An Introduction to Police Stalking

by Reidar Visser

Most people will at some point in their lives have experienced bullying. Local neighbourhoods, schools and workplaces are common settings where bullies operate. Bullying is destructive – it can lead to social isolation, dependence on drugs or even suicide. Thankfully, though, in most cases there are limiting factors. For example, bullies are rarely able to penetrate the confines of a private home. Alternatively, in extreme cases, there is the possibility of physical relocation – to a different area, or even to another country.

Now, imagine if that bothersome gang of bullies on the corner near school was a powerful state. Consider that it may have the resources and mandate to install surveillance devices in your private home, track your every movement, and follow you geographically everywhere, even to other countries. Sounds like a wild experiment in totalitarianism on the lines of George Orwell’s 1984? Alas, this kind of government-sponsored bullying already exists in numerous Western democracies today. It operates in various guises and under different names, but these can all be subsumed under the general heading police stalking. Even though the bully in this case is a state, the underlying logic and the modus operandi is remarkably similar to that of a gang of teenage bullies – except that the resources and the potential to do damage to the lives of individuals are vastly bigger.

Human rights aspects

Stalking is a method used by the police when they are angry with a person but are unable or unwilling to express their anger in proper judicial terms. Typically, the targets are marginal groups or individuals engaged in activities that are not perfectly mainstream (and therefore disliked by some) but without being punishable by law. Biker gangs, marginal political groups, human rights activists as well as dissident academics are known to have been targets of these kinds of operations in various Western countries. Very often police stalking involves monstrous abuse of power by police in cases where they are simply unable to understand and fit the subject into their normal criminal procedure scheme. Since prosecution is impossible, the goal is often to force individuals to leave a particular geographical area, though stalking operations can continue nationwide or even internationally. Police stalking is known to exist in North America as well as in a number of European states, including in Denmark, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway and the United Kingdom. There is however no uniform nomenclature. Terms that are sometimes used to describe police stalking (but that sometimes may describe something else) include “conspicuous surveillance” in English, “step by step pursuit” or fotfølging in Norwegian, “to man mark someone” or mandsopdækning in Danish (originally a soccer/ball game term) and ”targeted disturbance of an individual” or persoonsgericht verstoren in Dutch.

Police stalking is one of the most cowardly forms of policing that exist. It violates the most basic principles of the human rights revolution against state abuse that began in Europe in the eighteenth century, including the inviolable principle that a citizen has the right to appear before an independent court with due process and a fair hearing if the police think he or she has done something wrong. One of the most sacrosanct ideas in modern Western judicial philosophy is the requirement that police adhere to due process principles if they want to target someone, or else leave citizens undisturbed. These principles are formally enshrined in the UN declaration on human rights (freedom from inhumane and degrading treatment in article 5; equality before the law in article 7; the right to appear before a court (habeas corpus) in articles 6 and 10; the right to be assumed innocent until proven guilty (praesumptio innocentia) in article 11a; freedom from punishment in the absence of a legally defined infraction (nulle poena sine lege) in article 11b; the right to privacy in a private home in article 12). They are similarly guaranteed by the European convention on human rights (article 3 on inhuman/degrading treatment; article 6 on the right to a trial and the presumption of innocence;  article 7 on no punishment without law; article 8 on the inviolability of the private home). Together, these articles impose certain minimum standards all state powers must adhere to if they wish to prosecute a citizen and deprive that person of his or her liberty. When these standards are violated, the unique legitimacy of the police as law enforcer is in jeopardy.

Police stalking takes the opposite approach of modern Western judicial tradition. Police stalking involves attempts to informally and without resort to any court of law label otherness and marginality as crimes. Often there may be no formal contact with the police at all, since these cases rarely involve infractions of the law of the land. Instead, the police will often circumvent the whole idea of prosecution before a court altogether and put to one side any relevant penal codes. As an alternative to normal prosecution, they will then organise a protocol of their own for putting pressure on the stalking victim. With no reference to existing laws and regulations, the police will devise a programme of bullying to be carried out by a mix of uniformed and plainclothes police, sometimes also with a degree of community involvement as part of a “community policing” approach.

Even though the recruitment of wider sections of the population in stalking operations means an even worse infraction of the presumption of innocence, this option is tempting for the police since social marginalisation may often be an effective driver towards expelling an individual from a geographical area. This is also a disturbing aspect: Any number of angry police officers cannot create a police state on their own, but when the general population and the intelligentsia acquiesces or even takes part, Orwellian parallels become very relevant. Police stalking is a process where the police are jury, judge and executioner – the principal characteristic of a police state.

