Victims’ Commissioner Dame Vera Baird QC marks National Stalking Awareness week

The COVID19 pandemic has thrust the issue of Domestic Abuse into the media spotlight where it is rightly attracting a level of attention I would like to see focussed on it permanently.

Being a victim of abuse is awful especially now when  people feel trapped inside their homes with their abusers.

But what about those whose abuser is not in the same house but lurking somewhere Unknown but inevitably close by?

Stalking is a dangerous and insidious crime, one which has historically been minimised or even joked about and is still misunderstood.

Light hearted comments are frequent:

“You should be flattered.”

“I wish someone sent me flowers every day.”

“I think it’s romantic.”

But believe me the reality of stalking is as far from romantic as you can get.

The working definition of the offence used by the key anti-stalking charity Paladin is: “A pattern of unwanted, fixated and obsessive behaviour which is intrusive and causes fear of violence or serious alarm or distress”.

And although that seems pretty straightforward on first reading – in reality it is not simple at all.

Victims may blame themselves, they may excuse or try to manage the actions of their stalker – thinking somehow that they have encouraged it.

And often they are not sure whether they may be overreacting to someone who is merely a nuisance and will ultimately go away.

Stalking has also proved problematic for the police – there has been the presumption that for an offence to be committed the behaviour needs to be violent or threatening which is not the case.

It is the repetitive nature of stalking which discloses that the perpetrator is obsessed and thus likely to be dangerous.

There has also been a well-intentioned view that police should rely on the victim’s assessment of the situation.

After all they know the history and the stalker better than any outside agency could. And police also want to be victim-focussed and to let that person lead.

But police are the experts in risk assessment and complainants are not.

My view is that if the police assess the stalker to be of lower risk than the complainant, they should take on the complainant’s view.

If however they complainant thinks the stalker is less menacing than the police assess, the police estimate is what should be followed.

I have seen the worst that stalking can do.

When I was Police and Crime Commissioner for Northumbria, the case of Alice Ruggles came to Newcastle Crown Court.

Alice was murdered in 2016, aged just 24, by her ex-boyfriend Trimaan Dhillon following a campaign of stalking. She had simply wanted him to leave her alone and did not want to take action that would harm his career.

He was a solider based two hundred miles away and so apparently a very distant threat. Police seemed to take on that approach, an admirable one for a young woman in that situation but not the right one for those charged with the duty to protect her.

Dhillon drove down to her flat and killed her.

Her parents – who I have had the privilege of working with from time to time since her tragic death – have dedicated themselves to education and awareness about stalking through the Alice Ruggles Trust. And their tireless work will have saved lives.

Superb work is also being done by the Suzy Lamplugh Trust and Paladin.

Lockdown will not deter stalkers who frequently ignore bail conditions and court orders to stay away from their prey.

On the other hand, how terrifying must it be for a victim confined to a home of which they know their stalker is well aware? One Client of the Lamplugh Trust referred to herself in this situation as being ‘a sitting duck”

This week is Stalking Awareness Week. The theme is “Seeing Stalking Clearly”.

We must, particularly in the current extraordinary circumstances, keep a watch out for our neighbours and friends.

If you are worried about anyone in this way, call the police or one of the charities I have mentioned.

To anyone suffering from stalking themselves, let me say that the police have recently got more powers to stop stalking behaviour in its tracks and the charities are working fully despite the lockdown.

We can all see stalking clearly and if you are a victim we will come to help you – you are not alone.