The parents of a young woman who was stabbed to death by a stalker have welcomed efforts by Derbyshire Police and the Home Office to improve protection for victims.
Gracie Spinks, 23, was killed by her former colleague Michael Sellers, 35, in Duckmanton, Derbyshire, on June 18 2021, months after she had reported him to Derbyshire Constabulary for stalking and harassing her.
An inquest into her death in November heard the force had admitted multiple failings over its investigation into her complaint, with Sellers only graded as posing a low risk and given words of advice over his offending, and no action being taken over a bag of weapons, later linked to Sellers, being found near where Gracie was killed a month later.
Following the inquest, coroner Matthew Kewley wrote to Derbyshire Constabulary and Home Secretary James Cleverly raising concerns that there was a lack of consistency in police forces’ abilities to investigate stalking reports nationwide – and warned victims faced a “postcode lottery” if they reported their concerns.
With their responses now sent to the coroner, Gracie’s parents, Alison Ward and Richard Spinks, said they were “comprehensive” and that the “winds of change have finally begun to blow through policing”.
In her letter to the coroner, Derbyshire Constabulary chief constable Rachel Swann highlighted how collaborating with the National Police Chiefs’ Council’s stalking and harassment lead, deputy chief constable Paul Mills, to undertake an independent peer review of the force’s policies, procedures, and training materials is one of several changes being implemented.
The force has “reviewed and refreshed” the content of guidance and training for staff and is considering whether further training is needed to get officers to recognise the risk indicators of stalking behaviour.
Revised mandatory stalking training for all frontline staff is also being delivered, and a new stalking policy is expected to be published next month, drawing on best practice delivered by other forces which “specifically sets out the expectations required in response to stalking”, including a specific checklist for officers to consider as part of their investigation.
Ms Swann said the inquest made clear that “cultural change is needed” within the force, with 2024 focused on the key theme of the importance of officers having an “investigative mindset” and pursuing all reasonable lines of inquiry.
Following Gracie’s death, a stalking coordinator, whose job is to undertake secondary risk assessments of non-domestic related stalking, was introduced to the force in 2022.
Derbyshire Constabulary is also proposing to develop a multi-agency stalking intervention panel involving organisations such as the probation service, health professionals, fire service, children and adult social care, independent support services and stalking advocates.
Ms Swann wrote: “The panel seeks to enhance the management and safety planning of stalking cases through considering the specific circumstance of each case, and coordinating appropriate interventions, both in terms of the safeguarding of victims and tackling perpetrator behaviour to reduce the risk of further offending.
“Although engagement with agencies continues, we are seeking to introduce this by June 2024.”
After a rucksack full of weapons, Viagra and a note saying “don’t lie” – discovered on a farm track close to the stables where Gracie’s beloved horse Paddy was kept – was collected by police but not investigated further, Ms Swann said a number of policies have been updated.
Although dog walker Anna White called the police to report the bag, which she found concerning, weeks before Gracie died, officers who went to collect it from her home made no notes of their conversations with her and the bag was treated as found property.
Ms Swann wrote: “Since the inquest, the importance of contemporaneous note taking and record keeping has formed part of key messaging, through senior management teams, to frontline staff and supervisors.
“This area of learning has also been incorporated into the training material that has been refreshed.
“Officers have access to mobile devices upon which contemporaneous notes can be made.
“In October 2023, the force reviewed its policies in respect of property, realigning the earlier guidance through introducing a specific policy relating to found weapons.
“An audit of found property incidents between October 2023 and December 2023 has been undertaken. There is still more improvement needed to ensure revision of risk at all appropriate stages and divisional senior management teams are reinforcing expectations regarding the standards of investigations required in such cases, in accordance with the policy.
“The ongoing audit and performance monitoring shall remain in place until working practices are to the required standard.”
In his letter to Mr Kewley, Mr Cleverly said the Government is “fully committed to tackling the crime of stalking” and he is “open to exploring whether more needs to be done”.
He said the Home Office regularly works with the National Police Chiefs’ Council to raise awareness among police officers on the guidance and training available on stalking and he has asked officials to review statutory guidance on coercive and controlling behaviour to make clear to police officers the differences with stalking.
He added: “The Government is continuing to explore with relevant stakeholders, such as the National Stalking Consortium, where government intervention could improve the criminal justice response to stalking and support for stalking victims, including within the Victims and Prisoners Bill.”
Mrs Ward and Mr Spinks said: “We would like to thank the Home Secretary and the chief constable for supporting focused, practical and effective change in the policing of stalking across Derbyshire and nationwide.
“Victims will really benefit from the changes that have been implemented and will receive the protection they need and deserve.
“The recommendations made by the coroner have been adopted by Derbyshire Constabulary and it is clear that the chief constable is delivering on the promise to make largescale organisational improvements.
“Gracie in life and death has helped to create a better world.”