How police stalking works

The exact techniques used in police stalking may differ from country to country, but some basics recur. Establishing control of the physical movements of the targeted individual is seen as key, and this goal in turn requires hyper-invasive surveillance methods. In addition to traditional surveillance technologies like wiretaps, computer surveillance and hidden video surveillance, the police will frequently place a tracking device on the clothes of the stalking victim. Having achieved that, the police will aim to disturb the stalking victim as much as possible throughout the day and night. Again, the exact methods may vary according to the circumstances of the individual operation. A fleet of marked and unmarked police cars trailing the stalking victim everywhere appears to be a mainstay feature in most countries (this is likely also the origin of the term “conspicuous surveillance”). Using a tracking device enables the police to forecast the movements of the stalking victim so that the people who chase him or her can be given instructions to “meet” rather than pursue the stalking victim on the street. This is a distinctive feature of modern, cell phone assisted police stalking that differentiates it from traditional stalking and undercover pursuit  or “tailing”. The reason is simply that whereas in traditional undercover work the goal of the police was not to be seen, their aim is the opposite in stalking operations!

A main element in police stalking operations is noise. Typically, the police will try to make noise wherever the stalking victim is, for example by letting unmarked cars run their engines endlessly outside the house of the stalking victim, using their horns excessively etc. When the police have good surveillance, a beep of the horn from an unmarked police car each time the stalking victim enters or exits a building is at the same time subtle vis-a-vis the community at large and intimidating and paranoia-inducing for the stalking victim.

Light is another common ingredient. Participants in police stalking operations will typically use a lot more light than normal: Cars driving with main beams on in broad daylight, cyclists using lights on their bikes in perfect sunshine, or even cars parked in parking lots with their lights constantly blinking are recurrent features of these operations. Again, in isolation, totally unremarkable and innocuous; when encountered every 2 minutes each day the stalking victim is out walking, an obvious trigger for paranoia.

Humiliation can be yet another prominent aspect of police stalking operations – an element that shows how police stalking is often as medieval in content as it is twenty-first century in technology. This is also the aspect of these operations that is most frequently met with disbelief when stalking victims report them. A number of stories from different countries are however sufficiently uniform to be convincing. Sometimes plainclothes police use symbolism intended to show that the stalking victim is marginal and unwanted. For example, they may stage “street theatre” with people simulating blind or handicapped people constantly congregating around the stalking victim. Street theatre may also relate to the perceived offense that created the conflict with the police; this is typically done through plainclothes police mimicking the “unwanted” actions of the stalking victim that led to him or her being targeted by police in the first place.

Finally, sleep deprivation is in some countries another important element in police stalking. When it is used, police will employ every conceivable technique to wake up the stalking victims at regular intervals during the night. Obviously, the exact methods depend on where the stalking victim lives, but common methods include the use of cars outside the home of the stalking victim as well as slamming with doors and banging on adjacent walls. Almost all police stalking methods constitute human rights violations, but the invasion of a private home is perhaps the feature of these operations that is most glaringly at variance with modern European interpretations of the right to privacy – which tend to define the home as an inviolable precinct where each individual may have the right to be “fully himself or herself”, away from the public sphere and shutting the world out entirely (Niemitz versus Germany, 1988). Forced sleep deprivation is described as “inhumane” by a majority of judges and as “torture” by a minority at the European court of human rights.

Police stalking and community policing

The involvement of society at large in police stalking operations may also differ according to context. In some countries, the privacy violation involved in sharing information about fellow citizens is taken seriously by the police; as a consequence the stalking is mainly carried out by a mix of uniformed and plainclothes police. In other countries, limited segments of the local community may be involved – for example through the employment of other emergency services  in the stalking patrols (fire engines and ambulances), cooperation with shopping mall security guards (these may be asked to behave in an intimidating way towards the stalking victim) or even services providers more broadly (supermarkets, restaurants, and, where applicable, hotels.)  An advantage for the police is that people in low-income jobs will often feel gratified when asked to help the police with something and without thinking about the judicial and human-rights aspect will gladly make some extra noise in their office or restaurant “for the good cause” until the stalking victim feels so intimidated that he or she moves somewhere else. The near universal knee-jerk preparedness among large parts of the general population in many countries to do anything the police asks without considering the legal aspects of these actions (i.e being accessory to an act of stalking) is a sad but very prominent feature of many so-called liberal societies today.

