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Stalking: New Studies Shed Light on a Crime That Repeatedly Terrorizes Its Victims Stalking is hard to identify and stop. A new report illustrates the severity of the problem and its consequences

By Martin W. G. King, NCPC Staff, and Angela Sivak, NCPC Intern

In 2006, stalkers victimized 3.4 million people in the United States, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Stalkers pose a serious problem for law enforcement and a grave threat to people’s lives. According to the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, U.S. Department of Justice, “both stalking and domestic violence are linked to lethal violence: a full one-third of women killed in the United States each year die at the hands of a current or former intimate partner.”

Federal law makes it “a federal crime, punishable from five years to life in prison, to travel across state, tribal, or international lines to stalk another person. The defendant must have the intent to kill, injure, harass, or intimidate the victim, or to place the victim, a family member, or a spouse or intimate partner of the victim, in fear of death or serious bodily injury.” Other federal laws against stalking deal with stalking associated with domestic violence and use of the telephone and Internet. States and local jurisdictions also have strict laws against stalking.

As reflected in federal law, rapid advancements in technology in the past decade have made stalkers even more dangerous, since they can now use cell phones, computers, and surveillance equipment to keep the object of their obsession in their sights.

Stalking can have a devastating impact. A recent study, Stalking Victimization in the United States, published by the Bureau of Justice Statistics in conjunction with the National Institute of Justice (both U.S. Department of Justice agencies), illustrates the severity of the crime. According to this study, “about one in five victims feared bodily harm to themselves, and one in six feared for the safety of a child or other family member. About one in ten stalking victims feared being killed by the stalker.” In fact, the study said, about 40 percent of stalkers threatened the victim’s family members or co-workers, suggesting that this problem extends far beyond the actual intended victim.

Moreover, stalking has other effects. Many victims lose time from their jobs as a result of being stalked, and, according to the BJS-NIJ study, 130,000 victims reported being fired outright as a direct result of being stalked. Others had to pay the costs of relocating, when they decided to move to hide from the stalker, or to pursue remedies associated with such crimes as identity theft, when the crimes were perpetrated by the stalker.

In addition, thirty percent of female victims and 20 percent of male victims seek mental health treatment as a result of being stalked. According to the January 2002 Journal of Interpersonal Violence, victims of stalking suffer anxiety, insomnia, social dysfunction, and severe depression.

When the interviews for the study were conducted, about 60 percent reported that the stalker had stopped harassing them, while 40 percent reported the crime was still in progress. According to the BJS-NIJ study, the most common reason the stalking stopped was that “the police warned the stalker (15.6 percent), the victim talked to the stalker (13.3 percent), or a friend or relative intervened (12.2 percent). About a tenth of victims attributed the cessation of the unwanted behavior to obtaining a restraining, protection, or stay away order.”

Stalking behavior often originates out of an intimate relationship gone bad. Based on statistics from the National Center for Victims of Crime, nearly 60 percent of female victims and 30 percent of male victims are stalked by an intimate partner. However, this does not make the stalker any less dangerous. According to data gathered by the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing, 81 percent of females stalked by an intimate partner are physically assaulted by their stalker and 31 percent are sexually assaulted.

Most stalkers have some traits in common. These include social insecurity, intense jealousy, narcissism, and morbid infatuation. Stalkers likely have a history of criminal behavior or substance abuse, and many have been in psychiatric treatment. An experience of loss in the past seven years is also a common factor in a stalker’s history. Unfortunately, their shared traits do not make stalkers easy to identify. Most do not appear mentally ill. They can have all different kinds of backgrounds, motivations, and psychological disorders.

Law enforcement has a hard time assessing and arresting stalkers. They are not as identifiable as, for example, muggers or robbers, and the evidence of a crime is often based on one person’s word versus another’s. Stalking can appear to be a part of a relationship, so it may appear to be a form of courtship. However, if the victim is being frightened, law enforcement is trained to step in and prevent this behavior before it escalates into lethal violence.

Despite the frequent ability of stalkers to escape identification and arrest, law enforcement has an advantage. Since stalking is not a single act, but a series of behaviors, police have numerous opportunities to catch the criminal in action. And it is always best for the police to arrest the stalker sooner rather than later, as his or her behavior can escalate over time.

Unfortunately, it is hard for law enforcement to keep victims safe from stalkers. A court-issued restraining order may have little to no effect. According to investigators, stalking can continue for years after the first conviction. Further action may be required, and thus law enforcement needs to stay in contact with victims and ensure the offender does not revert to his or her previous behavior of terrorizing the victim.

Provided by The National Crime Prevention Council

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