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Back to Archives | Back to December 2013 Contents 

Connecting the Dots: The Challenges of Identifying and Responding to Stalking

By Paul Schnell, Chief of Police, Maplewood Police Department, Maplewood, Minnesota; and Michelle M. Garcia, Director, Stalking Resource Center, National Center for Victims of Crime, Washington, D.C.



Stalking is a pervasive, dangerous, and—far too often—lethal crime. It is a crime that occurs at dramatically high rates; in a one-year period, 6.6 million individuals were stalked in the United States, and 1 in 6 women and 1 in 19 men are stalked in their lifetimes.1 Stalking often co-occurs with other crimes such as threats, property damage, physical assault, domestic violence, and sexual assault. The risk of harm is very real for stalking victims—approximately 25 to 35 percent of stalking cases involve some type of violence, and 3 out 4 women murdered by an intimate partner were stalked in the year prior to their murder.2

To estimate the prevalence of stalking in your jurisdiction
  1. Take the population of your jurisdiction
  2. Divide it by 1,000
  3. Multiply that number by 26.5
This number provides a conservative estimate of the stalking victimizations occurring in one year in your jurisdiction.
Similar to domestic violence and sexual assault, stalking is underreported. Only 37 percent of male and 41 percent of female stalking victimizations were reported to law enforcement by the victim or by someone else.3 There are numerous reasons why victims choose not to report stalking to law enforcement. Common reasons cited by victims include considering it a private or personal matter, reporting to another official, thinking of the incident as minor, lacking evidence, and believing that police would not think it was important or would be ineffective. Unfortunately, the last of these is not an unfounded belief—nearly 20 percent of stalking victims stated that police took no action when contacted. Only 28 percent of stalking victims perceived that the situation got better after reporting to law enforcement, while 49 percent of victims reported that the situation stayed the same and 23 percent of victims reported that it got worse.4 In most cases, reporting stalking to law enforcement does not stop the behavior. Stalkers do not recognize or respect boundaries set by the victim, law enforcement, or the courts. One study of stalking offenders found that recidivism, defined as target contact after intervention, occurred in 60 percent of cases.5

Another reason why victims do not report stalking to law enforcement is that the victim is unclear that a crime has occurred. This inability to identify the behavior committed by the stalker as a crime can be particularly challenging for victims. The stalking behaviors most commonly experienced by victims include the following:

  • unwanted phone calls and messages
  • spreading rumors
  • following or spying
  • unwanted letters and email
  • showing up at places where the victim is present
  • waiting for the victim
  • leaving unwanted presents6

It is easy to see how victims may fail to recognize these behaviors as crimes, given that many of the behaviors, in and of themselves, are not criminal acts. Showing up in public places, spreading rumors, and sending text messages or emails (absent a specific threat or in violation of a court order) are not crimes on their own. This under-identification of stalking also affects law enforcement and prosecutors. In two studies examining domestic violence cases, researchers found that in only 5 to 16 percent of identified stalking cases among reported domestic violence cases are the defendants actually charged with stalking.7

The very nature of stalking can make it challenging for law enforcement to identify. One challenge is that stalking is a “course of conduct” crime. All stalking laws in the United States have an element requiring repeated conduct or contact. Statutory language varies across states with common language such as “on more than one occasion,” “two or more acts or occasions,” or simply “a series of acts” or “repeated acts.” Only one state, Delaware, requires three or more separate incidents.8 However, the law enforcement response to crime is largely incident based, which is incompatible with effective investigation of and intervention in stalking cases. Typically, law enforcement responds to a call for service, addresses that call, and then moves on to another call. The focus is on the specific incident that precipitated the call and not necessarily any behaviors or incidents that may have occurred previously. If an officer responds to a stalking victim’s call regarding a single non-threatening email and does not ask about any other behaviors or incidents experienced by the victim, there is no ability to meet the course of conduct requirement, and therefore, no ability to identify or charge stalking. For law enforcement to identify and successfully investigate stalking crimes, a paradigm shift is needed in how law enforcement responds to these types of reports. Law enforcement must connect the dots between all of the stalker’s actions.