In police stalking involving the society at large, each act of intimidation may be much less hurtful than what is commonly seen in a bullying situation. The whole point is to induce paranoia by repeating seemingly commonplace incidents endlessly, in what becomes a familiar pattern, at least to the stalking victim. For example, in addition to making deliberate noise, people at shops may be instructed to greet the stalking victim in particular ways, for example by compulsively using something like a “have a nice day” greeting (which is very common but surely not universal in most languages). There may be bogus emergency calls to places visited by the stalking victim with fire engines or ambulances showing up where the stalking victim is for no good reason. An alarm goes off each time the stalking victim enters a shopping centre (this is caused by interaction between the tracking device hidden on the stalking victim’s belongings and the electronic theft protection system of the shop); a clearly arranged succession of cars with blinking lights will line the streets wherever he or she goes. These are plausible incidents, just mildly out of the ordinary. Except that in a police stalking setting, on every corner there is a little oddity greeting the stalking victim. In this way, despite the seemingly innocuous and everyday character of each individual act of intimidation, the cumulative effect is bigger than in traditional bullying given the far greater scale of involvement.

The most depraved variants of police stalking involve large sections of a local community, who may take part in the stalking patrols, assist the police in disturbing the stalking victim with noise in their local neighbourhood (such as driving aggressively around the victim) or receive instructions to address the stalking victim in particular ways. At least one EU member country is known to practise this most totalitarian variant of police stalking, which conceptually seems somewhat related to social isolation methods reported from communist East Germany. Another disturbing aspect of many police stalking operations are the crude attempts by the police to signal stigmatisation and marginalisation by deliberately parading disproportionate numbers of physically and mentally handicapped people in “street theatre” designed to humiliate the stalking victim. It makes sense to discuss these particular variants of widespread community-based police stalking as possible crimes against humanity – not for what they do towards the stalking victim, but for the deliberate and disproportionate employment by the police of children and other legal minors as well as the handicapped. Not only are stigmas relating to physical handicaps reproduced. Children are socialised into believing bullying of socially marginal targets is acceptable and that the police has the right to administer extrajudicial punishment in the most totalitarian fashion imaginable.

Often these different elements are combined so that the general public may “cooperate with the police” in what they see as comparatively soft bullying during daytime (joining the police in chasing the stalking victim with their cars, for example) whereas the more physical mistreatment – chiefly sleep deprivation – is carried out by the police themselves at night in more secretive precision hits directed at the private home of the stalking victim. Normally, it is probably these nocturnal disturbances done by police away from the gaze of the public that are instrumental in putting the stalking victim under unbearable pressure and force him or her to move, but the police are happy to keep these dirtiest activities in the dark and let the general public believe it is their noble “cooperation with the police” in their shops and restaurants that pushes the stalking victim around. The use of sleep deprivation by the police in stalking operations is generally consonant with the “leave-no-marks” characteristic of torture in democratic states identified by Darius Rejali.

Legal aspects of police stalking

On top of the obvious human rights violations involved, almost all forms of police stalking are specifically illegal (and hence punishable by law) in the countries where they are carried out. This is so, firstly because the police laws in most democratic countries do not give the police powers to conduct gross privacy invasions unless a very serious crime is suspected. In many states, even systematic surveillance (as opposed to occasional observation) requires suspicion about a specific crime that is punishable by law. Secondly, many democratic countries have laws that specifically make stalking illegal, or there are laws relating to psychological torture in place.  In fact, despite the care taken by police to simulate “normal behaviour” (cars just driving in the streets and making a little noise, people slamming doors, noisy construction work etc.), these acts are prosecutable under most anti-stalking laws in the second they are staged in relation to a particular stalking victim – and with the police officer in charge as the main stalking offender. This is so because police stalking operations are quintessentially based on regular harassment of a particular individual, which is the key to defining stalking as a criminal offense in most countries that have relevant legislation, including Austria (107a), Belgium (442), Germany (241b), Italy and the Netherlands (285b). The anti-harassment law of England and Wales from 1997 similarly emphasises repeated unwanted behaviour towards someone else (twice or more). A good example is the Italian anti-stalking law, which addresses “continued harassing, threatening or persecuting behaviour which 1.) causes a state if anxiety and fear in the victim; or, 2.) fills the victim with fear for his/her own safety or for the safety of relatives…; or 3). forces the victim to change daily habits.”

It is immaterial in this respect whether each act of intimidation in police stalking may be legal in isolation. It is the repeated targeting of an individual with the intention to harass – regardless of method – that is key. For example, driving a car in broad daylight with full head beam lights – a common practice for cars participating in police stalking – may not be illegal if a person does it by mistake. Conversely, once a police officer tells a citizen to turn on high beam lights in order to intimidate or terrify a fellow citizen, that police officer will in most countries be liable to prosecution for a stalking crime. If a citizen goes along with the order but without knowing the reason or intent, it may be a case of unknowing collaboration in organised stalking, and as such may not be punishable by law for that citizen. However, once he or she knows there is a deliberate intention to stalk, turning on the head lights of a car will become punishable in most countries also for the collaborator who responds to a request from the police to participate in something he or she knows (or should have known) is illegal.

