Jacqui Hames explains what victims should expect when going to the Police

Jacqui Hames is one of Britain’s best known detectives.  She spent 25 years serving with the Metropolitan police.  During that time Jacqui presented BBC Crime watch for 16 years.  She’s passionate about helping victims of stalking. 

Q. How can you tell if you’re being stalked?

If a complete stranger starts sending you an avalanche of sick or threatening messages, phones calls, letters etc it’s safe to assume they have crossed the boundaries of reasonable behaviour and can be investigated under criminal law. But what if a re-buffed admirer sends you bunches of flowers every day for weeks to profess their undying love? Or that slightly creepy guy from accounts always leave works at the same time as you and suddenly seems to take the same route home every day?

Network for Surviving Stalking’s ‘Trust Your Instinct’ Campaign tackles this issue brilliantly. Firstly our Stalking Quiz helps you assess your situation and make the decision as to whether you should report the matter to police. My rule of thumb has always been - if you feel you have to change your normal behaviour because of the actions of someone else, i.e. changing your route home, not going out in the evenings; then alarm bells should start to ring.

Q. How do police officers look at the crime of stalking?

As a young police officer, one of the biggest challenges I faced was how to deal with the unexpected nature of calls during the course of a shift. In that  eight hour period you could be sent to half a dozen different ‘domestic incidents’ and find yourself dealing with everything from a Murder to an argument over the TV control – plus everything in between. Trying to work out exactly what was happening and the best course of action to take was tricky to say the least. I admit I didn’t always get in right.

Leaving training school armed with legal definitions and procedure doesn’t prepare you for all those grey areas that make up our reality. You’re often dealing with dark and extreme emotions that notoriously don’t lead to logical behaviour. Stalking is often small, sometimes innocuous incidents that in themselves can seem irrelevant, but together can have devastating consequences to the lives of victims.

Q. What advice would you give about reporting stalking to the police?

Picking up the phone or walking into a police station for the first time is a major step forward. Some victims experience a huge sense of relief - so much so they think that once that initial report is made, they can relax and let the authorities deal with it. For others it’s a huge step – they may never have even spoken to a police officer before, let alone reported a crime.  Either way it’s important to keep on top of what is being done on your behalf, to ensure your case is being given the attention it deserves. If you have completed our Stalking Quiz then taking it with you will help you through the initial nerves of that first contact with police.

Q. What evidence will the police need?

Police officers firstly should deal with any immediate and present threat to your safety and your ongoing protection, and then undertake a full investigation of the facts to establish what has happened, and gather evidence in order to bring a suspect to court. But you need to help them. Think carefully about the nature of the incidents you have been experiencing and what you have available to support your concerns. This could be anything that has facilitated contact between you and the suspect e.g. Computers, telephones, letters, tapes, cctv, answer-phones, diaries, notes, presents, - all these will help them to help you. Also, speak to friends, family, neighbours, work colleagues, medical professionals like your GP – all of whom may have witnessed your distress or even incidents involving the suspect.

Q. Any tips on what a stalking victim should expect at the police station?

Be prepared to give details of personal relationships, full history and disclosure of medical records – anything at all which supports your account of the behaviour. The Police and Crown Prosecution Service can only undertake a prosecution if they have evidence of the allegation that fits within the definition as laid down by the law. Stalking in England and Wales is covered by the Protection from Harassment Act and police need to show that someone has caused you to feel fear, alarm or distress, or to fear that violence may be used against you. They also need to establish that there has been a ‘course of conduct’ (not an isolated incident) and that the suspect ‘knows or ought to know’ that what they were doing would cause you harassment.

Q. Any advice on how to handle police questions?

It is easy to become overwhelmed by the amount of questions, forms, procedures and legal hurdles that have to be overcome in any police investigation. The key is to try and stay calm and ask as many questions as possible about what is going on, and what will happen in the future, take notes if necessary. You will feel more in control and it will also help you to assess whether everything that can be done is being done.

Q. How can stalking victims help the police?

Keeping a diary of events, involving the suspect and the investigation will help in supplying ongoing evidence to the investigation and keep track of police action.  Some people can stay cool and cope brilliantly under pressure; others get overwhelmed by what is happening to them.  Writing on a computer, perhaps just by sending yourself an e-mail, is ideal - it provides an electronic time and date to each entry, making it harder for the defence to discredit. If this is not for you, then a pen and paper is fine, but just remember to time and date each entry.

Q. What should a police investigation cover?

The Association of Chief Police Officers advice says officers should consider all potential lines of enquiry. Depending on the case obviously, but an investigation may include examination of the following:

  • History of previous reports and incidents relating to the suspect
  • Evidence of preparation by the suspect e.g. did he/she practice writing letters, or take time off work to be outside your house.
  • Telecommunications providers
  • Answer-phones
  • Satellite and Mobile phones
  • Computers
  • CCTV
  • House to house enquiries
  • Victims previous medical history in relation to physical or psychiatric injury
  • Victim’s own records or diaries
  • Other evidence collected by the victim
  • Evidence and records kept by other witnesses
  • Physical evidence such as documents, handwriting, fingerprints and sources of DNA.”