Another challenge is that stalking laws require that the course of conduct cause the victim, or would cause a reasonable person, to experience emotional distress or fear. The challenge with the notion of emotional distress and fear is that they are subjective. What one person might view as harmless or benign might cause another person distress or fear. For example, responders or others might regard an ex-boyfriend sending cards, letters, or flowers to his former significant other as an annoying or harmless attempt to regain the attention of his former love interest. However, if the recipient of those communications and gifts has taken repeated steps to cut off and avoid contact, then the behaviors are understandably distressing. To fully recognize the way the crime is perpetrated and experienced, officers need to understand the experience of the victim. Context is critical in stalking cases. Stalking behaviors are easily minimized when not viewed within the contexts they occur (i.e., from the victim’s perspective).

The minimization of stalking and related crimes occurs in a social context. Many stalking behaviors have been normalized and accepted as part of the process of growing up and learning about relationships. Stalking themes can be found in music, film, television, advertising, and other media, which usually portray the behavior as comedic or romantic. Law enforcement officials should be aware of this social context and demonstrate leadership by publicly discussing the crime’s serious realities. Police leadership plays an essential role in the effective prevention of and response to the crime of stalking.

What else can law enforcement do to respond more effectively to stalking? First, it is critical that agencies have comprehensive policies and protocols in place. Published policy provides guidance and direction to officers, investigators, and supervisors, in addition to making a clear statement about what is valued and deemed important. In 2002, the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services published Creating an Effective Stalking Protocol, a monograph created by the Stalking Resource Center of the National Center for Victims of Crime. This publication provides a Model Stalking Protocol that summarizes the definitions of stalking and other legal considerations, the basic elements of response protocol, the roles of police communications personnel, graduated response strategies, and key elements in investigations of stalking cases. The protocol also acknowledges the complexity of the crime of stalking, establishes an early and effective response to stalking as a top priority, and recognizes that all jurisdictions have unique characteristics, processes, and allied partners that shape the response realities in a given community.9

Second, law enforcement agencies must provide officers with current and practical stalking response training. Training must establish the prevalence and dynamics of stalking, with a focus on the importance of understanding the context in which the crime occurs, and also provide a basic awareness of the technology that is increasingly used to perpetrate it. Training should emphasize the need for complete and comprehensive investigations framed within a course of conduct response rather than an incident-based response. The investigations of these cases require strong partnerships between victims and police. The training should also provide reminders of ways police officers can maintain critical connections with stalking victims, with an emphasis on the importance of working with system- and community-based advocates.

Law enforcement effectiveness is enhanced by developing and fostering partnerships with other resources, as well. Given that stalking is so complex and dynamic, no single profession or agency can simultaneously address all the elements of this crime and the needs of victims. Partnerships between law enforcement, prosecutors, community corrections, mental and health care providers, and system- and community-based advocates, among others, are extremely beneficial. Particularly, strong advocacy and police partnerships can help victims with activities such as understanding their rights, securing protection orders, and safety planning.

A clear stalking response policy and sound training are practical ways to demonstrate the value of being victim-centered and offender-focused. Demonstrating this value makes law enforcement less likely to believe a case simply involves “a few inappropriate text messages.” Instead, victim perspectives are recognized as valid, and offender conduct is seen as spanning a broad continuum. However, this continuum can be understood only through thoughtful investigations that include detailed documentation.

