Valentine's Day brings out the stalkers
What do a University of Michigan gymnast, an abused spouse, a lawyer, a store clerk, a college professor and a person 20 years and half a dozen states from an old co-worker have in common?
They were each one of the approximately 80 victims of stalking that are reported to the Ann Arbor Police Department each year. Around 8 percent of all women and 2 percent of all men will be stalked at some time in their lives.
The stalker's favorite holiday is just around the corner. Let's all calibrate our "creepy meters" and get ready for Valentine's Day next week. It’s time to figure out what is romantic and what is creepy or dangerous.
According to Michigan law, "stalking" means a willful course of conduct involving repeated or continuing harassment of another individual that would cause a reasonable person to feel terrorized, frightened, intimidated, threatened, harassed or molested and that actually causes the victim to feel terrorized, frightened, intimidated, threatened, harassed or molested.
Stalking is a misdemeanor unless it becomes "aggravated stalking" — that's when a stalker violates a Personal Protection Order (PPO) or other court order or a stalker commits another stalking crime after already having been convicted of stalking. Aggravated stalking is a felony.
Both laws can be found on the Michigan Legislature website at:
For there to be stalking, the contacts made by the stalker must be unwanted or non-consensual. Therefore if a victim feels stalked by a person, they must at some point communicate with the stalker that they do not want contact and do not want a relationship with this person. Many victims do not want to hurt feelings and want to "let them (stalkers) down easy." This does not work on stalkers.
When a victim tells a stalker they do not want contact, it should be forceful and direct. The police can help here, if necessary, by assisting in the delivering the message for the victim. Once the message is delivered, the victim must stand firm, and, if they tell their stalker they will take an action if contacted again, like calling the police, they must follow through or they will endure more annoyance and disruption caused by a stalker.
For it to be criminal stalking, a victim must also be in fear. The conduct that is causing fear in the victim must be repeated or continuing. In other words one creepy phone call does not necessarily constitute stalking. However two or more contacts — in person,telephonic, electronic, by mail or just leaving “presents” — especially after clearly being warned by the victim — could constitute stalking.
It is very important for the victim to document all unwanted contacts (date, time and what sort of contact) made by the stalker.
So how does one differentiate between a hopeless romantic and a stalker? That is where a person's internal "creepy meter" comes into play. Gavin de Becker called it "The Gift of Fear," in his great book by the same name. Call it instinct — cops call it "blue sense" — but we all have an internal mechanism to detect danger.
Sometimes you just feel it in your gut and cannot explain why you feel anxious or fearful of something or someone. My advice is to trust your instinct, especially in relationships. If you feel that something is not right about a person trying to have a relationship with you, you are probably absolutely right, and it is best to get away as soon as possible.
Part of the whole relationship process is that we all try to attract the best possible partner. This forces most of us into sometimes rather goofy behavior in the name of romance. Most of us will have to endure being rejected by someone we wanted to have a relationship with. Most will pick themselves up, dust themselves off and move on to another more welcoming party.
Stalkers do not operate like that, however. They cannot just drop it when someone tells them they do not want to have a relationship. Stalkers persist until it becomes annoying, and then creepy, frightening and potentially dangerous.
The most dangerous stalkers are the ones with the most emotional investment. Therefore former domestic partners are the most common and often the most dangerous stalkers. These stalkers take the attitude: "If I can’t have you, then no one can."
Control of a victim’s life replaces emotional and physical bonds for a stalker. They may not be able to "possess" their victim, but they can control their lives using fear and intimidation as weapons.
If you are in fear and feel you are being stalked, contact the police. If you tell someone you do not want a relationship with them and they persist, tell them to knock it off, call the police and let everyone around you know there is a problem.
Co-workers, family members, neighbors and friends should know about the problem and provide a network of eyes and ears for the victim. They should be instructed not to give out any personal information about the victim and to report to the victim or police if they spot the stalker around the victim or the victim's belongings. For instance, cars are often damaged by stalkers because they are easy to find and easy to trash without detection.
Next week, we'll explore some specific steps victims can take to reduce the threats posed by stalkers and mitigate the disruptions stalkers cause. Until then lock it up, don't leave it unattended, be aware and watch out for your neighbors.
Rich Kinsey is a retired Ann Arbor police detective sergeant who now blogs about crime and safety for AnnArbor.com. He also serves as the Crime Stoppers coordinator for Washtenaw County.