Expert says few common identifiers mark women stalkers as the police are not trained to spot them
If a woman starts worrying about someone following her or sending her harassing text messages, it could be a sign they may be a stalker. But it is rare for the police to recognise them as stalker. Only in cases where they threaten serious harm, including rape, is stalking recognised as a crime. Until recently, it was unclear what constituted stalking, especially in the non-sexual context.
Detective chief inspector Tony Broadhurst, who works for the Metropolitan police in the liaison unit dealing with stalking victims, said it was more difficult for a stalking victim to be helped in a culture where they were presumed to be an “idealist” or looking for sympathy. “Some women are very suspicious about the police,” he said. “The police are not trained in identifying stalking in women.”
A stalking victim’s experience of the police should be a tip-off to victims of stalking to report their case, he said. “The harder the profile, the more likely they are to be able to recognise the behaviour. The victim is at a higher risk of being stalked.”
The difficulties could be highlighted in at least two recent cases. A teacher accused of sexually assaulting students failed to report his concerns about one woman’s behaviour, with police initially not able to find her. He was finally charged with seven counts of sexual assault in November.
The case of a former BBC finance director of 53 years, who had used his position to meet multiple young women, also raised the alarm bells. Police did not detect his appalling behaviour, despite numerous sexual harassment complaints from female employees, an internal investigation and an early conviction for indecency. He died of cancer in May last year, aged 81.
Why do people fear being stalked? Read more
Anyone can be stalked. Suspects are usually stalkers by their choice and not because of a psychological predisposition. But experts say stalkers need boundaries because their behaviour is highly harassing and disruptive.
According to statistics from 2015, the police received 130,903 reports of stalking. However, the actual number of reports is thought to be higher. The Met’s specialist stalking unit has 21 full-time officers and staff, including 12 covert officers.
Most of the cases come from victims telling someone else about it and from police reporting it to the Met. More women than men are victims. There have been seven out of the 38 murders of women and girls in London over the past 18 months committed by a man, according to the Met.
Amanda Hutton, a counsellor who runs Britain’s largest service for women who have been stalked, said: “Women are less likely to tell a friend or family member because they are concerned for them, and they don’t want others to realise what is happening. “People believe it is the women’s fault, that it is their fault that they are following them, not the man’s. We need to change our culture and we need more help.”
Hutton works with victims who live in Blackburn and Bolton and finds that men stalk women there at twice the rate of other areas of the country. “It’s more insidious, it’s not as public as West London,” she said.
Dr Elizabeth Lenni, at the University of Cambridge, is looking at two calls reporting a single stalker. She said one man had known a number of female victims. He was driving at night and had jumped out in front of them. The women recognised the pattern. The incidents continued and he made repeated threats.
“If the same pattern was repeated over and over again,” she said, “that would mean that the stalking is not a single incident.”
Stalking in social media
In 2013, in what was thought to be the first large-scale experiment into Facebook stalking, Rebecca Lewerenz, a psychology student at Stanford University in California, logged on to her late husband’s account on Facebook and sent “vague” messages, revealing her whereabouts at a certain time. The messages were deleted by Facebook and Lewerenz was fined $50,000 (£35,000). The jurors “were emotionally invested in Lewerenz’s well-being”, Lenni said. Even though the interference was an initial warning of abuse, victims are reluctant to use social media to “express the anger they feel at it”.