Stalking Protection Orders not used once by police in Suffolk since January 2020, despite a 182 per cent rise in reports of stalking incidents in the county
Police in Suffolk had not used a new legal power to protect stalking victims in the first 15 months it was available to them, despite a huge increase in reports of the crime in the county over the last year.
According to an investigation by the BBC, Suffolk is one of only four police forces in England and Wales that had not applied for any Stalking Protection Orders (SPOs) since January 2020 - when they first came into play.
SPOs are a civil power available to police which impose restrictions on suspected stalkers. They are designed to make it easier to curb their behaviour, with a lower burden of proof required than for a criminal conviction.
The BBC's Shared Data Unit submitted Freedom of Information Requests to forces across the country and found that Suffolk Police - along with Dorset, Humberside and Thames Valley Police forces - had failed to apply for any SPOs over the first 15 months they had been available, to April 30 this year.
And yet, statistics show that the number of stalking incidents recorded by police in Suffolk has surged in recent years.
In the nine months to December 2020 - the latest data available - the number of incidents recorded reached 656, which is almost triple (182 per cent) the annual total up to March 2020, of 233.
That number has shot up from 2015 when just 60 stalking incidents were reported in the county.
The data also shows that of all the stalking incidents reported over the last year, in just nine per cent of cases (56) was a suspect charged.
A Suffolk Police spokesman said it uses a 'range of methods to bring those responsible to justice'.
Eamonn Bridger, head of crime, safeguarding and investigations at Suffolk Police, said: “We take all reports and cases of stalking extremely seriously.
“A better understanding of stalking by victims and the police service, positively influenced by the media and support groups, has resulted in more confidence for those coming forward to report this type of crime.
“The greatest numbers of stalking offences are by individuals who know their victim.
"This can include ex-partners or someone you have had some sort of prior acquaintance with e.g. someone you may have dated or have been friends with. This is still stalking and it is wrong.
"We will use a range of methods to bring those responsible to justice.
"Each case is unique and officers continue to use harassment notices and bail conditions to protect victims from further harm.
“The civil orders are a useful additional tool that can be used in order to further protect victims from potential harm as the requirements can be tailored to each individual case."
Mr Bridger said training had been undertaken regarding SPOs to 'encourage more officers to make court applications in future cases where it is appropriate'.
"That said, the limited number of SPOs granted is a national issue and it is a complex legal process," he added.
"The court can put forward other alternatives as well such as bail conditions and harassment notices.
“Be assured that we take stalking very seriously and urge you to come and talk to us or relevant support groups if you have concerns, as we can help.”
SPOs, which can be granted by a civil court to police forces, are designed to allow police to act at the earliest opportunity.
Breaching an SPO - which would usually remain in place for two years - is a criminal offence that could land a person up to five years in prison.
Lisa King, communications director at domestic violence charity Refuge, said the national figures, which also show a huge increase in recorded stalking incidents in recent years, are 'testament to the amount of stalking that is going on across the country'.
She said: "I think that it is somehow surprising also given that we’ve been in Covid, and we’ve been in lockdown. There has been a restriction on movement.
"It is an indication of how it is so much more technologically enabled now and you can do that at distance, and during the pandemic when we’ve all been locked in and locked up, that is clearly what has been going on all around the country with the numbers reported being so high."
Ms King said the use of SPOs not being evenly spread across England and Wales showed that the policing response was an 'absolute postcode lottery'.
"And that's really disappointing to see," she added.
"The stalking orders haven't been in play for that long. The police should have had training during that time to understand how to use those stalking protection orders that are so needed by women, to protect them.
"The legislation is there, it's no good passing the legislation and then letting it become a dusty piece of paper. It needs to become meaningful."
Only around 20 per cent of stalking and domestic abuse incidents get reported to the police, Ms King said.
"So the figures really are the tip of an iceberg.
"This really should be a wakeup call for police forces across the country to get the training in place, and then start to message also that these orders are there, that women and men can use, so that they are taken up and protection is given."