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BLOG: Stalking During Covid-19

Marking 35 years since the disappearance of Suzy Lamplugh, the Victims' Commissioner looks at the statistics around stalking during the pandemic.

This week marks 35 years since the disappearance of Suzy Lamplugh. Her parents, Paul and Diana, set up the Suzy Lamplugh Trust in 1986 to ensure that personal safety was made a public policy priority. Its mission is to reduce the risk of violence and aggression through campaigning, education and support. This article, published to coincide with the anniversary, focusses on stalking during Covid-19. Statistics, released last week, show that police have recorded that stalking and harassment has leapt up by 28% in 2020/21; notably the only interpersonal crime shown in these statistics to have risen.

Over the last year, the Covid-19 pandemic and resulting lockdowns have had unprecedented effects on society, reaching into all aspects of everyday life. Within such profound societal shifts, the prevalence of violence and crimes against women has also been magnified – and this includes the terrifying crime of stalking. A recent research report by the Suzy Lamplugh Trust to better understand stalking victims’ experiences during Covid-19 shows that victims’ lives continue to be devastated by ongoing threats of violence and psychological terror, while also coping with the social isolation of lockdowns (Source: Suzy Lamplugh Trust (2021), Unmasking Stalking: A Changing Landscape). Worryingly, for many of the 111 victims who participated in the survey, stalking behaviours have even increased since the start of the pandemic, with further detrimental impacts for their mental health and wellbeing. Indeed, it is possible that lockdown created further opportunities for perpetrators to carry out stalking behaviours. Yet, despite these concerning findings, many stalking victims continue to receive a woefully poor response from the criminal justice system, while also struggling to access vital health support.

In particular, the report demonstrates a rise in online stalking behaviours. For those whose experience of stalking started before the first lockdown, half of respondents (49%) reported an increase in online behaviours throughout the pandemic, most commonly social media communication (35% of respondents), text/direct messages (15%) and online contact made by a third-party (13%). This reflects the increasing prevalence of cyberstalking, also documented by the National Stalking Helpline, with 100% of stalking cases reported to the Helpline now having cyber elements to them, compared to 80% in 2019.

However, a third (32%) of respondents also reported a rise in offline behaviours, indicating the great lengths stalkers will go to contact their victims, potentially breaking lockdown restrictions, with victims most frequently experiencing an increase in spying (18%), offline third-party contact (15%), visiting home or work (13%) and loitering (13%). The increased anonymity provided by face coverings may even be used by stalkers to perpetrate in-person stalking, further heightening victims’ fear and distress. Stalkers’ use of sending letters and gifts as a ‘socially distanced’ behaviour also highlights that the obsession and fixation which characterise stalking do not disappear under lockdown restrictions, but instead may take on new forms as perpetrators find other ways to stalk their victims.

The pandemic may also exacerbate the already damaging effect of stalking on mental health. Half of respondents whose experience of stalking started before the first lockdown thought that the impact of stalking on their mental health had worsened since the first lockdown (49%), which may be linked in some cases to the increased intensity of stalking during the pandemic. Other victims indicated that the psychological effects of the pandemic had intensified the distress caused by stalking or that the physical restrictions of lockdown had negatively affected their physical safety and thereby mental health, with victims noting that they now feel more ‘vulnerable’, ‘scared’ or ‘trapped’ at home.

However, despite the devastating impact of stalking, many victims are unable to access the support they need: either from the criminal justice system or from health services. Of respondents who did report stalking to the police, 59% considered their experience to be unsatisfactory or somewhat unsatisfactory, while 60% of respondents who reported to the UK police had no legal protection successfully in place to mitigate the risk from the stalker. In general, survey responses highlight a concerning lack of police knowledge around stalking – despite some welcome examples of good practice – with some respondents indicating that the pattern of behaviour was not recognised as a stalking offence by police (24%), that police did not understand the nature of stalking (13%) or that their complaint was not taken seriously or acted upon.

Similarly, the majority of respondents (63%) also reported a (somewhat) unsatisfactory experience with the courts, indicating that the court did not put in place adequate protections from stalking (44% of respondents who detailed reasons), delays to the hearings (28%), and the court not understanding the nature of stalking (22%). In addition, some respondents highlighted the often bewildering, exhausting and frightening nature of the court process for victims. In the context of unacceptably low charging and conviction rates for stalking it is vital that the criminal justice response to stalking victims is urgently improved.

35 years on from the disappearance of Suzy Lamplugh, we need to see a shift in the way that our country deals with the crime of stalking as a whole. We need effective use of risk assessments when a victim reports to police. We must also see good use of Stalking Protection Orders and for the Government’s VAWG Strategy to examine the shockingly low conviction rates for stalking and improve on these.

Victims of stalking, a deeply personal crime, need access to specialist support services. Local services report huge increases in the number of stalking victims referred for support over lockdown. It is crucial that victims are able to access specialist services to help them to cope and recover from this crime.

Stalking is a pervasive, deeply unsettling and dangerous crime, which has increased significantly over lockdown. We must ensure that victims are able to access the protection, support and justice that they need.