Categories: FeaturedFeminism

Why I Don’t Just Go to the Cops

As a woman who has opinions online, I get rape and death threats on a fairly regular basis, mixed in amongst the barrage of gendered slurs and comments about how fat I am. For the most part, the “threats” are obviously empty attempts to scare me into being silent – just another aspect of the usual bullying. Every now and again, though, there’s a threat that sounds just a bit more legitimate.

The first one came back in 2005 when I lived in Boston and had just launched Skepchick. I was able to write up a short article about the project for an issue of eSkeptic, Michael Shermer’s free email newsletter. Within a day of that eSkeptic hitting in-boxes, I received a brief email from a man calling me a cunt. I responded with a chipper “Thanks for taking the time to write!” He responded with, “If I lived in Boston I’d put a bullet in your brain.”

That escalated quickly.

I checked his IP address and found he was most likely writing from North Carolina. I called the Boston police and described the exchange. They told me there wasn’t much they could do because he apparently lived in another state. They offered to take down a report, but admitted that nothing would come of it unless someone one day put a bullet in my brain, at which point they’d have a pretty good lead.

At the time, I assumed my local police department was the exception, but as the years passed I learned that they’re actually the rule. I’ve lived in several different cities since then and received several frightening threats, and never have I met a single helpful cop who even made an attempt to help me feel safe.

The last one I reported was last year. A Skepchick reader happened across the website of a man who had written disturbing things about murdering women in general and me in particular, including photos of me with targets on them. The reader alerted the other Skepchicks, who compiled as much information as they could on the person, including his real name, age, and location (about a 3-hour drive from me). Let’s call him “Rick.”

Because I knew what town “Rick” lived in, I called his local police department. They told me there was nothing they could do and that I’d have to make a report with my local police department. So I called my local police department and the operator transferred me to a detective, but I got a busy signal. I called back and the operator sent me to another line, which rang and rang for ten minutes before I hung up. I called back and finally got through to someone who told me that there was nothing they could do but take a report in case one day “Rick” followed through on his threats, at which point they’d have a pretty good lead.

My fellow Skepchick contributors and other friends suggested that because he lived in a different state, the FBI might be able to help. So, I called my local FBI office.

My first experience dealing with the FBI was wonderful. The first person I spoke to was horrified by what I described to her, and she immediately forwarded my call to an agent. I gave the agent all the information I had, and he was also very understanding and professional. He told me he’d assign two agents to the case who specialize in this sort of thing, and they’d be in touch with me soon.

Within the day, an agent called me and got all the details. After I described everything on “Rick’s” website, the agent agreed that the threat was credible and told me that it sounded as though his threats would definitely fall under the category of a hate crime (since he was targeting me for my gender), which would make it rather easy to prosecute. She asked that I send along all the screenshots and information I had gathered.

I emailed her the information as soon as I got off the phone with her, and felt much better having spoken to her. The other Skepchick contributors and I celebrated that our own Scully was on the case.

Days went by with no word from her. I emailed her again to be sure she received everything. She said she was traveling and that she’d get back to me asap.

Weeks went by and I emailed her again, apologizing for bothering her but wondering if anything was happening. She replied to say that I definitely was not bothering her, and that she’d be getting to this soon.

A few more weeks later, I emailed her to tell her that in a month I would be giving a public talk just an hour from where “Rick” lived and that I wasn’t sure what to do. She told me, “You take whatever precautions you need to take.” She also asked me to resend the screenshots, which I did. She replied saying her computer wouldn’t open the .zip file I sent but asked if the screenshots were the same as the links I had sent her. I replied to say that yes, the screenshots were all the same as what the links showed, since “Rick” hadn’t edited or taken down anything he had posted.

That was September of last year. I never heard from her again.

A good friend of mine heard this story at the time it was happening and wanted to help me, so he hired an armed guard to attend my talk and a private detective to look into “Rick’s” background.