Finally, law enforcement officials can take advantage of the numerous resources available to assist in enhancing responses to stalking. IACP (http://www.theiacp.org) provides materials and executive law enforcement training on a variety of crimes, including stalking. The Stalking Resource Center at the National Center for Victims of Crime (http://www.victimsofcrime.org/src) is a valuable source for policy development, training and technical assistance, and resource materials. ♦


Notes:
1Michele C. Black et al., The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey: 2010 Summary Report (Atlanta, GA: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2011). These statistics, from the “National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey,” are based upon a conservative definition of stalking that required respondents to report having felt very fearful or concerned that harm would come to the victim or someone close to her/him as a result of the offender’s behavior in order to be considered a victim of stalking. This conservative definition of stalking, requiring a victim to feel very fearful, is problematic for a number of reasons. First, stalking victims commonly minimize the risk of harm and the effects of stalking on their lives. Second, no state, territorial, or federal law qualifies fear to require a victim to be very fearful. Using a less conservative definition of stalking, which considers any amount of fear (a little fearful, somewhat fearful, or very fearful), 1 in 4 women (25 percent) and 1 in 13 men (7.9 percent) reported being a victim of stalking in their lifetimes, with 6.5 percent and 2 percent of women and men, respectively, reporting stalking in the 12 months prior to taking the survey.
2J. Reid Meloy, The Psychology of Stalking: Clinical and Forensic Perspectives (San Diego, CA: Academic Press, 1998); Judith McFarlane et al., “Stalking and Intimate Partner Femicide,” Homicide Studies 3, no. 4 (November 1999): 300–316.
3Katrina Baum et al., Stalking Victimization in the United States (Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2009), http://www.ovw.usdoj.gov/docs/stalking-victimization.pdf (accessed November 1, 2013). Of stalking victimizations that were reported to law enforcement, 83 percent were made by the victim. Individuals other than the victim who reported the crime included the victim’s family, a friend or neighbor, an employer or coworker, a social worker or counselor, a school official, or a security guard.
4Baum, Stalking Victimization in the United States.
5Kris Mohandie et al., “The RECON Typology of Stalking: Reliability and Validity Based upon a Large Sample of North American Stalkers,” Journal of Forensic Sciences 51, no. 1 (January 2006): 147–155, http://www.victimsofcrime.org/docs/src/mohandie-k-meloy-r-green-mcgowan-m-williams-j-2005.pdf?sfvrsn=0 (accessed November 1, 2013).
6Baum, Stalking Victimization in the United States.
7Andrew Klein et.al., A Statewide Study of Stalking and Its Criminal Justice Response (National Institute of Justice, 2009), https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/228354.pdf (accessed November 1, 2013); Patricia Tjaden and Nancy Thoennes, Stalking: Its Role in Serious Domestic Violence Cases (Denver: Center for Policy Research, 2001), https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/187446.pdf (accessed November 1, 2013).
8“Criminal Stalking Laws by State,” Stalking Resource Center, National Center for Victims of Crime, laws current through August 12, 2013, http://victimsofcrime.org/our-programs/stalking-resource-center/stalking-laws/criminial-stalking-laws-by-state (accessed July 26, 2013).
9National Center for Victims of Crime, Creating an Effective Stalking Protocol (April 2002), http://victimsofcrime.org/docs/src/creating-an-effective-stalking-protocol.pdf?sfvrsn=2 (accessed August 7, 2013). The Model Stalking Protocol outlined in Creating an Effective Stalking Protocol was originally piloted by the Philadelphia Police Department. To learn more about the implementation and preliminary evaluation of the Philadelphia Police Department’s pilot testing of the Model Stalking Protocol see Sonia E Velazquez, Michelle Garcia, and Elizabeth Joyce, “Mobilizing a Community Response to Stalking: The Philadelphia Story,” The Police Chief 76 (January 2009): 30–37, www.policechiefmagazine.org/magazine/index.fm?fuseaction=display&article_id=1702&issue_id=12009 (accessed November 1, 2013).


Please cite as:

Paul Schnell and Michelle M. Garcia, “Connecting the Dots: The Challenges of Identifying and Responding to Stalking,” The Police Chief 80 (December 2013): 62–64.

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From The Police Chief, vol. LXXX, no. 12, December 2013. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.








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