In this respect, one could argue that  many European penal codes in theory offer somewhat enhanced protection towards police stalking. This is so because the anti-stalking laws of many states in the US also require the presence of specific and explicit threats (often absent in police stalking) as part of the definition of stalking. On the other hand, Denmark appears to offer little protection since its anti-stalking law is hinged on  the existence of an individual anti-stalking order by the police!  Generally speaking, the minimum demand in stalking legislation worldwide is regularity of harassment, and then with some various added preconditions in countries with more liberal laws (explicit threats in the U.S., a specific warning by the victim that the stalking must stop in Belgium etc.)

In this way, police stalking contradicts almost every basic aspect of modern judicial philosophy. The judicial principles involved are no more sophisticated than those of the gang bully context. In police stalking there is neither burden of proof nor any roadmap for societal reintegration. The punishments are concocted by the police themselves or society at large depending on context. In the worst cases, the night-time harassment may be carried out by uneducated thugs that know no more about human rights and have no greater respect for human life than an average Syrian shabiha torturer. These are state-authorised bullies with the mind sets of 6-year olds who get overtime payment from supposedly liberal states for making noises with cars and slamming doors at night. Also, unlike the situation in countries that openly practise torture and corporal punishment, in Western police stalking there is no medical supervision whatsoever. It is a well known fact that psychological stress plays a key role in a number of physical illnesses and negatively affects many chronic conditions like asthma, inflammatory bowel syndrome and irritable colon. In police stalking operations, the supposedly democratic Western state is basically running around like a mad dog –   barking and wheezing, entirely without being able to offer any judicial justification for its anger.

Suggestions for how to limit police stalking

Are there nonetheless contexts in which police stalking can be considered defensible as a contribution to upholding the rule of law? In a geographically limited, very local setting – maybe. There may be a perception in a local community that there is some kind of unusual behaviour that is seen as a nuisance but that nonetheless does not lend itself easily to criminal prosecution. Faced with requests from the general public to “do something”, the police may feel powerless and frustrated. In this kind of context, it is understandable if the police turn to limited variants of stalking in public areas as a preventative strategy. At the same time, though, there should be limits to the application of this kind of strategy with reference to the imperatives of international and human rights principles. In the first place, police stalking should be strictly limited to the public sphere. Police stalking should never target anyone inside their private home or when they are in uninhabited areas. Where there are no potential victims there is also no possible preventative justification! The very minimum criterion for the application of conspicuous surveillance strategy must be that there actually exists someone that needs protection from the perceived problem – a potential “victim”. Said with different words, in a democracy and a rechtsstaat, in the absence of clearly defined preventative or investigative goals, the caravan of a gang member should be as inviolable as the residence of the prime minister. Sleep deprivation per definition has no preventative value since the chances of undesirable behaviour inevitably is greater when the stalking victim is awake than when he or she is sleeping. Actually, the widespread police maxim of being “the boss on the street” might actually offer a good rule of the thumb as regards police stalking. The corollary to that ideal, of course, is that it is not the business of the police to invade private homes or follow people into uninhabited areas unless there is suspicion about a specific, legally defined crime.

Precisely because conspicuous surveillance methods are grey zone territory, they themselves need to be monitored especially closely. Those who participate in stalking operations should be subjected to continuous surveillance and should be prompted to provide judicially sound explanations for what they are doing.  When a plainclothes police officer runs his car engine for hours outside the house of a gang member at night, he or she should be able to explain how those actions relate to existing European human rights jurisprudence.

These considerations also have geographical dimensions. If a conspicuous surveillance strategy is applied to a case of judicial ambivalence (or to what the police perceive as a judicial vacuum) we are per definition in grey zone territory. Accordingly, if the target of such an operation decides to move geographically – to a new jurisdiction or even to a new country – it goes without saying that the presumption of innocence must be re-established subsequent to that migration and a clean slate offered. Inevitably, the longer the stalking goes on and the wider the area it covers , the more the whole operation assumes the character of a purely extra-judicial punitive act with no preventative dimension whatsoever.

