offenders who require help. Investigating stalking should not be a police matter, but should become the task of specialized national organizations with teams of specialists in IT, psychology, psychiatry and investigative techniques. This would unburden police forces, should stop some potential offenders from becoming offenders who in the current situation go on to become or continue to be offenders and should prevent that some victims are either murdered or have their lives ripped apart. Local support groups in which victims join hands might go a long way toward undoing some of the damage stalking can do to victims.
Anderson, J.L. (2018) Melvin Rowland and the criminal justice system – Report of investigative review. Utah Department of Public Safety, State Bureau of Investigation. https://dpsnews.utah.gov/wp-content/uploads/sites/37/2018/12/18INV0680-Redacted-Exec-Summary.pdf
BBC News (2017a) Shana Grice suspect ‘broke in to watch her sleep’. BBC News. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-sussex-39218705
BBC News (2017b) Bijan Ebrahimi murder: ‘Institutional racism’ by council and police. BBC News. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-bristol-42393488
BBC News (2017c) Shana Grice murder: Stalker ex-boyfriend jailed for life. BBC News. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-sussex-39363003
BBC News. (2018) Molly McLaren trial: Joshua Stimpson jailed for murder. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-kent-42947446
BBC News (2019) Katrina Makunova killing: Police probed over victim’s allegations. BBC News. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-46829319
Boon, J.C.W. and Sheridan, L. (2001). Stalker typologies: A law enforcement perspective. Journal of Threat Assessment, 1, 75-97.
Bulman, M. (2017a) Stalking victim rejects police apology over stabbing after making 125 reports before the attack. The Independent. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/stalking-victim-police-apology-stabbing-125-reports-attack-helen-pearson-devon-cornwall-a7815061.html
Bulman, M. (2017b) Victims of stalking being ‘let down’ by police, report warns. The Independent. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/stalking-victims-let-down-by-police-report-her-majestys-inspectorate-of-constabulary-a7824621.html
Ditum, S. (2018) A joint report by the Inspectorate of Constabulary and the CPS released last July looked at 112 cases of stalking and found that not one of them had been dealt with properly. The Independent. https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/molly-mclaren-stalking-joshua-stimpson-stabbed-theodore-johnson-cps-a8198836.html
Hampshire Constabulary (2017) Stalking Clinic highlighted as Best Practice by HMIC. https://www.hampshire-pcc.gov.uk/stalking-clinic-highlighted-best-practice
Harrison, W. (2018) A timeline of the Molly McLaren murder case – everything we know so far. Kent Live News. https://www.kentlive.news/news/kent-news/timeline-molly-mclaren-murder-case-1126035
HMIC (2017) Living in fear – the police and CPS response to harassment and stalking. A joint inspection by HMIC and HMCPSI. ISBN: 978-1-78655-414-7. HMIC, 114 pages. https://www.justiceinspectorates.gov.uk/hmicfrs/news/news-feed/victims-of-harassment-and-stalking-left-at-risk-by-the-police-and-crown-prosecution-service/
Le Duc, F. (2017) I’m just not right in the head’ – jury hears recording of Portslade murder defendant apologise to victim. Brighton and Hove News. https://www.brightonandhovenews.org/2017/03/09/im-just-not-right-in-the-head-jury-hears-recording-of-portslade-murder-defendant-apologise-to-victim/
Levenson, E. and Johnston, C. (2018) Utah student’s 911 calls asked police to stop her harasser. Days later she was murdered. CNN. https://edition.cnn.com/2018/12/25/us/utah-student-killed-911-lauren-mccluskey/index.html
Morris, S. (2017) Police failed to protect Bijan Ebrahimi prior to his murder, IPCC says. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/jul/05/police-failure-protect-bijan-ebrahimi-murder-ipcc
Morris, S. (2018) Council officials face investigation over Bijan Ebrahimi case. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/jan/15/council-officials-face-investigation-over-bijan-ebrahimi-case
Murdock, S. (2019) Lauren McCluskey Sought Help Against A Dangerous Man. She Still Died. The Huffington Post US. https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/lauren-mccluskey-university-of-utah-domestic-violence_us_5c268d9ee4b08aaf7a905aef
Paladin, National Stalking Advocacy Service Paladin. Key facts and figures. https://paladinservice.co.uk/key-facts-and-figures/
Roberts, R. (2017) Ex-boyfriend who murdered Shana Grice ‘stalked 13 other young women and girls but police took no action’. The Independent. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/shana-grice-murder-michael-lane-ex-boyfriend-stalking-other-women-sussex-police-ipcc-a7709636.html
Wilford, G. (2017) Man murdered ex-girlfriend days after she reported him to police for stalking. The Independent. https://www.indeclpendent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/soldier-trimaan-harry-dhillon-murder-ex-girlfriend-alice-ruggles-report-police-stalking-gateshead-a7706266.html