Stalking: Interim Report (html)

3. Guidance to assist police to identify stalking


• We heard in this inquiry that guidance should be developed for Victoria Police to identify stalking behaviour.

• Many stakeholders, including Victoria Police, suggested a tiered approach to identifying and responding to stalking is required.

• This chapter discusses the relevant information this guidance should contain.

Police need better guidance for identifying and responding to stalking

3.1 Victoria Police has only minimal guidance for identifying and responding to stalking.

3.2 We were told that ‘there [can] be no doubt that serious changes need to be made to the ways in which stalking cases are viewed and handled by the relevant authorities’.[1] This view was expressed in several submissions.

3.3 Forensicare suggested that ‘internal procedures [are] required to facilitate identification and routine risk assessment and management of stalking cases’.[2]

3.4 The Centre for Forensic Behavioural Science submitted:

approaches for identifying stalking will differ depending on the agency involved. In agencies or organisations that have a primary responsibility for responding to stalking (eg police), there is an argument for having a standardised system to guide information seeking so that stalking is routinely identified.[3]

3.5 Guidance ‘may take the form of a tiered approach in both police and victim services to ensure victim survivors receive the right support and response’.[4]

3.6 Similarly, Forensicare advocated a tiered approach:

stalking is by definition harmful and so should receive a response regardless of whether a risk of serious harm is identified. … [responses] need to be tiered so that appropriate levels of information and support are offered in cases where the risk of serious harm is lower, while more intensive risk management and treatment of the person who is stalking is applied in cases where the risk of serious harm is higher.[5]

A four-step process

3.7 Forensicare provided a clear overview of what a tiered approach would look like:

[a tiered approach] would involve relatively rapid information gathering and screening for immediate concern at the first level … Cases screened as being of standard concern go on to receive a routine response and very basic preventative responses (eg providing information to the person reporting, possibly a stop conversation or PSIO), while those at elevated concern receive additional ongoing case management to manage risk (with varying degrees of urgency) and potentially further specialist comprehensive assessment to guide subsequent interventions. The highest risk stalking cases will require some level of multi-agency cooperation to manage effectively and prevent harm to the person being stalked.[6]

Step one: Identifying stalking

3.8 Victoria Police similarly explained that ‘a tiered responses is needed’.[7] The first step is to identify the presence of stalking by asking the right questions to elicit sufficient information about the situation.[8]

3.9 The Centre for Forensic Behavioural Science suggested that guidance for police:

might involve having certain triggers for using a structured framework or decision tree that can guide the assessor to identify the key components of stalking (eg repetition, unwanted nature of contact, fear/distress in the target) and determine whether stalking is present or not.[9]

3.10 The Centre for Forensic Behavioural Science also suggested:

once stalking is reported and recognised, it needs to be immediately assessed with the victim’s safety in mind. This requires adequate knowledge on the part of the professional receiving the report, but also a system that will allow professionals to screen for the presence of stalking and level of risk or concern.[10]

3.11 The exact process for identifying stalking behaviours and assessing the level of concern in a given stalking situation is a contentious issue. This will be discussed in detail in Chapter 4.

Step two: Getting the whole story from the victim survivor

3.12 Step two, once stalking has been identified, is for police to ‘go on to gather further information about the stalking episode’.[11]

3.13 Currently, there is no specific framework for gathering further evidence in the context of stalking. We make recommendations about this process in Chapter 5, where we discuss in detail the Whole Story investigation framework. Here we discuss the current difficulties and limitations in gathering information about stalking.

3.14 The Centre for Forensic Behavioural Science submitted that:

in addition to implementing [guidance for the identification of stalking behaviours, and information gathering] for [police], it is essential that this information is recorded in an accessible and communicable way. Research has shown that people who are being stalked report that having to repeatedly explain what is happening to them to a new person is frustrating and stressful and contributes to failure to report stalking.[12]

3.15 This is important given that, legally, ‘stalking is not a discrete event’. Therefore:

requiring victims to repeatedly speak to different people who have no knowledge of their previous police reports also means information is fragmented and potentially lost, including information that could be crucial to assessing the level of risk or concern.[13]

