A coroner has warned there is a “postcode lottery” for stalking victims following the inquest of a young woman who was fatally stabbed by a former colleague.
Matthew Kewley said there was a lack of consistency in police forces’ abilities to investigate stalking reports nationwide, and said more needed to be done to improve knowledge around the offence following the death of Gracie Spinks.
Ms Spinks, 23, was unlawfully killed by Michael Sellers, 35, on June 18 2021 in Duckmanton, Derbyshire, after he had become “obsessed” with her. Sellers took his own life shortly after.
During Ms Spinks’ inquest, which concluded earlier in November, Derbyshire Constabulary admitted multiple serious failings, including how it dealt with her initial stalking complaint lodged more than four months before her death.
In a Prevention of Future Deaths report addressed to Derbyshire Constabulary and the Home Secretary, James Cleverly, Mr Kewley outlined six areas of concern, including the need for the force to improve its knowledge of stalking investigations, note-taking and risk assessments.
He said: “During the inquest, I heard evidence from the police officers who were involved in investigating Gracie’s stalking complaint in February 2021.
“Derbyshire Constabulary accepted that there were serious failings in how Gracie’s complaint was investigated by these officers.
“I do recognise that Derbyshire Constabulary has taken some steps following Gracie’s death to improve knowledge around stalking.
“However, as the Detective Chief Superintendent who gave evidence for the Constabulary accepted, more needs to be done to improve knowledge and understanding around how officers should investigate complaints of stalking.”
Addressing Mr Cleverly, Mr Kewley said: “During the inquest, I heard evidence about the benefits that stalking advocates can provide to those who are victims of stalking.
“Whilst I was reassured to hear that Derbyshire now benefits from stalking advocates, I heard evidence that many other areas around the UK do not have stalking advocates.
“This essentially creates a postcode lottery for victims who report stalking to the police.
“I am concerned about the lack of consistency and availability of stalking advocates to victims of stalking across the UK.”
Mr Kewley’s report, published on Monday, comes after an inquest heard that Sellers was graded low risk by officers despite behaving inappropriately to eight other women before he was reported to police by Ms Spinks.
Police also dismissed a bag of weapons – later found to belong to Sellers – that was found near where Ms Spinks was eventually killed a month later.
The force later admitted and apologised for multiple failings, although an inquest jury was not asked to decide whether these contributed to Ms Spinks’ death.
The coroner called on police to ensure that officers were adequately trained on how to deal with stalking cases and that effective notes were taken in all investigations.
He also said he was concerned over an “ongoing issue” within the force about how it dealt with potentially dangerous weapons being found within the community.
Both Derbyshire Constabulary and the Home Office have 56 days to respond, outlining what action has been or will be taken or stating why no action is proposed.
In a statement, Ms Spinks’ parents, Richard Spinks and Alison Ward, thanked the coroner for his “comprehensive and insightful” report and said their daughter was “tragically let down”.
They said: “The report is a damning indictment, it details the colossal failures and the many areas of concern that were sadly evident throughout the inquest.
“Even before Gracie’s tragedy the public trust in the police was hanging by a thread, after numerous scandals and systemic failings, unfortunately after Gracie’s death, faith in the police has been entirely lost.
“Vulnerable victims of stalking need to feel safe in the knowledge that the police will listen, investigate and protect them. Victims need to be instilled with confidence to make the initial complaint.
“The Home Secretary must unequivocally communicate to the Chief Constable that standards of policing need to improve and receive assurance that not only will recommendations in the report be followed but there will be oversight on implementation across each area identified.
“Officers should moving forward be held accountable to the standards of excellence expected by the public.
“We hope in the future that no parents have to sit through an inquest with broken hearts, overwhelming grief, knowing that the grief will be ever-present for life and continue long after the officers who failed Gracie have given evidence and left the court building.”
Deputy Chief Constable at Derbyshire Constabulary, Simon Blatchly, said the force will review the recommendations made by the coroner.
He said: “We have today received the Prevention of Future Deaths Report from the coroner following the inquest into the death of Gracie Spinks.
“As was said following the conclusion of the inquest, we fully accept there were significant failings throughout the two incidents relating to Gracie.
“We will now review the recommendations that have been made and reply within the relevant timeframe.
“We are absolutely committed to providing the best possible response for victims of stalking and harassment and, since Gracie’s death in June 2021, significant work has already been completed to tackle the failures that were identified prior to the inquest.
“There has also, over the last two and a half-years, been significant changes to the ways in which we as a force receive and investigate stalking reports, as well as how we support and safeguard victims of these crimes.
“I also want to reiterate the force’s sincere apologies to the family, friends and wider community.”
A government spokesperson said: “We take stalking extremely seriously, which is why we have doubled the maximum sentence for stalking from five to ten years.
“We introduced a new civil order to protect victims of stalking, and also provided funding for police-led projects to tackle the behaviour of stalkers and thereby provide greater protection to victims.
“The Home Secretary has received the Prevention of Future Deaths report from the Coroner, Mathew Kewley and will provide a response in due course.”