The Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) says she was almost driven out of her job by a stalker.
Katy Bourne has spoken out about her experience – and her mission to get police forces and the justice system to take the offence more seriously.
“I felt very isolated,” she told this newspaper, “I didn’t want to show I was upset because I wanted to stay strong.
“For about three years, I ignored it. I’m in the public eye, not everybody is pleased to see you. Freedom of speech, everybody’s entitled to that.”
She initially met her stalker Matthew Taylor on the campaign trail to be PCC. They were at an early hustings, before the official candidates were announced, and Taylor was standing against her for the new role.
Then Taylor, who never actually ran to be PCC, started writing blog posts calling her a “prostitute”, “nasty Nazi party sympathiser” and accusing her of being a paedophile, child abuser and murderer.
He would also send mass emails to professional bodies and panels the Conservative politician sat on, and set up a fake email address pretending to be her to email MPs.
Mrs Bourne said, “He accused me of having an affair with people in my office, which was simply untrue and distressing.
“It was causing a lot of stress and embarrassment. It became quite obsessive. It was fixated, unwanted, repeated.”
One day the stalker showed up at an event Mrs Bourne was at, stood at the back of the room, and secretly filmed her speech. He then left and stood outside and filmed her through a window, posting the video on social media.
“That gave me the absolute chills,” she said, “It really upset me. I left that dinner late at night. He had filmed himself ranting and raving in an aggressive manner.
“Then several others decided I was going to be a number one target.”
People started showing up at her office. But it was the chilling moment an individual filmed her harness at an abseiling event and the stalker wrote “you should have slit her rope”, that she decided it had gone too far.
She was at the charity event in Newhaven when one individual started filming her. “The next day I saw the video, he had got access to my harness before I wore it. Someone wrote ‘you should have slit her rope’.
“It was that point I thought ‘this is really scary’. It had gone from the online world into the physical world.”
Four years into the ordeal, the Crown Prosecution Service rejected an application for criminal proceedings, saying there wasn’t enough evidence.
“I felt ‘what is the point?’” Mrs Bourne said, “I thought, I don’t know if I’m doing the right thing staying with this job.”
But, with some encouragement from her family, she decided to stick with her public role and speak out about what had happened to her.
Mrs Bourne eventually succeeded in getting a civil injunction against Taylor.
“It was such a relief,” she said, “just the fact that somebody had taken me seriously. The most important thing is that you just want it to stop and have the police take you seriously would be just an incredible relief for a victim.
“It’s an insidious crime it really is. And as a society we have got to do something about this because we are not going to get women in any walks of life.”
Taylor was later found to be in contempt of his injunction, and was handed a four month prison sentence, suspended for two years.
She says even now people have joked to her about her own experience with stalking. “I try not to be oversensitive about it. But that’s not appropriate.
“I saw someone wrote online ‘who would stalk her?’ If you want to encourage women into politics you need to make sure it’s safe. As a society we need to confront this issue.”
The experience has led Mrs Bourne to campaign for improvement of people’s attitudes to stalking, and crucially the way it is dealt with by police and the courts.
“What worries me with stalking is the fact that when it goes wrong it really goes wrong,” she said, “We have seen people being killed. We can’t afford to get this wrong.”
The case of Shana Grice saw the 19-year-old report her stalker to Sussex Police five times – but she herself was fined £90 for wasting police time.
She was brutally murdered by her stalker Michael Lane in August 2016. The 28-year-old was jailed for life for her murder.
Meanwhile, now-retired PC Trevor Godfrey was found to have committed misconduct by failing to properly investigate the case.
Mrs Bourne said, “Sussex Police are on a journey of improvement, they aren’t perfect yet. They are working hard to give the best service they can to victims of stalking and they are well ahead of police forces nationally.”
This week, Sussex Police has become one of the first forces in the country to introduce Stalking Protection Orders (SPOs)
They aim to protect victims of stalking by can prohibiting suspected stalkers from contacting a victim or going to certain locations.
They also have ‘positive’ requirements which could include the offender having a mental health assessment or attending a rehabilitation course.
Mrs Bourne said, “They stop the victim from going to court themselves and going through that trauma.
“It’s for the victim’s peace of mind. The police are saying ‘I hear you, I take you seriously and what’s happening to you isn’t normal behaviour’
“It gives them that peace of mind they desperately need. They need to know they aren’t going mad and what’s happening to them isn’t normal.”
The average stalking victim has suffered six years of the behaviour before they contact police, and experienced around 100 incidents.
By that point, the victims are ‘beside themselves’ says Mrs Bourne, living with the anxiety for that amount of time.
“It’s not good for you. We know the chemicals it releases in the body are disruptive. It will affect your mental health.”
She says police are also set to trial improved risk assessments for suspected perpetrators in March.
• If you are being stalked or harassed it is important that you report it. Stalkers are fixated and obsessive offenders who will not stop.
• You can report stalking or harassment online or by calling 101 or in person at your local police station.
• But always call 999 if you are in danger. Our officers and staff will undertake a risk assessment and focus on keeping you safe.
• If you would like further information about stalking or harassment, there are several organisations that specialise in providing advice and support to victims.
• Veritas is a local organisation which provides advocacy and support for victims of stalking.
• The National Stalking Helpline also provides advice and guidance to current or previous victims of stalking or harassment. The helpline can be contacted on 0808 802 0300.