(P45 of ACPO Practice Advice on Investigating Stalking and Harassment 2009)

Q. Will I need a medical examination if I make a complaint of stalking?

Most of us would recoil at the idea but these are undertaken by specially trained medical practitioners who will do their best to put you at ease. These examinations do not just assess physical injuries; often the psychological effects of stalking and harassment can be even more damaging. They’ve been proven in court to be equal to Grievous Bodily Harm, so an assessment of the ‘psychiatric harm’ caused to you is often vital to the case. It often helps prove an important link between the incidents of harassment.

If this applies to you, you will be asked to give your consent to your medical records being disclosed and if used in court, it’s worth remembering that the defence (i.e. the suspect) will also have sight of them. Again ACPO’s advice on the matter to officers is clear “Police officers should recognise that providing access to medical records can be very disturbing and invasive for the victim, particularly given the possibility that this will potentially include sensitive information accessible to the suspect.” So it’s not done lightly.

Q. Will I get to ‘have my say’ if I make a complaint of stalking?

So many victims of crime suffer the frustration of feeling they don’t get a say in proceedings, no-one listens to how the crime has impacted on their lives physically, emotionally, psychologically, financially or any other way. Well thankfully nowadays you can have your say by completing a Victim Personal Statement. It will be attached to the case papers and taken into consideration by the Crown Prosecution Service and Court. Keeping a diary will assist you in completing this as well, and it can be updated as further events unfold.

Q. What if there isn’t enough evidence?

Unfortunately there are occasions where there is just not enough evidence to place before a court, but police can still issue the suspect with a ‘police notice’ that could be sufficient to stop them from continuing with the harassment. This can be hard to accept and very frustrating. Talk to the officer concerned about the prevention of future incidents, and keep writing the diary – if the behaviour continues the investigation can still be re-opened and the previous incidents used.

Q. What happens if the suspect is arrested?

If the police investigation leads to an arrest then you should be informed straight away, together with an indication about whether the suspect has been given bail. This can be given with conditions that protect you whilst waiting for the court date, e.g. the suspect shouldn’t go within a certain distance of your house or place of work to protect witnesses, victims and children from any further intimidation.

Q. What if I’m not happy with the way the police investigate my case?

Whilst the Association of Chief Police Officers has set down guidelines for the way officers report and investigate allegations of Stalking, unfortunately it is ultimately the responsibility of local police managers who make their own judgements as to what the appropriate response should be and the priority given to these allegations. So that’s where you go if your experience falls short of what you expect, you can find contact details for all police forces in England, Wales and Northern Ireland at http://www.police.uk/forces.htm.

Q. It seems the police have a lot to learn when it comes to dealing with stalking?

We have moved a long way in our understanding and investigation of both domestic violence and anti-social behaviour, mainly by providing clear definitions of what constitutes an offence and examples of unacceptable behaviour, plus straightforward guidelines in how they are investigated and prosecuted.  Now we need to do the same for stalking, and thanks to the efforts of charities like NSS working with ACPO and the CPS, this is beginning to happen.

But importantly we also need to speak to those men and women who are sitting in their homes, frightened, lonely, feeling hunted and persecuted. These people may not understand what is happening to them or what they should do about it. As with an illness, unless there has been a diagnosis it’s difficult to find the right treatment - once you understand that what is happening to you is unacceptable and that you are entitled to the support of the law, you can start fighting back and know that you are not alone any more.

Q. What should I expect if I have to go to Court?

I can remember my first time giving evidence at Court, I was so nervous I could hardly speak, and my hand was shaking so much I dropped my notebook – much to the enjoyment of my colleagues. Courts can seem imposing places, full of procedure and formality, and if you are called on to give evidence it’s worth going along beforehand to get a feel for what it’s like in a courtroom and just watch what’s going on. A couple of hours of that will help you settle more quickly when it comes to your turn and you’ll feel a lot more confident. The staff are there to support you – so don’t be afraid to ask them for help and guidance.

Q. What are restraining orders?

At the time of sentence the Crown Prosecution Service can ask for a ‘Restraining Order’ to be imposed which places conditions on the defendant, such as “Not to directly or indirectly contact, harass, alarm or distress or molest the victims and others as appropriate”. Other conditions include not entering a building where the victim is likely to be, or not to contact the victim in any way whatsoever. These can all be made appropriate to your individual case and if the defendant breaks the order they can be arrested.

Q. Any other advice on how to cope with being stalked?

Victims of stalking often say their confidence is shaken and sense of security crushed after experiencing such harassment. Every day tasks are completed with a dread and fear of what or who may lie around the corner, even if the threat has been removed it’s hard to get back that feeling of freedom which we should all have when out and about in the world. Well if that’s you then local Crime Prevention Officers should be available to give you advice on your home and personal security. Unfortunately they are a bit thin on the ground and as a result extremely busy so it can take some time before they get to you.

Q.What if I don’t feel safe in my own home?

There are some simple measures you can take yourself both at home and when out and about. At home check your door and window locks are all in good working order and comply with British Standards, if not whizz down to a DIY store and replace them. It is possible to fit an alarm to your home quite easily and cheaply these days, and even fitting a cctv camera can give you peace of mind.

When you go out and about, carrying a personal alarm can give you confidence if you’re feeling vulnerable, and keeping in touch with a family member or friend can give you, and them, additional peace of mind. Every case is different as is every victim, so it’s important you explore every option not just to keep you safe, but also make you feel safe. Have a look at www.nssadvice.org.uk for information and advice.