3.16 Victim survivors similarly highlighted the issue of being required to repeatedly recount their traumatic experiences. One victim survivor explained:

it took a really long time to get [the Victoria Police Criminal Investigation Unit] involved to get the evidence to tie it all together. It took a long time to get a case worker with the police—it took two IVOs and so many statements to different police … Police weren’t talking to each other. Once you give them evidence, it goes into their ‘lock up’ … Then [the case worker] was collating everything with the 28 charges and was waiting on the [evidence] I had given another police member. There were so many missing reports. Other witnesses involved were going to [another] police station and lodging their own complaints in relation to [one of the] stalking incidents. They had made formal complaints with statements and we don’t have them.[14]

3.17 The Victims of Crime Commissioner noted the potential benefits of having a single point of contact within Victoria Police for reports of stalking:

Victoria Police’s ability to provide a single point of contact for stalking victims should also be explored. Firstly, this would improve police capacity to monitor risk and observe potential escalation in behaviour. Secondly, it would also minimise the burden on victims to continually re-tell their story.[15]

3.18 Other submissions similarly suggested that the third step of the tiered approach should be that:

people who are identified as being stalked be assigned a contact within the agency they are reporting to who knows the case. This can be supplemented by IT systems that ensure that stalking victims are flagged so that summary information is easily accessed as soon as a further report is made.[16]

3.19 It was acknowledged that ‘this can be complex in criminal justice systems that are typically incident based rather than facilitating recording of a course of conduct that persists over time’.[17]

3.20 Nevertheless, the Centre for Forensic Behavioural Science said:

creating flags in police systems and court records that allow easy identification of the course of conduct and the need to respond in kind is essential to ensuring that changes in risk can be monitored and risk management adapted appropriately.[18]

3.21 Furthermore:

effective case management in a stalking situation requires a designated person being responsible for oversight of the case, who can conduct ongoing assessments about the level of concern that is present in the case over time.[19]

3.22 However, although there may be benefits in assigning a single point of contact within Victoria Police for reports of stalking, the benefits are likely outweighed by the practical difficulties. Instead, a more achievable option would be for Victoria Police to ensure that all reports of stalking are recorded, including where no offence is detected. Victoria Police must also ensure that reports are accessible and can be retrieved when a new police member is dealing with a victim survivor who has made a previous report. This would reduce the need for victim survivors to re-tell their story. Improved recording of stalking reports, alongside use of the Whole Story framework for investigating stalking (see Chapter 5), could achieve the intended aims of assigning a single point of contact.

3.23 It was explained that ‘assessing immediate level of concern … does not connote any judgement about the likelihood of future behaviour, merely that there is increased concern that something might occur based on what is known at a given point in time’.[20] We were told that this can be done based on the information available.[21] As such, the VLRC considers the most evidence-based method for police to determine the level of concern in a given stalking situation is through the use of the Whole Story framework.

Step three: Deciding the appropriate response

3.24 The third step is assessing the appropriate response to a given stalking situation. Victoria Police has a wide range of options available to respond to stalking. The options take into account various issues, including over-policing in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. The police response can include:

• cautions

• applying for a PSIO (a court order to protect a person, their children and their property from another person’s behaviour)

• further investigating the situation

• filing charges.

3.25 To decide the appropriate response, the Centre for Forensic Behavioural Science discussed the need to determine the level of concern in a stalking situation. It explained that the ‘level of concern’ or the ‘identification of escalation of risk’ is a useful way of guiding what intervention options police should use. It submitted that the risk of ‘serious harm … should be defined broadly as the risk of persistent stalking, the risk of physical violence (including sexual violence), or the risk of the stalking recommencing’.[22]

3.26 However, while risk and the escalation of risk may be relevant to procedural discretions, such as bail, it is technically less relevant to the question of whether the available evidence (about incidents of certain behaviours) is enough to justify applying for a PSIO, further investigating the stalking, or filing a charge. It is important to note that the role of police is not to decide the level of concern, but whether those responses are justified.

3.27 In relation to PSIOs, we were told that victim survivors are advised, as a ‘default response’ by police, to apply for a PSIO as a protected person.[23] This is despite the fact that police can apply for a PSIO when they believe that a person needs protection. Police can apply even if the protected person does not want an order to be made.

