The Shadow: On Not Taking Stalking SeriouslyS

Clare Waxman's life was ruined by a stalker - she was plagued by anxiety and fears for her family's safety for seven years . So why is sixteen weeks of jail time considered a just punishment?

A new article in the Guardian poses exactly this question, examining three different stalking cases in the context of the life-shattering after-effects, and the fairly light punishments received. The piece revolves around the recent judgment in the case of Waxman - after coping with seven years of harassment, silent phone calls, and physical threats (such as her stalker showing up at her child's day care and breaking into her car), the perpetrator was sentenced to sixteen weeks in jail, for violating the restraining order. Anti-stalking advocates are outraged by the decision, but it reflects cultural and societal attitudes about the nature of the crime.

Neil Addison, a barrister who specialises in harassment law, agrees that this can be a problem for the justice system. "Individual incidents may be trivial, but it's the totality of the incidents that make it harassment . . . Most stalkers are intelligent enough not to make threats; it's their presence that causes the fear, because you don't know what they will do. They often concentrate on their victim never feeling free of them, rather than a direct threat."

Many times, the threat is directly tied with the promise of violence. While many stalkers would paint themselves as persistent admirers, far too often their behavior is about control. Eventually, if the target (women are the most frequent victims of stalking, but men are also impacted) fails to behave in the way the stalker wants, the situation could become lethal. As the Guardian explains:

Such violence can go hand in hand with stalking, and can end in murder. "I did a study of 5,000 victims," says Sheridan, "and one in five had been sexually assaulted by a stalker. The violence rate is 20-30%." This is more common when the stalker and victim have had a previous relationship, such as in the case of Clare Bernal, who was just 22 when she was shot dead in the Harvey Nichols store where she worked. Her ex-boyfriend, Michael Pech, a security guard at the same store, had been due in court a week later for stalking her and had been released on bail when he murdered her and turned the gun on himself. Her mother, Patricia, says Pech had already threatened to kill Clare, but the Crown Prosecution Service had advised her to drop the charges. "One night, as he was following her, she turned around and told him she would report him. He said, 'If you report me I will kill you'. Then he smiled and stroked her face. We didn't know what to do. She was so scared."

Going to law enforcement is tricky. The Guardian documents the deficiencies in taking a harassment claim to the authorities in the UK, but as the United States Office of Justice points out, policy, laws, and legislation around stalking in any country leave much to be desired:

A review of anti-stalking and related legislation in 50 States found widespread misperceptions about stalking. Furthermore, many criminal justice personnel do not understand their States' anti-stalking laws, and many of the public are unaware that stalking is a crime. [...]

Although every State recognizes that stalking is a crime distinct from other offenses, many State laws lack adequate penalties. In 13 States, for example, an initial stalking offense is always a misdemeanor-only repeat occurrences are deemed felony offenses. Shortcomings include the lack of warrantless arrest for misdemeanor stalking in most States, and the absence of required training for law enforcement officers and prosecutors and their staffs. In fact, several prosecutors interviewed in the study commented that while the burden of proof in stalking cases was considerable, the punishment available was weak. Instead, prosecutors' preferred to charge constituent elements of stalking, including violation of protective orders, which far exceeded the sentencing available under stalking laws.

Even if anti-harassment laws exist, applying them to stop crime still proves to be difficult. One hazy issue is exactly what constitutes stalking? Is it categorized by an intent to instill fear into the target, or is it just the end result? How many attempts at contact have to happen before it is legally considered stalking? Is it simply a misunderstanding between coworkers or ex-lovers, or something more sinister?

Sadly, the vagueness of the law and definition of stalking ultimately means that many victims of stalking are left vulnerable. Many times, law enforcement is unable to help those who feel like they are in danger until after a violent act occurs. I unfortunately have a little too much secondhand experience in this area. My best friend (and roommate at the time) was being stalked by an abusive ex-boyfriend. She had been forced to flee their shared apartment a few states away and return home once the relationship became physically violent. A few months later, he also returned.

At first he just drove by the house. Then he deduced (correctly) that she had returned to her former job and began calling her place of work. Then, he began showing up a few days a week and following her home. She changed her phone number, her job, and her routes home from work, told everyone she knew not to provide him with any information, and eventually filed for (and received) a restraining order. She invested hours of her time and hundreds of dollars just to be free of him. The most frustrating thing to see was how the stalking took over her life: she often called to make sure someone knew where she was at all times, how she would peek out of the window before daring to leave any place, how she forced herself to go miles out of her way so he couldn't follow her to where she was going, how she gave up her usual hang out spots because he knew where she liked to spend time.

And, the most dedicated stalkers can always find loopholes. Coming to the job site and waiting until just before the police arrived before beating a hasty exit. Parking exactly the amount of distance required by the restraining order and making his presence known by standing in plain site. But the worst thing was his ability to play into existing cultural narratives to gain access to my friend. He would position himself to her bosses or friends that did not know the situation as a jilted lover, someone who just wanted to talk, and play upon the sympathies of others who just wanted to help a poor guy in love. (Clearly, he never mentioned the history of violence that underscored his behavior and led to the end of their relationship in the first place.)

The Guardian
refers to the plight of Clare Bernal, a twenty-two year old murdered by her ex-boyfriend as he awaited sentencing on stalking charges. Even if he had been sentenced, as Waxman learned, the idea of safety would be all too short. Luckily for my friend, her stalker eventually moved on.

Stalkers are criminals – not 'incompetent suitors' [The Guardian]
Policy and Legislation on Stalking [Office of Justice Programs]

Earlier: Erin Andrews's Stalker: Just Another "Normal Guy"