Under no circumstances should a grey-zone, judicially vague (or even extra-judicial) decision from one country serve as basis for the imposition of a global stigma for which individuals are persecuted across the world without once being granted the right to defend themselves before an independent court. It is just plain wrong if the threshold for prosecuting someone in a particular country is higher than for subjecting a person to a global persecution regime based on vague suspicion that has never been tested before any court.  If the police choose to create state-sponsored vigilantism, it should at least stay true to the original concept of vigilantism – which may be savage and reactionary, but which at least is limited geographically to a particular location. To use a parallel, declaring someone an outlaw was a common practice in the dark ages. However, medieval culture also had a relatively humane end game in store for outlaws: Exile and a new start.

Finally, it should be an unalienable principle that grey-zone methods like police stalking are only employed as a last resort when other methods that are less invasive in terms of human rights violations have been exhausted. This is logical both with reference to subsidiarity as a general principle and in view of the basic idea of societal reintegration in modern theories of justice. Indeed, in a number of countries, the police law officially enshrines this kind of gradual approach as a general principle and a duty for the police (Norway being a case in point). There simply cannot be any excuse for making the radical step from vague suspicion to global persecution without even once trying some of the less radical options in the toolbox of the police, including establishing a dialogue through a normal conversation with the suspect. In many cases, a simple verbal warning that a person is about to become the object of the police’s interest would make that person think twice about any unusual activity he or she is engaged in, regardless of whether it can be legally justified or not. No one wants conflict with the police if it can be avoided.

Historical perspective and ways forward

In historical perspective, of course, police stalking represents a deplorable step of retrogression from the modern judicial standards that were introduced in the Western world during the age of enlightenment in the eighteenth century. To appreciate just how antiquated some “modern” police stalking methods are, consider the fact that the same French revolutionaries who abolished death penalty by breaking on the wheel (Catherine wheel) limited public shaming offences (e.g. the pillory) to three days maximum. Contemporary police stalking operations typically go on for months or even years!

It seems clear that this sorry reversion to pre-1789 standards of Western policing was spearheaded by big-city undercover police in Europe and North America in the late twentieth century. It is however with the technological advances of the last decade – perhaps in combination with an increasingly apathetic intellectual class in the post-2001 period – that the most totalitarian variants have been developed. The way politicians in numerous European countries support these new police measures is so pronounced that it satisfies the Orwellian definition of a “bully worship” condition: “Where this age differs from those immediately preceding it is that a liberal intelligentsia is lacking. Bully worship, under various disguises, has become a universal religion.”

It cannot escape notice that many of the countries that practice police stalking have constitutions that are far less explicit in their protection of basic human rights than the French revolutionary charter was. Today, key judicial human-rights concepts such as the presumption of innocence seem to be boilerplate items whenever a third world state turns democratic, but they may well be in need of explicit reinsertion into many “old democracy” constitutions of first-world countries that seem to lazily rely on good reputations instead of actually taking the spirit of the UN and EU human rights articles seriously. In police stalking cases, it is certainly alarming to see how few European citizens are actually aware that extra-judicial punishment by the police is one of the deadliest sins of the modern democratic and liberal state. You can understand it when people who are in a difficult personal position cooperate with the police since they feel they need a good relationship with them. But that students, the intelligentsia and even people who may talk in academic terms about human rights should be so prepared to participate raises serious question about the current state of Western liberalism.

So far, the literature on police stalking is limited. Only a few cases have been brought before the court (the Netherlands has some examples), and so far the European court of human rights – where these cases rightfully belong – has yet to hear any cases.  To some extent, this may be so because stalking victims are unwilling or unable to tell their stories to a wider audience. Also, there appear to be considerable efforts on the part of the police to discredit testimonies from police stalking victims. By way of example, there is a whole genre on the internet devoted to “targeted individuals” which probably includes some real victims of police stalking, but which nonetheless may be dominated by impostors seeking to discredit police stalking victims by including some truly unbelievable elements in their stories. Additionally, these cases of police mistreatment are notoriously difficult to document given the extreme asymmetry between the stalker and the stalking victim in cases where it is a powerful state that is the offender.

Perhaps the best way to study modern police stalking then is through language. In this respect, Northern Europe stands out as having a particular potential because of the marked dualism of the behaviour of the police in these countries. On the one hand, the police forces of several Northern European countries take part in some of the most repressive stalking operations that are known to the Western world. On the other hand, though, those same police forces are eager to come across as democratic and transparent organisations, which means some of their representatives often go on record in public debate and comment on methods used in stalking operations. Through ambiguous, contradictive and sometimes outright stupid comments, these police officers enable a better understanding of how the police-state mentality has managed a surprising comeback in twenty-first century democracies. They should also offer a vantage point for combating this exceptional threat to the proud and modern rule of law tradition.