3.28 The Centre for Forensic Behavioural Science submitted that police advise victim survivors to apply for a PSIO ‘rather than considering whether stalking is actually present’,[24] and that victim survivors are frequently advised by police ‘to apply for a PSIO as a first step’.[25] The Centre for Forensic Behavioural Science explained:

This is problematic as there is no consideration of the characteristics of the individual case, meaning that people who are being stalked may have an inaccurate sense that they are safe due to the order, even though the order could actually exacerbate their risk. Putting an order in place also places the onus of responding on the victim, who must observe the breach, notify police, and often collect evidence that the breach occurred. Even when people are able to do these things, police are often slow to react to reports and lack knowledge about effective enforcement options, which is frustrating for victims and can contribute to distrust of the police.[26]

3.29 Several victim survivors expressed dissatisfaction with police where police did not apply for the PSIO on their behalf. Victim survivors explained that this made them feel as though they were expected to manage the stalking situation on their own.

I told the police officer on the phone that my stalker had said they were going to send me to my grave but that isn’t detailed enough for them to act.[27]

The police sounded as though I was bothering him and his only advice to me was to go to a local magistrates’ court and get an intervention order. The police officer also asked me if the stalker knew where I lived, and I said, “yes”. He advised me if I see his car around my house then to call 000. Well, if it comes to that, it’s too late, isn’t it?[28]

I think more than anything a police officer could act as though they are concerned for me and investigate into the stalker that I am reporting instead of just telling me to go and get an intervention order.[29]

The second officer [I saw], made an appointment for me to come in the next day so I could give a statement and he would help me to get a PSIO … However, he was called out of the station when I got there. The constable who came to reception said, ‘there’s no appointment. Go home’ … I ended up just physically going into the court and applying for the IVO myself. I don’t blame the officer for being called out of the station. I am angry that other officers do not take stalking seriously and treat victims like they are behaving irrationally. What worked? One officer was willing to help me get an IVO, even if it didn’t happen via police, and he spoke to me like he genuinely cared, wanting to be helpful.[30]

The sixth officer [I saw] has taken all the evidence, walked me through the process of making a statement and how they will investigate and finally [it] feels like I will get somewhere.[31]

3.30 To address this issue, the Centre for Forensic Behavioural Science submitted that victim survivors ‘should be provided with advice and guidance if a PSIO is issued and potential risks and benefits weighed and managed’.[32]

3.31 Although there is limited research on the topic, there is some research that suggests intervention orders can be an effective protection measure in some circumstances.[33]

3.32 It was submitted that the effectiveness of PSIOs is ‘dependent upon the nature of the stalking situation’. For example:

In low concern cases they can act as a formal ‘warning’, indicating that people have noticed the behaviour and that it will not be tolerated. This is likely to be effective in bringing the stalking to a halt … In more concerning cases however, an intervention order is likely to be less effective as a protective measure and may simply be a tool that allows police to pursue criminal charges when the order is breached.[34]

3.33 The Centre for Forensic Behavioural Science further stated that ‘PSIOs can be useful if they are viewed as one [tool in] a suite of tools and strategies … to deal with stalking cases [where] they are used in a targeted way’.[35]

3.34 We were told in submissions and in responses to our survey that instead of the default position of police advising victim survivors to apply for a PSIO, a better approach is for police to initiate applications.

3.35 Victoria Police embraced the notion of police-initiated PSIO applications. However, Victoria Police also expressed caution, agreeing with the Centre for Forensic Behavioural Science that in some stalking situations a PSIO can exacerbate the situation and heighten the risk of harm to the victim survivor.[36] Victoria Police agreed that careful consideration as to the appropriate interventions should be given to reports of stalking.

3.36 Victoria Police should be the agency responsible for initiating PSIO applications on behalf of victim survivors, where the reporting of a stalking matter to police justifies the immediate protection of a PSIO, and where it is safe to do so. A more detailed consideration of the procedure relating to PSIOs will be covered in the final report. The discussion about PSIOs provided here is the basis for the recommendations made in this interim report.

Step four: Making appropriate external referrals

3.37 The fourth step requires Victoria Police to make referrals to appropriate external agencies and/or services. Victoria Police should refer victim survivors to appropriate external services for support. It should also refer cases requiring a more comprehensive assessment to appropriate external agencies. This was supported by organisations with expertise in the area of stalking.[37]

3.38 Organisations providing free legal assistance submitted that individuals who engage in stalking should receive ‘timely access to tailored, high-quality treatment where it is identified that it may be effective in addressing any underlying health concerns which may drive stalking behaviour’.[38] Timely access to treatment and services is key to early intervention. It is also key to police using cautioning and diversionary tools in appropriate cases. Most importantly, it focuses on addressing the behaviour of those who engage in stalking behaviours and not just through more policing.