Around this time, I started receiving hundreds of harassing Tweets and Facebook messages from a pseudonym using an IP address that came from “Rick’s” home town.

The detective worked quickly and efficiently. He almost immediately found that “Rick” had previously been arrested for domestic violence. He also found that “Rick” was responsible for vandalizing my Wikipedia page, and had a long history of making enemies online in forums and elsewhere.

The private detective called me to talk over my options. He pointed out that there’s a chance that “Rick” is just a pathetic troll who lives with his parents and will never actually do anything besides rage on the Internet. There’s also a chance he would follow through on his threats, and there’s absolutely no way to know for sure one way or another until it happens. He told me that if I wanted, I could get a restraining order, but this would have consequences. The restraining order would be delivered to “Rick” along with the information that I’m the one who ordered it. He told me that sometimes, this is enough to encourage people like “Rick” to escalate to violence. He pointed out that a restraining order is not a magical spell that would stop him from getting near me – its only purpose is to make it easier for the police to prosecute him if he does get near me, at which point he’ll have already done what he’s going to do.

The detective also told me that I should reconsider publicizing anything about “Rick” because that, too, could “escalate” the situation to one that would be very dangerous to me. That’s why “Rick” is not the man’s real name and I haven’t linked to his threats. I don’t know if “Rick” is still obsessed with me, but if he is, then he probably has read this and recognized himself, anyway, so I’m actually very hesitant to even publish this.

I am going to publish it, though, because I’m tired of people asking me why I don’t go to the cops when I get a threat like this one that came in the other day via Twitter:

I don’t go to the cops because the cops don’t care. I’m sure they’re doing very important things, like shooting drug dealers or whatever. And for every Anders Breivik there are 100 men who will never go further than hating women from the comfort of their basements; for every George Sodini, 100 men who only wish they could gun down women.

And I guess wishing isn’t illegal.

Rebecca Watson :Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

View Comments (60)

  • "So glad to know the California law in this discussion"

    >>>>The various state statutes are all similar.

    about a threat issued by someone in Massachusett

    The defendant is charged with having threatened to commit a crime
    against the person or property of another. Threatening [a person with a crime
    against his or her person or property] [a person by threatening a crime
    against someone else or their property] is itself a crime.
    In order to prove the defendant guilty of this offense, the Commonwealth
    must prove four things beyond a reasonable doubt:
    First: That the defendant expressed an intent to injure a person, or
    property of another, now or in the future;
    Second: That the defendant intended that his (her) threat be conveyed
    to a particular person;
    Third: That the injury that was threatened, if carried out, would
    constitute a crime; and
    Fourth: That the defendant made the threat under circumstances which
    could reasonably have caused the person to whom it was conveyed to fear
    that the defendant had both the intention and the ability to carry out the threat."

    " to a person living in New York."

    Ah, New York is a bigger problem:

    "S 240.30 Aggravated harassment in the second degree.
    A person is guilty of aggravated harassment in the second degree when,
    with intent to harass, annoy, threaten or alarm another person, he or
    1. Either (a) communicates with a person, anonymously or otherwise, by
    telephone, or by telegraph, mail or any other form of written
    communication, in a manner likely to cause annoyance or alarm; or
    (b) causes a communication to be initiated by mechanical or electronic
    means or otherwise with a person, anonymously or otherwise, by
    telephone, or by telegraph, mail or any other form of written
    communication, in a manner likely to cause annoyance or alarm; or
    2. Makes a telephone call, whether or not a conversation ensues, with
    no purpose of legitimate communication; or
    3. Strikes, shoves, kicks, or otherwise subjects another person to
    physical contact, or attempts or threatens to do the same because of a
    belief or perception regarding such person`s race, color, national
    origin, ancestry, gender, religion, religious practice, age, disability
    or sexual orientation, regardless of whether the belief or perception is
    correct; or
    4. Commits the crime of harassment in the first degree and has
    previously been convicted of the crime of harassment in the first degree
    as defined by section 240.25 of this article within the preceding ten
    5. For the purposes of subdivision one of this section, "form of
    written communication" shall include, but not be limited to, a recording
    as defined in subdivision six of section 275.00 of this part.
    Aggravated harassment in the second degree is a class A misdemeanor."

