Gabrielle Thompson, Vice President of Threat Assessment and Senior Instructor at GDBA’s Advanced Threat Assessment Academy, discusses persistent public figure pursuers, the common goal of wanting pursuers to stop communicating, and proven strategies for managing the pursuit.
“I just want the communications to stop.”
I consulted with a public figure who was receiving more than four hundred emails per month from a delusional pursuer (referred to here as “Mary”). While Mary had not expressed a direct threat or sought an encounter, the amount of communications alone was (unsurprisingly) alarming and frustrating to the client. The client then expressed the wish I’ve heard many times before from those receiving persistent communications: “I just want the communications to stop.”
When public figures express this common goal, they are often expressing the desire to pursue some type of intervention to stop the pursuit, which might include warning the pursuer to stop, sending a Cease and Desist letter, filing a civil Restraining Order, or pursuing criminal charges. Secondarily, the public figure might also want to seek justice through an intervention.
Target Transference: The Majority of Public Figure Pursuers Will Transfer Their Attentions Elsewhere If Not Engaged
The Threat Assessment and Management Division at Gavin de Becker & Associates, L.P. (GDBA) has assessed and managed more than 55,000 cases of inappropriate pursuit, including on behalf of public figures (e.g., media figures and high-profile executives). Through managing these cases from a safety perspective, we’ve learned that the majority of public figure pursuers will transfer their attentions elsewhere if not engaged, a process we call target transference.
In fact, many pursuers are communicating with multiple public figures at once and will focus on the public figure (or representative) who engages them in some way – this engagement might be a favorable response (such as a kind reply) or even a negative response (such as a Restraining Order). (While I’m referring to public figure pursuit here, this philosophy regarding engagement also applies to other types of inappropriate pursuit, including workplace violence and domestic violence cases.)
Engage and Enrage: Engagement May Lead to Escalation
Our office carefully considers all available strategies in each case before proceeding because applying a direct intervention could prove Gavin de Becker’s adage: “engage and enrage.” The intrusive strategy that the public figure hopes will stop the pursuit often escalates the pursuit further.
In specific cases, we are advocates of intervention when we feel the strategy will lead us to our goal of long-term safety and detachment. However, in many cases we assess, we find that applying a strategy of “watch and wait” is most likely to lead the pursuer to stop communicating over time on his or her own.
“Watch and Wait”: A Strategy that Works in the Majority of Cases
“Watch and wait” refers to not responding to the pursuer, and applying other less intrusive strategies that are not detectable to the pursuer. These strategies might include conducting social media research and an investigation of the pursuer, training office and household staff how to handle inappropriate communications, and enhancing security at the public figure’s office, residence, and public appearances. However, the process of “watch and wait” can be frustrating for those being pursued, and requires them to raise their level of tolerance to the pursuit.
Through this process, we seek to change what we can control (the public figure’s behavior and environments), rather than trying to control a pursuer’s conduct or mental state. (For example, we control environments by having our protectors conduct in-depth security advances of all known public appearances to mitigate the potential of an inappropriate encounter with a pursuer.)
With the pursuer Mary mentioned above, we could block her emails, though she could simply create several more email addresses, and the process of blocking in itself is engaging and a type of response. Let’s say the blocking “works” and she stops emailing. This doesn’t mean she’s not thinking about the public figure. She then might start communicating via letters, or phone calls, or social media posts. If we attempt to stop these types of communications as well, what is she most likely to do? Seek an encounter, which we most seek to avoid from a safety perspective.
Communications in Themselves Are Not Dangerous
Emails (and other communications) in themselves are not dangerous, and stopping the emails does not mean stopping the pursuer’s fixation or mental state. Even a Restraining Order in this case does not mean the fixation or the communications would stop (though a violation might lead to an arrest). We’d much rather have a mentally ill pursuer who emails a public figure hundreds of times per month than visits. Also, blocking the emails would prevent us from learning what the pursuer is expressing, and the communications are valuable to document in case a criminal or civil intervention is pursued in the future.
Direct Interventions and Criminal Charges: When “Watching and Waiting” Is No Longer Practical and the Benefits Outweigh the Possible Consequences
In some cases, criminal charges or other direct intervention might be appropriate, especially with a pursuer who crosses the line of tolerable behavior, such as trespassing at a property. Generally speaking, we support the use of such interventions when the benefits of those interventions outweigh the possible consequences, and when “watching and waiting” is no longer practical. Depending on the jurisdiction, criminal charges we often apply in public figure pursuit cases include trespassing, threats, harassment, and stalking.
In regards to criminal charges in such cases, it’s important to understand the laws associated with the appropriate jurisdictions in each case. Unfortunately, in the U.S., most persistent cases involving public figures do not rise to the level of a crime because there is no direct threat or encounter attempt.
When criminal charges are an option, we consider many issues prior to proceeding, including would we be successful, what do we seek to gain from pursuing the case (e.g., jail time, a criminal protective order, mental health treatment), whether the public figure might be called to testify, the pursuer’s criminal and civil litigation history, etc.
Managing Mary’s Communications
In the case with Mary, the client opted not to take any intrusive action. Law enforcement in the appropriate jurisdiction advised that they were unable to proceed with an arrest. In that jurisdiction, a civil Restraining Order was an option (though in some jurisdictions, Restraining Orders are limited to domestic and family cases). That client also opted not to pursue the Restraining Order due to the risk of testifying and being in court with the pursuer (which would be engaging), due to not wanting the publicity, and due to concern the Restraining Order would escalate the case.
Over the course of a decade, Mary emailed less frequently (with periods of escalation, which are to be expected), and ultimately stopped communicating altogether. Of course, most pursuers are not fixated on a public figure to this degree and transfer their attentions elsewhere much more quickly. However, this case demonstrates that even in extreme cases of persistence and a high level of emotional investment, “watch and wait” does work.
In the meantime, we recommended steps to lessen the impact of the emails on our client. We rerouted the emails to our office, we continued to conduct social media research of Mary, and we updated the client whenever we observed specific criteria, which was established with the client in advance (e.g., references to travel or public appearances, references to his family).
Applying a strategy of “watch and wait” can be frustrating for public figures because it might feel like no action is being taken, especially during escalations. Pursuers often escalate prior to detaching, and it is during this time when many public figures most want to respond and/or apply an intervention which adds fuel to the fire.
Steps to Take When Managing a Persistent Pursuer Case for a Public Figure
If you are considering intrusive actions on behalf of a public figure, assess the communications, conduct a confidential investigation including social media research, address the public figure’s overall safety program to reduce their vulnerability and lessen the likelihood of encounters, define the public figure’s goal (i.e., safety), and consider whether possible interventions lead to the defined goal. Educate the public figure on any of possible consequences associated with the intervention, including escalation.
Remember, “watch and wait,” including assessing new communications and re-evaluating the management plan, is an active strategy for managing cases, and works in the majority of situations.
Gabrielle Thompson, PI, CPP, is Vice President of Threat Assessment at Gavin de Becker & Associates, L.P. She is a leading behavioral scientist with a specialty in threat assessment. For more than 20 years, she has personally assessed and managed thousands of cases including public figure pursuit, workplace violence, and domestic violence for at-risk individuals and organizations. She is Senior Instructor at GDBA’s Advanced Threat Assessment Academy (to learn more about the Academy, visit: training.gdba.com).