Aug. 24, 2020
If I am a victim of harassment or stalking — or believe someone else is — should I call the police?
The short answer is: Maybe. It might seem like calling the police is the best thing to do if someone is stalking or harassing you or someone you know. In recent years, there has been an emphasis on bystander intervention ― the “see something, say something” approach to combating sexual violence. Organizations like Stop Street Harassment do advise calling the police as one way to deal with harassment, especially if it involves physical violence, as law enforcement is more likely to take it seriously in those cases.
However, advocates also say that reporting harassment and stalking to law enforcement can come with its own risks, especially for members of already-vulnerable groups.
Why would someone feel nervous calling the police?
We have tasked police with an increasing number of responsibilities, like providing wellness checks, responding to domestic disputes and counseling survivors of sexual harassment and assault, but they are still ultimately “violence workers.” And those violence workers don’t have the best track record when it comes to dealing empathetically with crimes like harassment and stalking, particularly in certain communities.
“Many people may feel unsafe seeking help with police because of how police officers have treated them or members of their community,” said Holly Kearl, executive director of Stop Street Harassment. “This often includes persons of color, members of the LGBQT community, immigrants who do not have legal status in the country and sex workers.”
Another barrier to reporting is that the legal definitions of stalking and harassment vary widely from state to state, and often require that the behavior be repeated, sustained and include threats of bodily harm. This means that more isolated incidents of harassment may not even be considered criminal. Kearl put it bluntly: “The laws are not set up to make it easy to make a complaint.”
If you do report, there is no assurance the police will use trauma-centered best practices. Women, who are disproportionately victims of street harassment and stalking, are also more likely to worry that police will not believe them or will engage in victim blaming.
“For those victims who do report there is no guarantee that they will be treated with respect when coming forward,” said Laura Palumbo, communications director of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. “For too many victims and survivors, the experience of reporting is another trauma inflicted upon them. Implicit bias and overt prejudice of police often determines whose reports are taken seriously, given priority or dismissed.”
What if the police are the ones doing the harassing?
If a member of law enforcement is harassing you, you have the right to ask for that officer’s name and badge number. If you are stopped for no obvious reason, Kearl recommends asking the officer directly: “Am I free to go?” If they do not say no, then simply walk away. If an officer detains you, you have the right to remain silent. (Simply state that you are invoking your right to remain silent and then say nothing further.) If the harassment or stalking is happening in a public space, you also have the right to record what is happening on your phone. Police are not legally allowed to delete those photos or videos, or demand that you do so.
After the incident, you can file a formal complaint with the officer’s department. Kearl recommends writing down details as soon as possible, including a physical description of the officer(s), location, time, name, badge number, patrol car number, license plate number and a description of the incident.
If anyone witnessed the harassment or stalking, take note of their names and contact information as well as whether they would be willing to serve as witnesses. More details will usually lead to a more effective report.
There are no guarantees that a department will take action against one of their own. But unfortunately, given the protections that police enjoy, departmental complaints are still the clearest path to recourse. Kearl also recommended that victims of police harassment or stalking contact their local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union for additional support.
OK, so if I don’t call the police, what should I do instead?
If you are not in immediate physical danger and have the ability to make a plan, you can get in touch with national organizations like Victim Connect, the National Domestic Violence Hotline, and RAINN, which can link you up with local victim service providers. These local organizations can then support you or someone you know in safety planning and doing things like filing for a protective order.
“Although most hotlines and guides will direct victims to contact 911 if they fear for their safety or are in danger, victims need a range of strategies and resources to meet their needs,” said Palumbo. “For victims of harassment and stalking who are looking to better understand their rights and options, connecting with a local service provider or victim advocate is often the best place to start.”
How can I help advocate for better methods of addressing harassment and stalking?
The first thing you can do is push for national, state and local police training that is specifically victim-centered and designed to decrease barriers to reporting.
Palumbo suggests finding out what survivor-focused resources are available in your area, as well as identifying the gaps in your community. Does your town or city have a local victim advocate? Has the police department implemented trauma-informed practices? Then you can fund the organizations that already exist and push your local elected officials to fill in those gaps.
When it comes to longer term solutions — the radical vision of what a nation without over policing might look like — start by reading up with this list of abolitionist feminist resources.
Where can I go for more information and resources?
The National Sexual Violence Resource Center aims to prevent and respond to sexual violence with resources, research and national leadership.
RAINN is a national anti-sexual violence organization that operates a hotline (1-800-656-HOPE) for victims of harassment, assault and abuse.
The Stalking Awareness, Prevention, and Resource Center is a federally funded project providing anti-stalking education and resources for victims of stalking and their loved ones.