By ELIZABETH OLSON
Published: February 14, 2009
Three-quarters of victims know their stalker, whether it is a current or former friend, roommate or neighbor, this study and others have found. “Often stalkers want to make their victims fearful,” said Eugene A. Rugala, a former F.B.I. profiler who advises on workplace threats. “They are thinking, ‘How dare you do this to me? I’m going to make you pay.’ But others feel it could be a way of getting back into the relationship.”
Experts say only a small number of stalking incidents reach the courts because cases are often difficult to compile. There is often no clear physical evidence linking a stalker to the victim.
In the Justice Department study, the most common reasons for respondents’ not telling the police they were being stalked was that they felt it was a personal matter or they did not think the police would think it was important.
“Stalking is treated like domestic violence was 20 or 25 years ago,” said Mary Lou Leary, executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime and a former federal prosecutor. “Law enforcement is often suspicious or cynical, but is now beginning to deal with stalking as a crime.”
Many victims initially refuse to believe, or accept, that a former partner is singling them out for retaliation. It is a shock for others when a stranger begins to constantly annoy or follow them.
“Many people told us they were uneasy, felt creeped out or scared,” said Katrina Baum, a Bureau of Justice Statistics researcher and an author of the study. “There’s a reluctance to label the behavior because it’s too frightening. At some point the behavior can escalate to where it can’t be ignored.”
One reason victims have difficulty pulling together a case is that stalking is often confused with harassment, a less serious behavior. Dr. Park Dietz, a Southern California forensic psychiatrist, said the behavior crosses the line when it includes lying in wait, following or breaking in.
Dr. Dietz, who helps corporations address stalking and other threats, said that treating stalking as a misdemeanor “is useless because it angers offenders and makes them more dangerous,” adding, “It’s like poking a wild animal with a stick.”
Strengthened victim protection in states like Kansas now allows the police to investigate reports of reasonable fear for one’s safety rather than the stricter requirement of “a credible threat.”
The state has Jodi’s law, named after Jodi Sanderholm, a 19-year-old college student who was kidnapped, raped and strangled in January 2007. The suspect, Justin E. Thurber, was found guilty on Thursday on charges of capital murder and aggravated kidnapping.
The Somerset County district attorney, Jerry L. Spangler, said incarceration in cases like Mr. Miller’s was not enough; stalkers also “require individualized treatment,” he said. Mr. Miller’s lawyer did not return calls for comment.
“They almost never admit something is wrong with them,” said Barry Rosenfeld, a psychology professor and director of clinical training at Fordham University who has evaluated dozens of stalkers.
“Stalkers often feel bad, lonely and vulnerable,” Dr. Rosenfeld said. “Then they’ll call, even though there is a protection order saying they can’t do it. They won’t get an answer, and they’ll call again.”
Dr. Rosenfeld is testing a more intensive program to help offenders learn to better control their need “to do something to feel better in the moment.”
After a decade of suffering electronic tampering of her credit card bills, computer and bank accounts — as well as phone threats and vandalism — Karen Welch of New Jersey, a chief financial officer for a nonprofit group, pushed to overhaul the state stalking law.
“I don’t want a Karen’s law that gives more protection after it’s too late,” Ms. Welch said. “I want the law broadened so it protects victims against emotional distress or significant mental suffering, not just when a person fears for her safety.”
The bill passed and is awaiting the governor’s signature, according to its sponsor, State Senator Barbara Buono, a Democrat.