National Stalking Awareness Month just ended (though I'm not sure many of us even knew it had begun), and throughout the last several weeks, in talking to college students, victims' advocates and TV personalities, I've heard one thing over and over: "There's really nothing law enforcement can do about it. So, I didn't go to them for help."
I'm here to tell you, that's not true and that's not safe.
Stalking is a serious crime with serious consequences.
I became much more aware of that fact after reading a report from the U.S. Department of Justice that noted 76 percent of female homicide victims who were killed by an intimate partner were stalked before their murder. I was shocked. If law enforcement didn't know someone was being stalked and couldn't do anything about it, we were missing one of our best chances to prevent a murder from occurring.
In asking experts and stalking victims what could we do to change that grim statistic, I was met with two consistent answers: improve the law and raise awareness.
Each year in the United States, an estimated 3.4 million people are stalked. Stalking is defined as a course of conduct directed at a specific person that creates a reasonable person to feel fear.
Not surprisingly, people ages 18-24 experience the highest rate of stalking--due in part to the rapid rise of advancing technology. Whether it's through social networking sites, instant messaging, texts, or even through more advanced means--miniature cameras, computer spyware and GPS technology--stalkers now have incredible means by which to terrify their targets.
And yet, I came to understand, our state law was sluggishly behind.
The outdated statute failed to address what had become a reality to millions: the real threat of cyberstalking.
Law enforcement officers needed stronger tools to stop stalkers not only from physical confrontations but also from emailing, texting or harassing their victims on social networking sites.
And so, we changed the law.
The new stalking law broadens the definition of stalking and focuses on the experience of the victim. Stalkers are no longer allowed to:
•Follow, observe or survey the victim;
•Hover by the victim and watch her from a distance; or
•Damage the victim's property, or harm her pets.
And significantly, stalkers are not allowed to engage in cyberstalking.
We also created a new "no-contact order" specifically for stalking victims. Whereas the old law required that stalking victims had to know their offenders, now stalking victims can get a "no-contact order" no matter the relationship to the offender. This is significant since we know that up to 25 percent of stalking victims have no prior relationship with their stalker.
As a result, almost 2,000 stalking no-contact orders have been entered by Illinois courts since the new law went into effect last year.
I'm encouraged by those initial numbers, but of course, there's much more to be done.
Although the month is over, there's no reason we should stop working to raise awareness about the grim realities of stalking and the ways in which we can work together to combat it.
Stalking is a crime that can paralyze an otherwise productive person with fear. It can lead to physical violence, even murder. We must give victims hope by dispensing serious consequences for this serious crime. We must arm law enforcement with the means to fight back. And most importantly, we must convey to victims that help is out there.
College students, call your campus police. Young women, contact a local law enforcement agency. Help us all as a community better understand this crime so that we can more effectively combat it. It will be the best chance we have to protect potential victims and prevent unseen tragedies.