    >>So, in New York, making a threat is only a misdemeanor. Good luck trying to get a prosecutors office to try and extradite someone for a misdemeanor that will be difficult to prove.

    >> I.e., The California statute was perfectly fine as a teaching aid.

    >> Except for the unteachable of course.

    >>You're most welcome. Now, go back and read it and see if you can make any cogent comments that demonstrate at least an effort towards understanding the complexities of the issues.

    "Also, excepting the current shutdown, are you honestly making an argument that the FBI doesn’t have funding to look into credible threats of violence against people?"

    I'm suggesting that as with any organization with more possible things to investigate than people and resources available to investigate them all, that triage is always done. As Devin suggests it doesn't mean they won't ever, but it may take a good deal of pushing. - and the victim may have to relinquish their own computer's for a good while so that proper, legally usable evidence can be obtained.

    But let's see if you can learn the law before I try and teach you anything about computer forensics. One complex topic at a time.

  • “So think all that through, most of you won’t even try before posting, but maybe someone will make an earnest attempt.”

    Seriously? SERIOUSLY?

    >>Well, so far I've been right. It has only been one evening and Devin has tried to explain what happens at the local level. And that's just for threats where the police and the courts would clearly have jurisdiction over both the alleged perpetrator, victim, and crime. (and yes those are three separate problems.)

    • Actually, I think "Seriously? SERIOUSLY?" means "You just read a post from a woman talking about how she can't get the death threats she gets treated with any kind of gravity, and how that doesn't stop people from erroneously and condescendingly telling her how to handle those threats, and you think that's a great time to play juvenile 'internet debate champ' games?!"

        • Or, and I know this is revolutionary, we could act like fucking human beings and do both! At the same time, even!

          • That is rich coming from the person who chimed in to suggest that taking people's feelings into account constituted not thinking.

          • Another revolutionary thought - let's act like grown ups and deal with a serious problem in a serious manner instead of tone-trolling and pulling the BS "mansplaining" card.

      • I don't know. I think he's down a great job of underscoring Rebecca's point. The local police and FBI are so tied up with other priorities and practical constraints as to be useless. Systematic problems make it all but impossible for the victim to get protection, and even if they do, it's only with great personal cost, effort, and risk.

        Rebecca didn't just happen to talk to insensitive law enforcement officers. She didn't just have bad luck with a few mysoginyst cops who weren't on her side. This isn't about bad apples. She encountered a system that routinely fails peolple in her situation. That's exactly what elfishchimra has described (in a slightly dickish way.)

          • I was agreeing with Stephanie. My comment was directed at elfishchimera. The fact that you thought it was directed at you, though... does someone have a guilty conscience? :P

          • Yep. If you want to interact with people, just having the facts or being right don't really do much. You've got to tone down your rhetoric, be patient, read what others have posted, and accept criticism if you want to accomplish anything.

  • Is it a general rule that "skeptics" are all creepy and somewhat rapey. I mean I've always though Richard Dawkins is a creep and kind of a dick. I feel like people who relentlessly insist every aspect of the universe around them be proven with science shouldn't use the term "feminazi", aren't there more important creationist fish to fry? I started reading this blog when I read an article by Rebecca Watson on slate.com and after reading that I watched some of the more "controversial" YouTube videos she's done and I really did not see anything that warrants rapey death threats. Who thinks that's ok? Who thinks people like that deserve a dialogue? Dudes who follow Richard Dawkins I suppose.

  • Perhaps a relevant case to this, is that of Gilberto Valle, known as the "Cannibal Cop". There was a fine line being explored in that case, between thought and intent to act. It was very, very dicey to take the case to court. The jury had a hard time with it.


