Key to understanding and investigating high-tech stalking are training and education; collaboration, including information sharing; and developing standard protocols for how to work with victims.
Investigator Sgt. Mark Wojnarek, who has commanded the Special Victims Unit (SVU) of the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office (MCSO) in Tennessee since 2003, says high-tech tools have become so ingrained in society that it's important to assume victims and suspects have one or more. In fact, his detectives conduct a technology risk assessment asking victims: How many computers are in the house, who has access, whether vehicles are equipped with GPS, how many cell phones and so on.
Also important to understand are basic facts about high-tech stalking. For one thing, Wojnarek says there is no "typical" victim or perpetrator. "It's everyone," he says. "Juveniles, men, women."
Resources can be a delicate balance. Budget troubles may mean that even departments with domestic violence specialists will have to assign other duties to those investigators, or assign domestic violence and stalking cases to investigators untrained to deal with them. And even before the recession, computer forensics and high tech crimes labs were severely backlogged. Yet so much of this type of evidence is so volatile, says Moore, that evidence can disappear within a matter of months — even weeks.
Rural MCSO's answer was to train its SVU detectives to deal with high-tech tools themselves: To solve the problem — the kind of crime — using specific tools, in this case the recovery of computer and mobile device evidence.
Wojnarek says the legacy "stalk the stalker" model that had police sitting in unmarked cars watching suspects is "archaic." And unlike detectives who trace child predators online, investigators who deal with high-tech crimes are better served to get out in the field than to sit behind a computer. "Our best tools these days are the search warrant and strong investigative techniques," he explains.
For patrol officers
Generally, says Moore, "traditional" stalking is the first behavior that victims notice and report. "Stalkers turn to technology when they don't get what they want," she explains. So, foremost, officers need to be trained on stalking behavior, including instruction not to treat it like other single-incident crimes.
One problem: Officers don't know the right questions to ask. "It's not about behavior, or the stalker's date of birth or Social Security number," says Moore. "It's about the IP address, the Internet service provider. Stalkers actually make it easy for you to find them because they keep attacking."
Many victims will be too scared or confused to deliver such information right away, so officers need to help them collect it or teach them how to ask tech-savvy family members or friends to help. Throughout the process, they should be working from a strong protocol. As Wojnarek says, officers should not bear the burden of investigation. MCSO deputies, for example, know they have a unit to call on for help. "We tell them we'd rather come out and not find anything, than not go and end up with a dead victim," he says.
Officers are instead trained on how to "notice" things when they respond to domestic calls. For instance, says Wojnarek, "if the victim says her spouse repeats conversations back to her verbatim, that's a sign there's a listening device in the home." Training on this kind of recognition takes place quarterly, along with regular bulletins on domestic violence trends.
The MCSO SVU also presents to schools, elder homes, and the local domestic violence coalition. "Safety planning now needs to include high-tech tools," says Moore, who believes all this will be easier as time goes on. "Most young officers will understand how technology can be used to stalk because they themselves use it," says Moore. "They're aware of the pitfalls [with privacy], so it's possible to tweak that awareness to help them understand the way criminals use it."
Training and education