New legislation was introduced to Northern Ireland in April 2022 which criminalised stalking for the first time. Since then, up until the 30th September 2023, the Police Service of Northern Ireland has arrested 230 alleged stalkers and charged 119. Now further police powers to tackle stalking behaviours, have been made operational.
Stalking Protection Orders (SPOs) came into effect today, Thursday 19th October. These new Orders, which the Police Service can now seek from Magistrates, are an important development in helping to better protect victims or anyone connected with them, in stalking cases.
For example, subjects will be prohibited from contacting, by any means, directly or indirectly, the named person on the Order. This includes but is not limited to contact in person, calls, letters, emails, messages and social media.
They can also be prohibited from publishing any material, or making reference to any material already published, which references, refers or relates to the victim either directly or indirectly.
They can also be prohibited from entering into an agreed exclusion zone, be that an area within the town or further afield. This would include where the victim works, usual routes taken for example, walking children to school.
Some of the positive requirements include allowing officers access to the home address for the purposes of conducting risk assessments, having to re-register their home address every year, or if of no fixed address, having to attend a police station every week.
There are also further conditions that can be considered depending on the nature of the stalking behaviour.
However an Order is not an alternative to prosecution for stalking offences under the Protection from Stalking Act NI 2022, and it can be used to strengthen prosecutions as well as safeguarding victims.
Any breach of an Order is itself a criminal offence punishable by Magistrates by up to 12 months or a fine or both, or at Crown Court with imprisonment for up to five years or a fine or both.
Detective Superintendent Lindsay Fisher of the Police Service’s Public Protection Branch said: "This new resource really helps us to protect victims. We are already seeing positive policing in this area with alleged offenders being arrested weekly.
"We continue to raise awareness and encourage victims to come forward with the knowledge that we now have 5,000 officers and staff trained to recognise and respond and that they take all reports seriously.
“The operationalisation of SPOs now allows our officers to take swift and decisive action, putting restrictions in place and enforcing breaches, treating them as criminal offences.
“Our readiness to take action in this way we hope will have a hugely positive effect on the confidence people have in coming forward, knowing that in Northern Ireland we take stalking incredibly seriously.”
Research suggests that on average, victims of stalking may suffer up to 100 incidents before reporting to Police and there have been cases in England where stalking behaviours have fatally escalated.
Across the Police Service’s corporate social media accounts (@PoliceServiceNI), the common misconceptions about stalking will be challenged and awareness raised about the new protection orders.
Detective Superintendent Fisher adds: “I think many people when they hear the word ‘stalking’ will think of someone lurking in the shadows. Stalking can actually take many forms and can be online as well as in person. It is a pattern of behaviours that is fixated, obsessive, unwanted and repeated. We now have another tool in our armour to protect victims from this debilitating and dangerous crime.”
Stalking victims from Northern Ireland have anonymously shared how they have been affected, they said:
“My stalker took away my feeling of freedom. Living with looking over my shoulder, at times fearing for my life.”
“On one occasion I had 155 WhatsApp messages in a few hours and was also receiving messages on two other platforms (phone messages and Facebook messenger) at the same time. With calls between.”
“One night, although he was 15 miles away, music started playing through the Bose sound system in my house. He did this through the Spotify app and then selected which device he wanted to play it on. I woke in the middle of the night to music playing, significant songs from our wedding etc. It was terrifying as I thought he was in the house and I’d no idea how it was happening.”
The Police Service of Northern Ireland have outlined stalking and harassment behaviours to look out for on their website.
Red flags of a stalker may include:
• Regularly following someone and tracking their movements
• Repeatedly going uninvited to their home or workplace
• Checking someone’s internet use, email or other communications
• Hanging around somewhere they know the person often visits
•Interfering with their property
•Watching or spying on someone
• Identity theft (buying things in someone's name)
- If you are experiencing any of the above or worried about a loved one who may be being stalking - report to the Police via 101 or call 999 in an emergency.
There is also other help and support available to you:
- Suzy Lamplugh Trust - www.suzylamplugh.org/
This organisation aims to create a safer society by reducing the risk of violence and aggression through campaigning, education and support.
- National Stalking Helpline
Practical advice and information to anyone who is currently or previously has been affected by harassment or stalking.
Phone: 0808 8020300