Tracking an Obsession
Ten years ago, there was not a single anti-stalking law in America. But after television actress Rebecca Schaeffer was shot to death by an obsessed fan in 1989, setting off a flood tide of media and political attention, California became the first state to attempt to define stalking and protect its citizens against the crime. In the years since, every US state has followed suit.There's no question that, from a legal standpoint, stalking victims have more options than they did a decade ago. Most state anti-stalking laws will penalize offenders for acts of harassment ranging from repeated telephone calls to physical violence. A federal statute makes it a felony offense to stalk someone across state lines. And after 21-year-old Kristin Lardner was gunned down on Comm Ave in 1992 by an ex-boyfriend already on probation for harassing another woman, Massachusetts pioneered a system whereby victims who obtain restraining orders have their stalkers' criminal histories automatically checked.Despite these advances, however, stalking specialists say that too often, victims feel unprotected by the legal system. Like recent Hyannis murder victim Elsie Korpela, who was murdered in early December by a boyfriend with a history of violence against women, they do not seek out or cannot obtain appropriate assistance. Until police and courts become more aggressive about enforcing anti-stalking laws, specialists warn, preventable tragedies will continue to occur."Passing laws was the easy part," says David Beatty, director of public policy for the National Victim Center, in Washington, D.C. "Implementing those laws -- and training police and judges how to use them -- is much harder."The need for such training is urgent, Beatty says. A recently released US Department of Justice survey found that more than 1.4 million Americans are victimized by stalkers annually, a number that the surveyors gauge as "conservative." Only half of the victims reported to police that they were being stalked, the survey found -- and fewer than half of those were satisfied with how their cases were handled."Stalking is exactly where rape was 20 years ago," says Renee Goodale, the founder of Survivors of Stalking, a Tampa, FloridaÐbased national support group. "Victims are reluctant to bring charges because the laws aren't being enforced."In the meantime, a silent crime wave continues. The Justice Department survey -- which used 8000 subjects and took more than one year to complete -- found that 8 percent of American women and 2 percent of men had been stalked at some point in their lives. Most of the victims were between the ages of 18 and 29 when the stalking began, and most knew their stalker as a current or former spouse or intimate partner.When victims decide to seek outside help, the most common approach is to obtain a restraining order against the stalker. But there's no unanimity on the effectiveness of these orders. Of the female victims surveyed by the Justice Department, roughly one-quarter obtained protective, or restraining, orders (for men, the percentage is far lower). Nearly 80 percent of the time, however, these restraining orders were violated by the stalker.Stalking specialists agree that for many victims, taking out a restraining order can be an important first step -- indeed, in the case of Elsie Korpela, getting a restraining order against stalker Peter Groome would have triggered a background check and alerted her to Groome's past history of abuse toward women. But viewing restraining orders as a solution is a serious mistake, warns Goodale."Far too often, victims put too much weight upon what a protective order can do," Goodale says. "It does build a better case, and it does build a paper trail, but we always tell victims not to let their guard down and think a protective order is going stop a stalker."The lack of consensus over restraining orders mirrors a long-standing general disagreement over the best way to handle a stalker. Victims are sometimes torn between two somewhat competing approaches to dealing with their dangerous situation.The first approach is a proactive one: go to police, obtain a restraining order, and notify the stalker that the harassment will no longer be tolerated. This approach not only enters the case into the legal system; it also allows both the victim and the police to build a case against the stalker for future arrest and prosecution. Sometimes, police will take an even more aggressive tack -- contacting the stalker personally, and issuing a warning to stop.But there are several problems with this approach, critics say. The first is the law; in many cases, stalkers who harass their victims are not explicitly breaking the law, and police must be careful to not step on civil liberties. Another concern is that calling on the authorities may tip the scales toward violence. Some stalking specialists think that restraining orders and police involvement give stalkers a feeling of legitimacy and validation -- they are making an impact upon their victim's life, even if it's a negative impact."Stalkers establish their self-worth by pressing, threatening, and controlling their partners," says the National Victim Center's Beatty. "With that kind of dynamic, you have to be really careful about what you do as a victim. Often, a stalker will say, ÔIf she thinks she can bring the [police] down upon me ... she's got another think coming.'"For this reason and others, some specialists prefer a less confrontational approach. Contact is severed, telephone numbers are changed, mail is returned, threats are unanswered. Victims change their personal habits -- the route they take to work, the time they mow the lawn -- in order to stymie a stalker's advances. Sometimes, however, these steps make little difference, and a victim may be forced to make more radical changes -- getting a new job, relocating within the neighborhood, or moving out of town altogether.Michigan-based specialist Michael Scott helps stalking victims make this noninterventionist approach work. The author of an anti-stalking guidebook called How to Lose Anyone, Anywhere, Scott also operates an e-mail-only consulting service in which he advises victims on how to get a stalker out of their lives. In almost every case, victims -- not police or the courts -- can provide the best defense against harassment."I try to help people empower themselves," Scott says. "No one is going to care more about your situation than you are."Of course, not every stalking victim can make radical changes in his or her life. Though Scott prefers the less aggressive philosophy, he does not completely disavow police involvement. The best anti-stalking strategy, most specialists agree, often combines the interventionist and noninterventionist approaches: get a restraining order and involve legal authorities, but also take personal steps to eliminate future contact with a stalker. (For example, victims are always instructed to cut off personal contact with a stalker, and to document each advance made, in order to provide investigators with a detailed record of the case.)Thankfully, now more than ever, the law sits squarely on the stalking victim's side. Since California passed the country's first statute in 1990, anti-stalking law has been a work in progress, modified in response to law-enforcement complaints and occasional constitutional challenges. A 1996 Department of Justice report on domestic violence and anti-stalking legislation (not part of the recently released stalking study) said that "a hodgepodge of flawed statutes" had placed prosecutors "in a position of dealing with laws that were virtually unenforceable due to ambiguities and the dual requirements to show both specific intent and credible threat."Since the early legislation was passed, however, many state anti-stalking laws have been better defined; the current statutes, according to the Justice Department report, are stronger because they "include specific intent and credible threat requirements, broaden definitions, refine wording, stiffen penalties, and emphasize the suspects pattern of activity." In almost every instance, they permit prosecution for a pattern of harassment, even if it isn't overtly violent or threatening: stalkers can be punished for repeatedly making nonaggressive advances in the form of unwanted telephone calls, mail, or gifts."It shouldn't have to go to the point of injury or death," says Renee Goodale.At the same time, however, anti-stalking laws must respect constitutional rights. This concern has hampered the drafting and implementation of anti-stalking laws that involve the Internet and other communication tools, critics complain. But to a large extent, anti-stalking laws have withstood legal challenges. Here in Massachusetts, the state supreme court has clarified the anti-stalking law only once, ruling in 1994 that a person cannot be charged with stalking unless he or she allegedly commits "more than two" threatening acts.Still, national stalking specialists agree that strong laws won't be effective without better enforcement. There are only a few police departments in the country with special units assigned specifically to handle stalking complaints -- including those in Knoxville, Tennessee; Dover, New Hampshire; and Los Angeles, where the groundbreaking Threat Management Unit was started largely in response to stalkings of celebrities and public figures. "There is a rape crisis center in virtually every city in the US, and there should be a [stalking unit] in every city, too," Goodale says.Short of creating a new police unit, however, the National Victim Center's Beatty advises aggressive training of police, prosecutors, and judges. Just as they have been sensitized to the issues of sexual assault and domestic violence, law enforcement agencies must be taught how to build and handle stalking cases, Beatty says. "We still run up against the Neanderthal aspect," he admits. "Many [police] people see stalking as being less of a crime."But as the recent Department of Justice survey showed, stalking is a pervasive and serious threat. According to the survey, more than 45 percent of victims are overtly threatened. Seventy-five percent are followed and spied upon. Thirty percent see their property vandalized. But too few victims are willing to turn to the law, because they are worried that their complaints won't be taken seriously.This is indefensible, says Beatty, because in almost every stalking case that turns violent -- like Elsie Korpela's -- the warnings signs were already there."This is one of those rare opportunities where law enforcement gets a chance to prevent a murder before it occurs," he says. "How many times do you get a chance like that?"