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Baby Reindeer: How police could have prevented Martha’s stalking from getting worse

stalking
Baby Reindeer’ includes the obsessive Martha, played by Jessica Gunning. Netflix photo.

By Raymond Ho, Simon Fraser University

Receiving a cryptic email from a stranger you’ve met once at a bar might be weird, but when the messages start getting frequent, obsessive and borderline threatening, you might be dealing with a stalker. This is the premise of Scottish actor and comedian Richard Gadd’s popular Netflix show Baby Reindeer.

It tells the story of Donny, a fictionalized version of himself. Baby Reindeer illustrates the harrowing details of how Donny’s stalker, Martha, insidiously invaded various aspects of his life, first stalking him online incessantly, then turning up to where he lives uninvited, then harassing his friends, girlfriend and family, and eventually violently assaulting them.

Baby Reindeer has sparked a wave of interest in stalking behaviour, especially between male victims and female perpetrators. However, this fascination is not new, as seen in popular TV shows like You or Ripley that portray stalking in different, at times glamorous, ways. What is common in these shows is that the police are always one step behind, failing to take appropriate action.

When Donny first goes to the police station, he shows an email from Martha to a police officer who, unconcerned, says they do not find it “particularly threatening,” and asks why it took Donny six months to come forward. It was only later when Donny pleaded with the officer to look up Martha on the database as a repeated offender that the police start taking the case more seriously. Damage, however, had already been done, both physically and mentally.

Watch the trailer for Baby Reindeer.

Assessing the risk of stalking

However, what if police had a procedure to deal with stalking cases when they first arise? What if they had an in-house forensic psychologist or threat assessment specialist who could advise them on what to do? Could police departments manage stalking better than those in the show?

When dealing with a case of stalking, an officer should first consider the concept of risk. In other words, the likelihood a person would commit acts of stalking, why, who they are targeting, when and with what consequences.

Risk assessments, such as the Guidelines for Stalking Assessment and Management (SAM), offer a semi-structured way to assess factors that increase the risk of stalking.

SAM was designed for use by law enforcement and other professionals that deal with public safety. SAM consists of 30 risk factors divided into three categories: The nature of stalking, perpetrator risk factors and victim vulnerability factors. There are other risk assessments that are used to assess the risk of stalking, but the SAM is the one of the most widely used in Canada.

Examining Martha’s stalking

What might’ve happened if police used SAM in Baby Reindeer? We decided to try find out. We identified two risk factors from each category, providing examples from the show.

In Baby Reindeer, Martha’s stalking is persistent and escalates. Her messages increase in frequency, intensity and severity over time. We also see her stalking become more diverse as she follows Donny to different places (the pub where he works, social media, the comedy club where he performs).

Greater frequency and duration of stalking are associated with more intrusive and violent behaviour. What begins as Martha showing up to the pub during Donny’s shifts turns into her showing up hours before his shifts, sending him dozens of emails a day, harassing his ex-girlfriend and assaulting Teri, his then-partner.

Baby Reindeer stalking
Richard Gadd created and stars in Baby Reindeer.

As a perpetrator, Martha is both obsessive and irrational. Perhaps the best example of her obsessiveness is her unrelenting waiting at the bus stop outside Donny’s home. Martha also holds grossly distorted beliefs about her relationship with Donny (displaying erotomanic symptoms) and is seemingly unable to get her mind around the idea that she and Donny are not dating.

Erotomanic delusions may decrease the risk of harm, as the stalker tends not to perceive the victim as a threat. However, Martha also exhibits delusional jealousy and other forms of distorted thinking that, when combined with her obsessiveness, become problematic.

Regarding victim vulnerability factors, Donny exhibits inconsistent attitudes and behaviour towards Martha. While he occasionally is assertive with Martha, he also sends her mixed messages.

By giving in to some of her requests, Donny inadvertently reinforced Martha’s behaviour and subsequently the persistent and escalating nature of her stalking.

In the coffee shop, after Martha grabs his arm violently and yells, Donny follows her home and is seen by her looking through her window; this gives Martha the idea he is interested in her. He also accepts Martha’s friend request on Facebook despite seeing her past criminal charges. Ambiguous responses on the victim’s part are open to misinterpretation by the perpetrator.

What could police have done?

To prevent Martha from stalking Donny and others in the future, police could have employed management strategies based on relevant risk factors beyond merely supervising her in the community.

Police could have used SAM’s assessment of risk factors to determine the risk of the stalker. This could’ve been done in consultation with a psychologist who is familiar with risk assessments or a threat assessment specialist.

When Donny first reported her stalking, police could have:

1) Implemented monitoring strategies for Martha (email surveillance and regular appointments with service providers).

2) Facilitated access to treatment for Martha (therapy targeting her cognitive distortions and;

3) Created a victim safety plan for Donny (counselling to increase his awareness and steps to be taken if Martha approaches him again).

Police can also consult forensic psychologists to assess and manage the risk of stalking behaviour.

The lack of police action in Baby Reindeer serves as a reminder of the overwhelming impact of stalking and why it’s important to communicate with victims in a trauma-informed and empathic manner.

Behaviour that seems unremarkable at first might bear significance upon further investigation. When it comes to stalking, it’s prudent not to discard the victim’s narrative and experience, even if it appears inconsistent or mundane.

This article was co-authored by Samuel Freeze, a master’s student in clinical psychology at Simon Fraser University.The Conversation Raymond Ho is a PhD student in clinical forensic psychology at Simon Fraser University. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.