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Cyberstalking app hands back control to victims

A force has partnered with the University of Bedfordshire to develop a mobile app for victims of cyberstalking
Published - 03/11/2017 By - JJ Hutber- Police Oracle

Stalking is a crime as old as the hills but the advent of the internet has given birth to an era of technology - enabled harassment.

HMIC and HM CPSI published a damning report into the police service’s response to stalking and harassment offences in July which said victims were being left at risk by police and CPS failings.

Inspectors found in 112 cases of stalking or harassment which they assessed, none were investigated properly with ‘disturbing indications’ for the treatment of victims. No action was taken to protect the victim of a violent domestic abuse perpetrator who threatened to cut his victim’s throat, the report found.  

In one anonymised case study, a woman referred to as ‘Elaine’ only realised she was being stalked after seven websites were created about her. They were full of information about her personal life and pictures of her, including malicious content - which was sent to her children and previous employers.

“When Elaine initially contacted the police, she felt they were not interested and advised Elaine that there was not enough evidence to arrest the person,” the report said.

It took 12 months before Elaine’s stalker was arrested and cautioned but the unsettling content is still being posted.

Elaine has been left afraid to leave the house, forced to change jobs and move her children to different schools.

But when response officers and detective are facing immense workloads, how do you prevent cases like Elaine?

Bedfordshire Police is reconfiguring its response to stalking. In August, it stopped sending Police Information Notices to victims- deemed ineffective by HMIC and victims’ charities.

And the force has partnered with the University of Bedfordshire’s National Centre for Cyberstalking Research to develop a mobile app aimed at helping victims assemble evidence against their stalkers.

Victims will be able to record digital, audio and video evidence in real time. Metadata is also recorded to build a picture of where material is being sent from. The app also offers a statistics review feature that allows victims to calculate hotspots- the times offenders are most active.

The app is only one component of a wider scheme, funded by the Home Office, to aid police investigations.

Researchers are also creating a Digital Risk Assessment in Stalking and Harassment (DRASH) to help first responders assess risk to victims.

The third part of the scheme is a rehabilitation scheme, based on a model created by Hampshire Police, for perpetrators.

Bedfordshire Police’s Detective Chief Inspective Chris Beresford said: “In earlier times we would have told victims to keep a pen-and-paper diary of what happened. But this is a live system that also allows victims to capture metadata and gather evidence about where information is being sent from.

“It’s partly about empowering and handing back control to victims. It just makes sense to use a digital platform to document a digital offence.”  

“My experience of working with the University has been very positive. In times of austerity if the private sector has the resources and the knowledge, why not work together. It is something I can see happening more often in the future.”

He added he believes DRASH will make a significant difference to frontline officers.

“Frontline officers are expected to be a jack-of-all-trades in an age when crime is becoming increasingly cyber-enabled. DRASH will help to take some of the pressure off.”

The third part of the scheme is a rehabilitation scheme, based on a model created by Hampshire Police, for perpetrators.

Dr Emma Short, who directs the NCCR, said: “Only first time offenders who are assessed as standard risk will be eligible. The aim is to re-educate- the project we modelled the scheme on showed potential to reduce re-offending by 50 per cent.

“It has definitely been beneficial to work directly with Bedfordshire Police. In academic research you have to be very objective and sometimes you can end up a little bit removed. So the police perspective was valuable and helped us to understand how to respond to their needs.”

She added: “The centre opened in 2011 after I was commissioned to carry out one of the first academic studies into the impacts of cyberstalking. Not much was known about cyberstalking even five years ago, but there has been a real attitude shift with an increased public consciousness and media coverage of cyberstalking and the traumatic impact it has upon victim’s lives.”

The app will be piloted in Bedfordshire next year but will eventually be rolled out nationally.

The crime survey for England and Wales estimates that, for the year ending 31 March 2016, 15 percent of adults aged 16 to 59 have been victims of some stalking and/or harassment behaviours since the age of 16.

But 54 per cent of stalking crimes recorded by police in the 12 months to March 2016 were flagged as domestic abuse related, indicating a link between coercive control offences associated with domestic abuse and stalking and harassment crime.

Disturbingly, a Suzy Lamplugh Trust report published in April which studied 358 homicides of women in the UK found stalking behaviours were present in 94 per cent of cases.

National Stalking Consortium’s research found 36.8 per cent of people had been stalked using online methods, with harrowing effects. Almost ten per cent of all stalking victims had moved house in attempt to lose their stalkers, 18.1 per cent had stopped answering their front door 11.4 per cent no longer used their mobile phones.  

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