Mahoning cops say they’re limited by the law

Staff report


Law-enforcement officials say they take stalking seriously, but the law puts limits on how much they can do.

Stacey Sutera of Canfield was shot and killed Wednesday, and authorities said Robert McLaughlin, who had stalked Sutera, is the primary suspect.

Maj. Leonard Sliwinski and Detective Jeff Allen, both with the Mahoning County Sheriff’s Office, say every harassment or potential stalking case is different. Victims are encouraged to seek police intervention for telephone harassment or anything that may lead to menacing by stalking.

Sliwinski said in most cases, a simple phone call from police ordering the suspect to stop the harassing behavior is enough. In other cases, more drastic measures must be taken.

“Normally, police get involved early enough to stop it; 99 percent can be handled by law enforcement telling the person to stop or threatening legal action,” he said.

Menacing by stalking is a first-degree misdemeanor in Ohio but a fourth-degree felony on a second or subsequent offense or under certain conditions.

State law prohibits a pattern of conduct that knowingly causes a person mental distress or the belief that he will be harmed physically.

Allen said victims are told to obtain a restraining order against a suspect when the harassment is persistent or begins to increase in frequency or type of harassment.

That restraining order, he said, gives officers the authority to make an arrest if the person continues to harass or threaten the victim.

It’s when a stalker ignores the restraining order or does not care about legal intervention that things can become scary for the victim.

“It is frustrating. It really can be frustrating,” said Allen. “Other than the person calling the police and getting there as quickly as we can, there isn’t much more we can do.”

There is the option of keeping the suspect locked up, he said, but added, “That is not our decision.”

Sliwinski and Allen said any law-enforcement agency will make a special effort to keep someone safe when dealing with a potentially dangerous stalker, but it is extremely rare for police to be able to watch a person 24 hours a day.

“We can’t have our cars sit outside someone’s house eight hours out of a shift. They have to answer calls and perform other duties. I wish there was money to do that,” Allen added. “If someone is having a serious problem, we try to stay in that area, but it’s frustrating.”

Linda Bear, legal advocate supervisor for Someplace Safe, Trumbull County’s domestic-violence agency, said she has found that civil protection orders acquired through the common pleas court are among the best tools available to deal with stalking.

Stalking is a pattern of behavior that puts a person in a state of fear, Bear said. CPOs are a good route for many victims because they require less proof to obtain, compared to a conviction through the criminal courts, she added. And violation of a CPO is a criminal offense, she said.

She tells her clients to report incidents to police so they are on record.

Whether someone is stalking by driving down the street or through other means, the goal of the stalker is the same, Bear said.

“They just want attention. It’s about power and control.”

Contributors: Staff writers John W. Goodwin Jr., