Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

Responses to the Problem of Stalking

Your analysis of your local problem should give you a better understanding of the factors contributing to it. Once you have analyzed your local problem and established a baseline for measuring effectiveness, you should consider possible strategies to address the problem.

The following response strategies provide a foundation of ideas for addressing your particular problem. These strategies are drawn from a variety of sources, including research studies, police surveys, and police reports. Several of these strategies may apply to your community's problem. It is critical that you tailor responses to local circumstances, and that you can justify each response based on reliable analysis. You should handle each case individually, based on the particular circumstances. A thorough threat assessment can be invaluable in formulating an appropriate response. In most cases, an effective strategy will involve implementing several different responses. Law enforcement responses alone are seldom effective in reducing or solving the problem. Do not limit yourself to considering what police can do: give careful consideration to who else in your community shares responsibility for the problem and can help police better respond to it.

  1. Identifying stalking cases early. Because every stalking case is potentially lethal, the sooner police identify stalking, the greater the chance of protecting the victim from physical harm. Stalking behavior commonly escalates over time, with stalkers becoming increasingly obsessive and more willing to become violent. You can more easily identify stalking cases by asking victims if there are other related incidents, reviewing incident reports each day, examining protective orders for language suggesting repeated behavior, and reviewing the calls for service history.
  2. Getting effective victim input. You should actively engage victims in investigations. They can provide ongoing information about the contacts the stalker makes in person, through voice mail, in letters, in faxes, in email, or through unwanted gifts, and describe the fear they feel as a result. Victims' family members, neighbors, employers, coworkers, and others are also potentially important witnesses. They are often very aware of the stalking behavior and can corroborate victims' statements.
  3. Ensuring that victims receive consistent, professional support services throughout the criminal justice process. Counselors and victim advocates can help victims be effective witnesses and take proper steps to protect themselves. They can maintain frequent contact with victims and stress the importance of carefully documenting all stalking incidents; help victims create and maintain stalking logs, devise safety plans, and develop supportive networks; assess victim needs and help victims to access housing, health, and mental health services; and help victims weigh the advantages and disadvantages of civil protection orders. In addition, victim advocates can help police develop more effective anti-stalking policies and train officers to apply them. The Domestic Violence Intervention Project in Alexandria, Va., created a support group for stalking victims to address their particular safety concerns and emotional needs. The project developed "stalking sacks" to help victims build their cases, as well as provide for their safety. Sacks include stalking logs, notebooks, disposable cameras, latex gloves, plastic bags, books about stalking, microcassette recorders, cell phones, personal alarms, pepper spray, and copies of the stalking statute, among other items. Some stalking victims may have special needs. Such victims include those with mental illness, substance abuse problems, or disabilities; the elderly; ethnic and religious minorities; those with immigration issues; those who are illiterate or cannot speak or read English; and those being stalked by someone of the same gender.
  4. Using a collaborative, multidisciplinary approach. Stalking victims often require a broad range of services. A collaborative approach encourages quicker responses from the most appropriate providers. Among the community resources that may be necessary to address stalking are the following:

    The San Diego Stalking Strike Force was established in the mid­1990s. It comprises police officials, prosecutors, judges, victim advocates, and mental health professionals. It promotes stalking awareness, makes training recommendations, and develops model protocols for stalker treatment programs. Its Stalking Case Assessment Team, which includes police, prosecutors, victim/witness advocates, probation officials, and mental health professionals, meets regularly to address problems reported by the police or stalking victims.

    • domestic violence shelters,
    • mental health treatment providers,
    • housing associations,
    • schools and colleges,
    • faith-based programs,
    • neighborhood watch organizations, and
    • victim advocacy organizations.
    The various law enforcement agencies in your area should also develop systems for sharing information and coordinating responses when stalking occurs in multiple jurisdictions. Police should work with major employers to make sure they have workplace violence policies and protocols in place and offer support to employees who are being victimized. Coworkers and supervisors of stalking victims should know what to do if stalking behavior occurs at work. In addition, telephone and Internet service providers should have policies and protocols that protect victims' personal information and block stalkers' ability to contact victims.
  5. Enforcing all relevant laws. Stalking statutes should be enforced in conjunction with all other relevant laws. Police can rely on laws against domestic violence, phone harassment, vandalism, voyeurism, trespass, court-order violations, and many other crimes to hold stalkers accountable and protect victims. Sometimes it is just as effective to charge under a non-stalking statute. For instance, violations of protection orders often allow prosecutors to have supervision conditions imposed on offenders until stalking cases are ready for prosecution, and to secure convictions. In all cases, all relevant laws should be considered.
  6. Assessing the threat the stalker poses. Threat assessment is crucial to controlling stalking.30 You should assess each case individually. Be alert to offender characteristics and behaviors that suggest the stalker may become violent. 31 Prior sexual intimacy, prior criminal convictions, and substance abuse are among the strongest predictors of stalker violence. 32 Former intimates often know their victims' daily routines and schedules, and have special access to their victims (e.g., through child custody arrangements). Thus they often pose the most significant physical risks to victims. Other factors to consider include explicit threats, symbolic violence, personality disorders and the presence or absence of a major mental disorder. 33 Former intimates who stalk often suffer from personality disorders but do not necessarily suffer from major mental disorders. The absence of a major mental disorder can also be an indication that the offender is capable of formulating an organized plan. For this reason, the mental health of an offender should be considered. In addition to helping police prioritize cases and devise case strategy, a thorough threat assessment can provide valuable information regarding bail issues, conditions of release, sentencing, and probation, and provide the basis for mental health interventions such as involuntary hospitalization.

    Former intimates can also harm their victims in nonphysical ways. For example, knowing victims' bank account and social security numbers can help them destroy their victims' credit through methods such as identity theft.

  7. Warning and arresting stalkers. Some stalkers may not know their behavior is criminal; others may believe their behavior is acceptable due to their relationship with the victim. You should firmly inform offenders about what behavior constitutes stalking in your state. When probable cause exists, you should promptly arrest stalkers. (Following arrest, prosecutors should seek bail and sentencing conditions requiring supervision of stalkers and restricting their contact with victims.)
  8. Adopting a graduated-response stalking protocol. A graduated-response stalking protocol determines the appropriate police intervention level based on the particular incident and its context in the pattern of stalking behavior. It also allocates resources to protect victims and control offenders. The following illustrates how such a protocol works. A complete discussion about developing an effective stalking protocol can be found in a companion document prepared by the National Center for Victims of Crime (2002).[Full text]
    Intervention Level Actions to Protect Victims Actions to Control Offenders
    Level 1 First police awareness
    • Gather information.
    • Help the victim develop and implement a safety and implement a safety plan.
    • Help the victim obtain a protective order.
    • Refer the victim to support services.
    • Deliver the first official warning to the offender, explaining the law and policy.
    • Check whether the offender has prior arrests and convictions.
    • Arrest the offender if probable cause exists.
    • If applicable, contact the offender's probation or parole officer and enlist his or her help.
    • Refer the offender to counseling or other services that may control his or her behavior.
    • Conduct a threat assessment (referring to the next level, if appropriate).
    Level 2 Second incident, warranting stalking charges or indicating an escalation in behavior
    • Increase the victim's personal and home security by providing him or her with a cell phone, a personal alarm, or video surveillance.
    • If the victim consents, consider enlisting the aid of family members, neighbors, coworkers, and community watch associations.
    • Continue using victim advocates to update the safety plan when appropriate, as well as explore safe locations for the victim should he or she need temporary housing.
    • Arrest the offender under the stalking statute or other appropriate statutes.
    • Revise the threat assessment, and use it to oppose or influence bail.
    • Increase offender monitoring.
    • Begin surveillance of the offender.
    • Use technology to identify the offender's locations and actions.
    • Consider other interventions such as psychiatric evaluation and/or civil commitment of the offender.
    Level 3 Subsequent incidents
    • Increase security and safety systems to the highest level. Continue helping the victim update the safety plan. Refer the victim to a "safehouse" or other shelter unknown to the offender.
    • Formulate a plan with the victim for responding to an emergency situation.
    • Increase prosecution and surveillance efforts. Monitor the offender's activity whenever possible.
    • Arrest the offender or deter him or her in any way possible, including civil commitment.
    • Continue reevaluating and revising the threat assessment.
    • Plan for a possible emergency, such as violence at the victim's workplace, home, or school; violence toward anyone perceived as blocking the offender's access to the victim; and other scenarios, such as a possible homicide/suicide or hostage­ taking/barricade.
    Level 4 Emergency intervention
    • Implement the emergency response plan.
    • Use all available means to secure the victim's safety, including emergency response teams, if necessary.
    • Document the reasons for implementing this response.
    • Implement the emergency response plan.
    • Use all available means to eliminate the threat to the victim, the public, and those responding to the situation.
    • Document the reasons for implementing this response.

    Although the protocol specifies interventions based on the number of incidents, it also allows for more intensive interventions, depending on the severity of the case. For example, a case involving a violent attack by a stalker may be assigned a Level 3 response, even if the assault is the first incident.

  9. Monitoring stalkers and gathering evidence. Surveilling stalkers enables police to gather direct evidence of stalking behavior, and provides corroboration for victim accounts of similar incidents. Electronic monitoring helps ensure that the offender physically stays away from the victim while on bail or other conditional release.
  10. Providing victims with a single point of contact. To the extent possible, stalking victims should be assigned a single point of contact in the police department (and a single point of contact in the prosecutor's office, if criminal charges are filed), to ensure that the case file contains all relevant information and the victim receives consistent advice. In addition, all police officers should be trained in stalking investigation and response so they can properly assist victims should the single point of contact be unavailable.