3.39 The Centre for Forensic Behavioural Science echoed this point:

Referral pathways to assessment and treatment for people in the criminal justice system should be reviewed to ensure that people are able to access specialist assessment and treatment in a timely way … It is essential to improve pathways into treatment for people whose stalking has not brought them into contact with the criminal justice system. Victoria is unique internationally in already having a specialist service that provides such treatment, but its availability is limited by resources.[39]

3.40 This was also emphasised by Forensicare which explained that ‘a key principle of effective intervention in stalking cases is that more management and treatment are directed towards cases that are assessed as being of greater concern or risk of serious harm, while those assessed as being of standard concern or risk receive a routine level of intervention’.[40]

3.41 That is not to suggest ‘that standard cases receive no response, [rather] that the response they receive is less intensive and urgent, and not as tailored to their specific circumstances’.[41]

3.42 Ultimately, the purpose of any guidance developed is to provide all victims of stalking with a response, and to prioritise police resources effectively and appropriately.

3.43 The following chapters discuss some of the issues that arise in the four-step process described in this chapter. While the four-step process reflects good practice, Victoria Police acknowledged that there are impediments to good practice.

3.44 For example, Victoria Police noted that a potential impediment to implementing specific stalking guidance is the fact that stalking ‘is often associated with other defined types of criminal offending, many of which are already supported by considerable operational guidance and tailored practice direction’.[42] Victoria Police expressed concerns about creating ‘confusion about intervention options’.[43].


3 Victoria Police should develop guidance for identifying and gathering information about stalking for frontline police.

4 Victoria Police should record every presentation to police with a report of stalking (and related conduct) on the appropriate Victoria Police information management system(s), including in instances where stalking is alleged but no offence has been detected.

5 Victoria Police should be the agency responsible for initiating PSIO applications on behalf of victim survivors.

6 Victoria Police should refer complex cases to specialist police within existing criminal investigation units for investigation where required

7 Victoria Police should refer stalking matters where necessary to appropriate external agencies.

8 Victoria Police should refer victim survivors of stalking to appropriate external services.

  1. Submission 56 (Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party).

  2. Submission 100 (Forensicare).

  3. Submission 32 (Centre for Forensic Behavioural Science).

  4. Consultation 12 (Domestic Violence Victoria and Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria).

  5. Submission 100 (Forensicare).

  6. Submission 100 (Forensicare).

  7. Consultation 3 (Victoria Police).

  8. Ibid.

  9. Submission 32 (Centre for Forensic Behavioural Science).

  10. Ibid.

  11. Ibid.

  12. Ibid.

  13. Ibid.

  14. Submission 70 (Di McDonald).

  15. Submission 49 (Victims of Crime Commissioner).

  16. Submission 32 (Centre for Forensic Behavioural Science).

  17. Ibid.

  18. Ibid.

  19. Ibid.

  20. Ibid.

  21. Ibid.

  22. Ibid.

  23. Ibid.

  24. Ibid.

  25. Ibid.

  26. Ibid.

  27. Victorian Law Reform Commission, Stalking: Summary of Responses to Online Feedback Form from People with Experience of Stalking (Report, December 2021).

  28. Ibid.

  29. Ibid.

  30. Ibid.

  31. Ibid.

  32. Ibid.

  33. J Reid Meloy et al, ‘Domestic Protection Orders and the Prediction of Subsequent Criminality and Violence toward Protectees.’ (1997) 34(4) Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training 447.

  34. Submission 32 (Centre for Forensic Behavioural Science).

  35. Ibid.

  36. Ibid.

  37. Submission 100 (Forensicare).

  38. Submission 95 (Springvale Monash Legal Service).

  39. Submission 32 (Centre for Forensic Behavioural Science).

  40. Submission 100 (Forensicare); TE McEwan, ‘Stalking Threat and Risk Assessment’ in International Handbook of Threat Assessment (Oxford University Press, 2nd ed, 2021); Rosemary Purcell and Troy McEwan, ‘Treatment Approaches for Stalking’ in Jane L Ireland, Carol A Ireland and Philip Birch (eds), Violent and Sexual Offenders (Routledge, 1st ed, 2018) 400.

  41. Submission 100 (Forensicare).

  42. Submission 115 (Victoria Police).

  43. Ibid.