    Blaming this all on law enforcement apathy is, I believe, misplaced. I've been a dispatcher for 15 years. There are actually databases of people who have threatened officers (specifically, or in general) or governments - and those databases only exist to give the officers a heads-up. Every so often there's a regional message about person X who stated to person Y they were on their way to go blow away some cops... and there's no charges, no warrant for arrest. It's just information, a be-on-the-lookout, use caution. Charges and warrants come about when the person actively takes steps to carry out the threat (as in the Valle case).

    So if LE is failing to act simply because they're apathetic towards the threats against you, by logical extension they're also apathetic to threats made against themselves, which isn't a particularly reasonable concept. What's happening is that the jerk is toeing that fine line, without quite crossing it. Although it sounds like you could possibly have a case for harassment?

    "He pointed out that a restraining order is not a magical spell that would stop him from getting near me – its only purpose is to make it easier for the police to prosecute him if he does get near me, at which point he’ll have already done what he’s going to do." Not necessarily. Possibility: an officer stops to check a car parked on your street. He makes contact with the driver. He runs the driver... oh look, this guy is the subject of a restraining order. And what a coincidence, the protected person lives on this street. Now the cop takes a harder look at what's in the car. That roll of duct tape in plain view on the back seat sure looks a lot more sinister now than it did a moment ago.........

    You might be surprised at how often arrests are made on very innocuous-seeming contacts where the officer had just enough of a trail to allow him to keep digging.

    There is a chance such an order could rile up the jerk. There's also a chance it could scare him off. I consider such tools much the same as I do door locks. A door lock will not stop a determined individual, but not locking the door won't stop anyone at all.

    • I don't think I've ever heard anyone say, "You fucking bitch. How dare you lock your door against me?!"

  • I have to wonder how my local police would handle this exact situation. About a year and a half ago I was awaken at 2:30 AM by a phone call from the police informing me that there were officers at my front door who wanted to talk to me, so I went to talk to them. It seems someone had read something I posted online and decided that I might harm myself (despite the fact that I wasn't online that day and hadn't written anything that I could think of that would have given that impression) and called the state police who contacted the local police to come and wake me up to evaluate whether I was going to hurt myself.

    I still don't know the particulars of how or why that happened but I have to wonder if they would take the report of a man threatening to harm a woman as seriously as they took a report of a man threatening to harm himself.
    I would hope my suspicions would be wrong.

    • Well, if you're going to harm yourself, the threat and the victim are at least in the same jurisdiction. That makes it a lot easier for local police to take action. The system just isn't set up to handle serious threats made over the internet. I suspect your suspicions would not be wrong. And I suspect it's going to take a national tragedy to change that.

      • Agreed, but that the threat of self-harm is seen as a terrible thing whereas the threat of violence against a woman is waved off speaks to the society we live in. Not in a good way I'm afraid.

        • I would imagine the difference is that they treated your perceived threat as a need for a welfare check. The cops do welfare checks all the time, at least around here. Someone's grandma not answering the phone all morning can prompt a welfare check if the grandkid calls the cops to request one, and there's nothing criminal about not answering your phone. A threat against another person involves a different sort of response, I expect.

        • PZ has also had credible threats made against him that weren't taken seriously by law enforcement. In fact, I've not heard of a single case where this kind of behavior was taken seriously by law enforcement at any level. I think the problem of these threats not being taken seriously has more to do with their coming via the internet than their being against women (though I'm sure sexism plays a role in making it worse.)

  • Can we take a cue from those revenge porn sites that allow anyone to put up pictures and then charge for them to be taken down?

    How about a "threatens to harm people" site with various categories? One of the categories could be "claims it was a joke" and it costs $50 to move the entry from any other category to that one, for example from the "threatens to rape" category.

    If you are listed on such a site, and your employer finds out, you would have some 'splainin to do.

