• Center for Problem oriented policing

The Problem of Stalking

This guide reviews the problem of stalking and the factors that contribute to it. It then identifies a series of questions to help you analyze your local problem. Finally, it reviews responses to the problem, and what is known about them from evaluative research and police practice.

Defining Stalking

Stalking creates uncertainty, instills fear, and can completely disrupt lives. It can involve severe—even lethal—violence. Stalking involves a pattern of overtly criminal and/or apparently innocent behavior that makes victims fear for themselves or others.

Stalking is distinguishable from many other types of crime in two important ways. First, it entails repeat victimization of a person the offender targets—it is, by its very nature, a series of acts, rather than a single incident. Second, it is partly defined by its impact on the victim. While legal definitions of stalking vary from state to state, the following is a useful general definition:

A course of conduct directed at a specific person that would cause a reasonable person fear. 1

Prevalence and Nature of Stalking

Stalking is widespread. Nearly one in 12 women and one in 45 men are stalked at least once in their lifetime. 2 It is estimated that more than a million women and nearly half a million men are stalked in the United States each year.3 The overwhelming majority (78 percent) of victims are women, and the majority of offenders (87 percent) are men.4

Most victims know their stalkers. Even though we often hear reports of fans stalking celebrities, survey evidence indicates that fewer than a quarter of female victims and a third of male victims are stalked by strangers.5 Nearly 60 percent of female victims and 30 percent of male victims are stalked by current or former intimate partners.6 In intimate-partner cases, fewer than half of stalking incidents occur after the relationship ends.7 Most of the time, the stalking occurs during the relationship.8, †

† In cases involving intimate partners, 21 percent of victims surveyed reported that stalking occurred during the relationship, 36 percent reported that it occurred both during and after the relationship, and 43 percent reported that it started after the relationship.

Stalking and domestic violence intersect in a variety of ways. Research indicates that 81 percent of women stalked by an intimate have been physically assaulted by that person.9 Thirty-one percent of women stalked by an intimate have been sexually assaulted by that person.10 Offenders who stalk former intimate partners are more likely to have physically or sexually assaulted them before the relationship ended.11

Stalking is often a feature of relationships involving domestic violence.12 Like domestic violence, it is a crime of power and control. In one study about stalking and prestalking relationships, over 50 percent of the women were psychologically abused, 65 percent reported physical abuse, and 8.6 percent experienced sexual abuse during their relationship.13 If stalking is defined as a course of conduct that intimidates or frightens the victim, then relationships involving domestic violence also involve stalking.

Both domestic violence and stalking are linked to lethal violence. Research has revealed that one-third of women killed each year in the United States die at the hands of a current or former intimate.14 It is estimated that 25 to 35 percent of stalking cases involve violence.15 And when stalking leads to violence, it is often a precursor to lethal violence. Studies show that stalking precedes an exceedingly high proportion of homicides by intimates.16 In over 75 percent of completed and attempted female homicides by intimates, the offenders stalked the victims in the year before the offense.17

Victims report only about half of stalking incidents to the police.18 Generally, those who do not report do not think the matter is criminal, do not think the police can help them, or fear that reporting will make the stalker even more dangerous.19 Twenty percent of victims who reported stalking stated that the police did not act regarding their complaints.20 Other victims may not report incidents because they may minimize the risk a stalker poses or blame themselves for the stalker's behavior.

State and Federal Anti-Stalking Laws

The first stalking law was passed in California in 1990. Since then, increasing awareness about stalking's impact has led legislatures in all 50 states to pass stalking laws. While legislation is critical, laws alone accomplish little without clear anti-stalking policies and effective enforcement. Yet most police agencies across the country have not adopted distinct stalking-intervention protocols and procedures.

Stalking laws vary from state to state, but they share certain basic elements. Statutes generally define stalking in terms of a course of conduct or pattern of behavior that would cause a reasonable person to fear bodily injury or death for himself/herself or a member of his/her immediate family. Similarly, under most state laws, two or more incidents are required to establish a course of conduct. Because state laws vary, you should consult with your local prosecutor regarding your state's stalking law to be clear about what evidence is necessary to build a stalking case. In addition to specific stalking statutes, numerous other state and local laws relating to a wide variety of crimes and the investigation or prevention of crime may be relevant in stalking cases. These include laws governing:

  • Protective/restraining orders
  • Threats, assaults, and attempted murder
  • Kidnapping
  • Vandalism and other property crimes
  • Theft
  • Domestic violence
  • Sexual assault
  • Hate crimes
  • Terrorism or terrorist threats
  • Annoying phone calls and other forms of harassment
  • Identity theft
  • Utility theft
  • Wiretapping

Federal statutes specifically relating to or applicable to stalking may provide further options for prosecuting stalkers.†

† Relevant federal laws include Full Faith and Credit (U.S.C. § 2265), Interstate Stalking (U.S.C. § 2261), Interstate Domestic Violence (U.S.C. § 2261), Interstate Violation of a Protection Order (U.S.C. § 2262), Federal Domestic Violence Firearm Prohibitions (U.S.C. 922), Interstate Communications (U.S.C. 875), and Harassing Telephone Calls in Interstate Communications [U.S.C. § 233(a)(1)(C)].

