Why the police failure on cyberstalking?
Labour MP Stella Creasy, journalist Caroline Criado-Perez and TV historian Mary Beard have all been high profile victims of online abuse and harassment via Twitter this year.
Three men were arrested following threats of rape and misogynistic violence and abuse made to Criado-Perez this summer – but the police misplaced the threatening Tweets she received.
And even though the Tweets contained graphic death and rape threats the police asked her to go through the thousands of threatening Tweets she had received to look specifically for their Twitter handles.
If Criado-Perez had been a victim of physical abuse and the police had mislaid the photographic evidence of her injuries, would they have considered asking her to re-approach the perpetrator and be re-assaulted in order to retrieve photographic evidence? One sincerely hopes not.
The fact she was asked to search through the thousands of abusive Tweets she received and re-live the ordeal perhaps indicates the attitudes held by the police toward cyberstalking and harassment.
Criado-Perez told Channel 4 News recently: “In the event it seems that wouldn’t have been necessary anyway but I think that sort of points again to the way the police don’t have a firm grip on these types of crimes, how they might affect a victim.”
In April 2011 an Electronic Communication Harassment Observation (ECHO) pilot study was launched to coincide with the launch of Out of the Shadows: National Stalking Awareness Week.
The ECHO survey aimed to find out about the victim’s experience of harassment via electronic communication methods such as the internet or mobile phones.
It also aimed to record the impact the experience of harassment has had on the victim’s life.
The National Centre for Cyberstalking Research at the University of Bedfordshire then published a review and analysis of the ECHO pilot project.
Earlier, authors Purcell, Dr Michele Pathé and Professor Paul Mullen had defined stalking behaviour as ‘the course of conduct by which one person repeatedly inflicts on another unwanted intrusions to such an extent that the recipient fears for his or her safety’.
And while cyberstalking is generally considered to be harassment that originates online, it is also recognised that other forms of pre-existing stalking can transfer into online environments.
According to the review, the types of attack can vary greatly and include the following: identity theft – controlling a victim’s credentials, posting false profiles, posing as the victim and attacking others, discrediting the victim in online communities, discrediting the victim in their workplace, using direct threats through email and instant messaging, constructing websites targeting the victim, transferring attacks to the victim’s relatives, using the victim’s image, provoking others to attack the victim and following the victim in cyberspace.
A number of Caroline Criado-Perez, Stella Creasy and Mary Beard’s abusers engaged in persistent and intrusive behaviours, albeit under numerous guises in the form of making use of multiple Twitter account profiles.
The threats each woman received were vile.
I saw Criado-Perez’ timeline as she was receiving the abuse and was horrified that anybody could say such despicable things to a human being – let alone one they have never met.
But one of the biggest issues with cyberstalking is that the victim never really knows who the perpetrator is. Is it someone they know? Is it someone who lives close by? Is it someone who is also tracking them offline as well as online?
And that is the kind of control the victim is placed under. Constant fear. Not knowing if the next person to knock at their door is the person who has been threatening them with such horrendous things.
And if the perpetrator has crossed that line and is stalking their victim both online and offline, there is a very real threat of the victim’s life being in serious danger.
In November 2012, amendments were made to the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 and stalking was made a specific criminal offence by the Protection from Freedoms Act 2012, when the government introduced two offences, stalking and stalking involving a fear of violence.
But prosecutions since this date have been incredibly low – just 33 convictions between 25 November 2012 and the end of June 2013.
The National Stalking Helpline says this about the new legislation: “To prove a section 2A [stalking] it needs to be shown that a perpetrator pursued a course of conduct which amounts to harassment and that the particular harassment can be described as stalking behaviour.
“Stalking is not legally defined but the amendments include a list of example behaviours which are following, contacting/attempting to contact, publishing statements or material about the victim, monitoring the victim (including online), loitering in a public or private place, interfering with property, watching or spying.”
This is not an exhaustive list, the Helpline pointed out, which means that behaviour which is not described above may also be seen as stalking. ‘A course of conduct’ is two or more incidents.
“Section 4A is stalking involving fear of violence or serious alarm or distress. Again serious alarm and distress is not defined but can include behaviour which causes the victim to suffer emotional or psychological trauma or have to change the way they live their life.”
So with those definitions in mind, you would assume the police would have little difficulty prosecuting the internet trolls who have stalked women like Caroline Criado Perez, Stella Creasy and Mary Beard online and threatened them with acts of sexual violence and even death.
Caroline Criado Perez gave a brave presentation at the Women’s Aid conference on Cyberstalking and harassment last September.
She read out some of the disgusting threats she had personally received. If you would like to see the kind of the threats the police asked her to read again you can do so on her Week Woman blog. Brace yourself though, they are not for something the faint-hearted.
So, why aren’t the police prosecuting more people for cyberstalking?
The answer appears to be relatively simple.
Or rather a lack of it.
Front-line police and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) have not yet received full training on the new stalking legislation.
I know that it sounds incredible, that our country should have a law in place to protect people at risk from behaviour that can have serious consequences, but those who deal with it have no knowledge of it, but that is what is happening.
Jennifer Perry, an expert on cyberstalking, said: “I think there is a cultural issue [with] the police. They simply don’t recognise stalking.
“In my view what is needed is easy to use tools, workbooks, videos, action plans, to be developed then provided to the police and support organisations but that has to be done in a central organisation on behalf of all interested parties and then [we need] the mechanisms to encourage them to use it.”
“The government has to develop better strategies in dealing with stalking and harassment because technology is increasing the number of victims by making it easy to stalk, more efficient, [increasing] the ability to gather better information on the victim which feeds the obsession.”
When asked to respond regarding what needs to be done to improve police response to crimes of stalking, The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) spokesperson gave WVoN the following comment:
“The police service is acutely aware that the experience of being stalked can destroy the lives of victims.
“Over the past 6 years a significant amount of progress has been made to improve our response to stalking so that we can safeguard and protect victims. We have focused on improving the understanding and responsiveness of frontline officers to stalking, raising public awareness and encouraging victims to report to the police, and making the criminal justice system more effective at protecting victims and preventing offenders.
“Effective, high quality guidance and training for police and prosecutors is vital; accordingly training materials, national guidelines and risk assessment tools have all been created. To complement this, single points of contacts for stalking have been established in forces.
“The service works closely with charities that have expertise in supporting victims of stalking and promotes events and services such as the National Stalking Helpline and National Stalking Awareness Day.
“While cyber-stalking can be perceived as a new phenomenon, it is really just another avenue used by stalkers. However, we are ensuring that we work closely with our colleagues focusing on cyber-crime and take into [account] the cyber element of stalking in all our work.
“Stalking is a serious problem and there is more to do, not just for police but the criminal justice system and society as a whole.”
But this work has to include not just training about what kind of behaviour falls under the legislation, it must also include education.
Education to change attitudes to and perception of the impact of crimes of this nature on the victims, because without this, a much needed victim-centred approach will continue to be missing from any police response.