What Would It Really Take to Keep Stalking Victims Safe?
The Stalking Threat Assessment Centre (STAC) is a groundbreaking new Metropolitan Police initiative trying to save lives and protect victims. It's got its work cut out for it.
Illustration by Calum Heath
Every year, women in the UK are murdered by stalkers and domestic abusers—despite previously reporting them to the police. Unfollow Me is a campaign from Broadly to highlight the under-reported issue of stalking and domestic abuse in support of anti-stalking charity Paladin's calls to introduce a Stalkers Register in the UK. Follow all of our coverage here.
Detective Inspector Lee Barnard of the Metropolitan Police in London has a not inconsiderable task before him: keeping stalking victims safe in a metropolis of more than eight million people.
Barnard is the officer tasked with leading the Stalking Threat Assessment Centre (STAC), a groundbreaking new initiative on behalf of the UK’s largest police force. When it becomes fully operational in September this year, the Met Police expect it to become one of the leading anti-stalking units in Europe.
Armed with £1.4 million in Home Office funding, the STAC wants to transform how police respond to stalking by working with a National Health Service (NHS) trust and the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, an anti-stalking charity, and by pioneering a sometimes controversial, perpetrator-led approach: It aims to intervene in cases and, where appropriate, rehabilitate the stalkers involved.
Watch: Unfollow Me: The Story of Alice Ruggles
The response of the UK police to stalking and domestic abuse has been less than exemplary at times. Exclusive data obtained this week under the Freedom of Information Act by Broadly has previously exposed the nature of this failing. 49 women were murdered by their partners, ex-partners, or stalkers in the last three years in the UK, despite previously reporting their threatening behavior to the police.
Under existing policy, police can respond to allegations of stalking by issuing a harassment warning known as a Police Information Notice (PIN), though these have no formal legal standing. A 2017 report from a joint team responsible for overseeing Britain’s policing and criminal justice system was highly critical of Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and police failures to tackle stalking. In 61 percent of the cases reviewed, no risk management plan had been prepared to protect the victim, and the level of care shown to victims was deemed inadequate in 95 percent of cases.
Barnard is candid about these shortcomings. “We’re beginning to understand [stalking] and put a name to it,” he concedes. “The police have always been historically very good at addressing crimes involving physical injury. But when it comes to psychological injury, I think we struggle with that.”
In the past, he says, police might have dismissed predatory behavior (such as repeatedly leaving unwanted gifts at a victim’s house) as harmless. “It’s a human trait to sometimes downplay that stuff and minimize it,” Barnard explains. “We say things like, ‘Who wouldn’t want to get flowers?’ I think now people realize, ‘Actually this is quite serious.'”
Bernard hopes that the specialist unit will encourage four times as many victims to seek help from police in the next two years. “If people in London realize there actually is a dedicated resource, and you’re not just going to be at the whim of an officer who may not know what they’re dealing with or what’s in front of them, they may come forward, because they’ve actually got somewhere to go an ask for advice.”
Barnard screens stalkers to assess their risk levels by sorting them according to a five-part typology. The largest category, by far, is that of rejected ex-partners. “They’re the ones who’ve had a previous intimate relationship with the victim, and they’re potentially where the most dangerous offenders are. You hear them say things like, ‘If I can’t have you, I’ll kill you and kill myself.'"
The second cohort, he explains, are so-called incompetent suitors. “They’re people who have quite low social skills, they may have low IQs, or have suffered a brain injury at some point in their life, and they don’t have the social skills to recognize when people are saying ‘no.’”
Intimacy seekers are convinced that their victim is already in a relationship with them, and that their target may even be ending secret messages through their behavior. Meanwhile, resentful stalkers nurse a grievance against an individual. “It might stem from a parking ticket, for example, and go all the way to the mayor’s office,” Bernard says. “If they don’t get the necessary justice they seek, they might become very vengeful.”
The final category of stalkers is predatory stalkers. “Thankfully, they’re quite rare. They’re the ones who see victims as prey. They’re nearly always sexually motivated.” He cites the high-profile example of Levi Bellfield, the nightclub bouncer who was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murders of a 13-year-old girl and two women, and the attempted murder of another woman.
After categorizing a stalker, Barnard’s team will make an assessment of their victim's level of risk. In high-risk cases, they’ll put immediate preventative measures in place. “We’d reinforce your house, put some really strong restrictions on that individual to stop that person going to the house, and if they turn up we have to be there quickly and make sure there’s a consequence for breaching the strict order we’ve got in place.” In some circumstances, police could even install panic rooms in victims' houses, or move them out completely as a last resort.
When the STAC was first announced, Barnard made headlines with his proposal that stalkers could agree to be electronically tagged to alert victims if they were nearby.
He explains that this would be part of a rehabilitation initiative designed to aid stalkers who proactively want to change their behavior. “There have been some cases where stalkers have actually said, ‘I really want to stop, I just don’t know how.’” So if you’re a police officer, how would you refer that person to help them get the help they need?”
As part of STAC pilot, Barnard and a team of mental health professionals will manage a cohort of around 40 offenders who volunteer for a behavioral change program. “I would expect them to voluntarily wear electronic tags,” he adds.
Barnard has his work cut out for him—there were 952 cases of stalking reported in London in 2017 alone. His message to any victims who may be reading this article is unambiguous: “If you think this is happening to you, it probably is, and you should come forward and tell the police. Or if you can’t speak to the police, contact a support programme to get the help you need. Because the chances are, they aren’t going to go away.”
If you are being stalked and you are based in the UK, you can call Paladin on 020 3866 4107. If you are based in the US, you can call the Stalking Resource Center at the National Center for Victims of Crime on 855-484-2846.