  • I always find myself bemused by this. I do NOT doubt this happens. A lot of men as asses. But in over 20 years online . .before the WWW . . .ONCE a man threatened me. He posted my address and phone on Usenet and threatened to kidnap my oldest daughter (on the birthday of my youngest daughter, who WAS at that point still missing after having been taken 8 years before) (And the police ARE useless, at least we have that in common.) That was it. And I was a flame queen at that time. I irritated TONS of men. But that was it. No threats of rape, or death or anything. I have to same experience in video games. Since 1998 or 99 I have been playing MMORPGs. Ultima Online, Dark Something . . a ton of anime based ones . . and now World of Warcraft for 8 years. Never has anyone made an effort to scare me. Not saying stupid little boys don't say stupid shit. But I tell them to go stand in the corner and go back to looking for their penis with the magnifying glass and they shut up. Why don't they bother me? Is there something wrong with me? I don't know.

    I am sorry moronic men bother you, dear. You are AWESOME. Don't let the idiots get to you. Ignore and block are AWESOME functions.

    • I haven't had any rape or death threats, either. And it's possible you just didn't notice them. I tend to not notice things like that unless they are very in-my-face.

      I DID have a random stalker, a man I WORKED with, and he caused me to force a resignation from a job back in 2007. That was weird because it wasn't a sexual thing. He was just a meth head asshole who hated me because I was young, I think, although I suppose my being female had something to do with it.

  • It;s interesting that the California law has so many ifs and buts. Australian Federal Law is clear cut:
    474.15 Using a carriage service to make a threat
    Threat to kill
    (1) A person (the first person ) is guilty of an offence if:
    (a) the first person uses a carriage service to make to another person (the second person ) a threat to kill the second person or a third person; and
    (b) the first person intends the second person to fear that the threat will be carried out.
    Penalty: Imprisonment for 10 years.
    Threat to cause serious harm
    (2) A person (the first person ) is guilty of an offence if:
    (a) the first person uses a carriage service to make to another person (the second person ) a threat to cause serious harm to the second person or a third person; and
    (b) the first person intends the second person to fear that the threat will be carried out.
    Penalty: Imprisonment for 7 years.
    Actual fear not necessary
    (3) In a prosecution for an offence against this section, it is not necessary to prove that the person receiving the threat actually feared that the threat would be carried out.
    (4) In this section:
    "fear" includes apprehension.
    "threat to cause serious harm to a person includes a threat to substantially contribute to serious " harm to the person. "

    TL;DR do NOT try this shit in Australia.

    • Assuming of course that the Australian police are interested in pursuing it. My sister received death threats from a bloke who drank in a pub near her flat for nearly a year before she moved to another state. The response from Victoria police.

      1) We can't do anything because he hasn't done anything.

      2) Try anything retaliatory and we'll arrest you!

      One wonders if you'd get better results in these cases if you told the coppers that the individual concerned was:

      a) Foreign, or indigenous, non white and selling drugs.
      b) Foreign and having a gathering at their house where copies of the Koran could be seen
      c) Left wing, scruffy and planning a demonstration.

      Only half joking.

      • Yeah, OK but if he had used the internet for those threats it would have been a federal matter and at least the law itself in that case is clearcut by comparison with the USA. I think also the AFP are probably less corrupt and decadent than some of the State police.

  • Just wandering in to say hello, Oh crap, it's still going on, I'm so sorry.

    I love you Rebecca, and your continued bravery in the face of such colossal ASSHATTERY humbles me. You are amazing.

  • Rebecca, i am sorry, and ashamed that many men put women through this abuse. To me, all of these problems seem systemic. Legal measures are needed to help in the short term, but I think humankind needs to say as a whole society, "this is disgusting. This is unacceptable." it isn't happening overnight, but we are progressing. As we try to find legal recourse for today's stalkers, haters (I mean true hate here), creeps, what have you, the way we progress as a society is by teaching our children well.

    Yes, the minds of the youth are the blazing sword we must form against the adversaries bigotry, mysogeny, and any other form of hate and discrimination we face.