Related Problems

Other related problems and issues not directly addressed by this guide include:

Factors Contributing to Stalking

Understanding the factors that contribute to stalking will help you frame your own local analysis questions, determine good effectiveness measures, recognize key intervention points, and select appropriate responses.

Stalking Behaviors

Stalking, by definition, is not a one-time act but a course of conduct. It may involve a mix of patently criminal acts and acts that, in isolation, would seem nonthreatening. It is the pattern and context of these criminal and noncriminal acts that constitute stalking.

Stalking often includes:

  • Assaulting the victim
  • Violating protective orders†
  • Sexually assaulting the victim
  • Vandalizing the victim's property
  • Burglarizing the victim's home or otherwise stealing from the victim
  • Threatening the victim
  • Killing the victim's pet(s) 
† Sixty-nine percent of female and 81 percent of male victims with protective orders reported that their stalkers had violated the order (Tjaden and Thoennes 1998).
Other common stalking behaviors include:
  • Sending the victim cards or gifts
  • Leaving telephone or email messages for the victim
  • Disclosing to the victim personal information the offender has uncovered about him or her
  • Disseminating personal information about the victim to others
  • Following the victim
  • Visiting the victim at work
  • Waiting outside the victim's home
  • Sending the victim photographs taken of him or her without consent
  • Monitoring the victim's Internet history and computer usage
  • Using technology to gather images of or information about the victim  

Types of Stalkers 

While stalkers come from different backgrounds and have different personalities, researchers have developed several widely accepted typologies of them. It is important to emphasize that, while stalker typologies can be helpful, they are only general classifications. Whenever possible, a properly trained professional should conduct a threat assessment. Individual stalkers may not precisely fit any single category, and often exhibit characteristics associated with more than one category. However, the typology can alert investigators and victim advocates to certain general characteristics exhibited by similar stalkers, and help them with threat assessment and safety planning.

One widely accepted typology of stalkers21 is based on the stalker's underlying motives, and includes the following categories:

Simple obsessional. This is the most common type. The stalker is usually a male, and the victim an ex-spouse, ex-lover, or former boss. The stalking sometimes results from the stalker's feeling the victim has mistreated him or her. In intimate relationships, the stalking frequently begins before a breakup.

Love obsessional. The stalker is a stranger or casual acquaintance to the victim, but is obsessed and begins a campaign of harassment to make the victim aware of his or her existence. This type often stalks a celebrity or public figure, but can also stalk a noncelebrity.

Erotomania. The stalker falsely believes that the victim is in love with him or her, and that, but for some external obstacle or interference, they would be together. The victim may be rich or famous, or in a position of power (e.g., a movie star, employer, or political figure). In this situation, the stalker could also pose a great risk to those close to the victim (e.g., a spouse or lover perceived to be "in the way").

False victimization syndrome. This is extremely rare and involves someone who consciously or subconsciously wants to play the role of victim. He or she may make up a complex tale, claiming to be a stalking victim. In such cases, the would-be victim is sometimes the actual stalker, and the alleged offender is the real victim.

Another typology used to classify stalkers identifies them by their relationship to the victim.22 This typology divides stalkers into two basic categories: intimate and nonintimate.† The following is a brief description of these categories:

† The typology terms actually used are "domestic" and "nondomestic." "Intimate" and "nonintimate" are used here for clarity.

Intimate. A former relationship exists between the stalker and the victim. There is likely a history of abuse, such as domestic violence, by the stalker. The stalker often seeks to reestablish a relationship the victim has tried to end.

Nonintimate. The stalker has no interpersonal relationship with the victim. He or she may choose the victim after a brief encounter, or simply after observing the victim. The victim is often unable to identify the stalker when he or she first becomes aware of being stalked. This type is subdivided into two categories:

  • Organized. The relationship between the stalker and the victim is characterized by one-way, anonymous communication from stalker to victim. The stalker is methodical and calculating, and the victim usually does not know the stalker's identity.
  • Delusional. The relationship between the stalker and the victim is based solely on the stalker's psychological fixation on the victim. The stalker is delusional and falsely believes he or she has a relationship or other connection with the victim.

