A recent article on CNN claims that “stalking has become epidemic” and cites a new study published this month by the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics that estimates that 3.4 million Americans per year are victims of stalking. For some perspective, that’s more than the entire population of Chicago.
Women have been coming forward to talk about being victims of stalking. Kate Brennan’s memoir of her nightmarish years of being stalked made headlines in the New York Times and Megan Carpentier’s post on Jezebel about being stalked by a former co-worker left me feeling rattled. Over the years I’ve been mildly alarmed by men I’ve met who simply wouldn’t stop calling (or appearing), but fortunately it never escalated into criminal behavior. Nearly every woman I know has at least one story of someone—nearly always a man—whose stalker-y behavior creeped them out, or worse.
Anonymous Prosecutor has prosecuted stalkers and worked with their victims, and was willing to answer my questions. NB: Laws on stalking vary from state to state, but what you are about to read will generally apply everywhere.
Q: If I have a dude–like an ex-boyfriend, an acquaintance or a co-worker–who follows me around, won’t stop calling and makes me nervous, what should I do?
A: First, communicate to him that you don’t want him to contact you anymore. This does not have to be done in person. It can be done through a written message or a third party. If you go to the police, they will certainly reach out to the person for you to deliver this message. If he persists afterwards, then you should notify the local police.
Q: At what point does creepy behavior cross the line into stalking?
A: It becomes stalking when there is behavior that the stalker knows or reasonably should know is likely to cause fear in the stalked person or when it harms the mental or emotional health of the person and the stalker was clearly warned to cease the conduct.
Q: Should I confront him? Should I have my father, boyfriend, brother, best friend try to talk some sense into my stalker?
A: The stalker should definitely be confronted in the sense that he should be told to stop what he’s doing. If you think a third party can successfully do this, then that might be a good idea. A safe option is to have a local police officer inform him that he must stop – in many cases, this will be the most effective and persuasive way to let the stalker know that his conduct is not wanted.
Q. When should I go to the police? How do I get them to take the situation seriously even if I haven’t been physically threatened?
A. You should go to the police as soon as you feel unsafe. New York and other states have strong anti-stalking laws. If a police officer does not take the situation seriously, go to another police officer, or contact a local domestic violence organization or the DA’s office.
Q: What about restraining orders? Does he need to be violent in order for me to get one?
A: In New York, if you are or were married to the stalker, or if you have a child with him, you can get an order of protection by going to family court. Otherwise, you can only get an order of protection if he is arrested, which is why you want to involve the police.
Q: Do restraining orders really work, anyway? I hear stories all the time about women being murdered even though they had restraining orders against their killers.
A: Orders of protection provide the prosecutor with a lot of leverage once they are broken. That is their greatest strength. Obviously, if the stalker violates the order in a violent and/or lethal manner, this isn’t much consolation. However, if there is ongoing stalking, an order of protection can be very helpful. For example, if a man pushes a woman and she falls down, it is considered harassment, which is a violation under New York law, not even a misdemeanor. If the same man pushes the same woman while an order of protection is in effect, it is a felony and the man faces felony Criminal Contempt and up to four years in prison.
Q: To be fair, I assume you have seen female stalkers and male victims?
A: Yes, I had one case in particular in which a guy met a woman online and I think went out on only one date. She kept emailing and calling him repeatedly, even after he told her to stop. He brought in pages and pages of emails. She kept being arrested and given probation, and then would go back to emailing and calling him over and over again. She was obviously very disturbed and we tried to get her help.
Q: At what point will a DA file charges against someone for stalking? Do I have to ask them to do that?
A: This will depend on the DA office and how aggressive/competent it is. Most have domestic violence prosecutors who are trained in prosecuting stalking offenses. If the conduct persists after the person is told to stop, the DA’s office and/or the police should file stalking charges. Letting them know that you are requesting an arrest is very helpful, although not required.
Q: What’s the maximum penalty for stalking? In your experience, does jail time or probation put an end to the stalking?
A: If physical injury is caused during stalking, the defendant can face up to 7 years in prison. Some stalkers will cease their behavior once they face jail time or probation, but unfortunately some will not.
Got questions about the law and violence against women? Unfortunately we can’t help with individual situations, but we’re taking requests for future discussions with Anonymous Prosecutor. E-mail BeckySharper or post in the comments.