Sarah Leamon: Victims of criminal harassment can ask police to investigate

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      There has been a disturbing increase in the number of women being followed by menacing strangers in our province.

      First, the cellphone video captured by a woman in Vancouver’s Chinatown took social media by storm. It depicts a woman walking through the streets in broad daylight, with a man following closely behind her. He’s dressed in black clothing with no identifiable features.

      At first glance, a viewer might think that it’s a coincidence that the man is walking the same route as her, but the longer the video goes on, the more obvious it becomes. He is following the woman.

      After hitting the news, other women came forward, recounting similar stories of being followed by a menacing stranger.

      One recalled being terrified after being followed by a man on a trail in Burnaby Lake Park for nearly 30 minutes. Another incident happened in Victoria last week, after a woman called police to report a man aggressively following her and wielding a knife.

      Stories like these are not unfamiliar to women. We all know the uneasy feeling of walking alone after dark. Many of us have been taught to keep our phones near, to clutch our keys between our fingers, and to check behind us regularly—without making it too obvious.

      These stories are so common that our laws have developed in response to them.

      In 1993, our criminal laws were amended to create the offence of criminal harassment as we know it today. This offence was introduced as a specific and purposeful response to violence against women. Although domestic violence was a particular concern, the law was crafted to cover a broad variety of behaviours, including what we popularly refer to as “stalking”.

      Criminal harassment differs from most criminal laws as it does not prohibit the outcome of the conduct—take, for example, murder—but the psychological harm done by it. It is defined as knowingly engaging in behaviour to harass or cause a person to reasonably fear for their safety or the safety of anyone known to them. Examples of prohibited conduct include repeatedly following a person from place to place, repeated and unwanted communications with them, and watching their house or workplace on an ongoing basis.

      In short, criminal harassment is behaviour that does not necessarily result in any actual physical harm or injury but is troubling enough to warrant legal intervention, as it could be a precursor to violence.

      Although most cases of criminal harassment are carried out over a long period of time, shorter bursts of behaviour—like the ones recently making the news—could also amount to harassment. Authorities are required to consider the totality of the circumstances in deciding whether to lay charges and whether to proceed. If it can be established that the person was engaging in conduct that could cause their victim to reasonably fear for their safety, then the foundation for criminal harassment could be established. However, each situation will likely be unique.

      One thing that is not unique, however, are the types of people who fall victim to criminal harassment. Statistics Canada reports that more than three-quarters of all victims in these cases are women. In comparison, women comprise only about half of the victims of violent crimes like robbery and assault.

      And although women are overwhelmingly more likely to be harassed, men are statistically more likely to do the harassing. In 2009, men accounted for 78 percent of those who were accused of criminal harassment. Many of those who were accused were also known to the victim, whether they were an ex-partner or an acquaintance.

      Those who are convicted of criminal harassment could face a maximum penalty of not more than 10 years in jail.

      But more importantly, perhaps, are the protective conditions that can be ordered by the court. These conditions do not need to wait until there is a finding of guilt, which could take months or even years. They can be imposed upon the arrest of an individual, and they normally include a ban on contacting the victim either directly or indirectly or attending anywhere they are known to live, go to school, work, worship, or otherwise be. In cases of stranger harassment, they may include conditions not to be found in the area where the alleged stalking incident occurred or not to be in possession of weapons.

      These conditions can be specifically tailored to suit the alleged offence. They can have an important chilling effect on an accused while simultaneously making the victim and the community feel more at ease.

      And although these laws may offer little in the way of comfort to those who have already become stalking victims, it is somewhat reassuring to know that these offences will be investigated and that the perpetrators could be charged and brought to justice once identified.