Again, stalkers often exhibit behaviors from more than one typology. The typologies are an overview, and you should never use them as a substitute for a thorough threat assessment.

Stalkers are, by their very nature, obsessive and dangerous.23 Regardless of typology, you should always consider stalkers capable of killing their victims. Anyone the stalker perceives as impeding his or her contact with the victim, including police, prosecutors, and advocates, is also at risk. Some stalkers seek union with their victims through murder-suicide.24 Any suicidal statements or gestures the stalker makes should serve as an indication that the stalker is a high-risk threat. You should also examine the stalker's background for depression, psychiatric hospitalizations, and other indications that he or she may be suicidal.

Stalking's Impact on Victims

Unlike the case with many crimes, the legal definition of stalking covers not only the offender's behavior but also the effects on the victim. The victim's psychological responses and the changes the victim makes in his or her life as a result of stalking can all be used as evidence of the fear the offender has caused.

Stalking's impact is often wide-ranging, severe, and psychologically traumatic. Many victims feel constantly on alert, vulnerable, out of control, stressed, and anxious. Dealing with stalking can consume all their energy. They may experience a loss of trust, long-term emotional distress, and significant disruption of everyday living.25 Many seek psychological counseling.26 Victims' symptoms tend to worsen with each new incident, and may be compounded by concerns about the effects on their children and other secondary victims.27

Stalking can also trigger a wide variety of behavioral reactions. Many victims take steps to avoid being followed and spied on. They alter their normal routines, avoid going out alone, and give up leisure activities. To protect themselves, they may screen all telephone calls (at home and work) and change their telephone number, email and postal addresses, driver's license, and social security number.28, † More drastic action may include temporary or permanent relocation. They may move to another state or try to change their identity, often uprooting children in the process, leaving behind close friends and relatives, and abandoning careers.

† While victims can change their social security number, some victims have had problems as a result (for example, establishing credit or prior employment history, or getting a passport). Therefore, this option should be weighed carefully.

When the criminal justice system fails to protect victims from stalking, it makes it that much harder for them to recover from its effects.29

The Challenges of Policing Stalking

Stalking can be difficult to recognize, investigate, assess, and prevent for many reasons, including the following:

  • Stalking is not a single, obvious, easily identifiable crime like assault, robbery, burglary, and most other offenses.
  • Stalking, like domestic violence, often is not taken sufficiently seriously because it can involve acts the police may perceive as part of everyday courtship and intimate relationships. The police may mistake repeated telephone calls, letters, cards, and gifts from "would be" lovers for innocent romantic attention. However, when such gestures are part of a course of conduct that instills fear in the victim, they are being used to terrorize.
  • Stalking behaviors are complex, varied, and unpredictable. Stalking takes many forms, and individual incidents may be very different. It is hard to be certain if and when stalking will escalate to violence.
  • There is no single stalker profile to assist investigators.
  • When blatant acts of violence occur, a pattern of stalking behavior may not seem significant.
  • Effective investigations depend on gathering information from many sources.
  • The stalker may commit crimes in different locations and be under investigation in multiple jurisdictions. The victim may live in one jurisdiction, work or attend school in another, and seek refuge in yet another. If the stalker threatens people connected with the victim, such as coworkers, family members, or friends, or vandalizes their property, different victims' names will appear on complaint reports.
  • Stalkers are not easily deterred and tend to be obsessive. Therefore, conventional sanctions, including court orders forbidding contact with victims, may not necessarily make an impact. Many stalkers continue to harass their victims even after conviction; the stalking may escalate if they perceive court sanctions as minor. Others may see their trials as a way to stay in their victims' lives. Because the first prosecution and conviction may not end the stalking, more enforcement is often necessary.† Thus, it is important to keep in touch with victims and ensure that offenders are supervised. (Mental health agencies may have a duty to warn victims of imminent threats, and batterer's intervention programs often do not require confidentiality between offenders and staff; both can help monitor offenders.) 

† Investigators throughout the country have indicated that stalking cases can last years beyond the first conviction. It is not unusual for an offender to start stalking again before an anniversary, following a stressful event, or after any number of other triggers that renew the stalker's interest in the victim. 

Because stalking is an ongoing crime involving multiple incidents, police may have numerous opportunities to observe the stalker's behavior and make an arrest. Even in cases where the stalker does not contact the victim in person, police can generally piece together enough evidence to identify and locate the offender and make an arrest. The sooner police can document separate stalking incidents, the greater the chance of bringing the offender to justice before a case escalates to lethal levels.

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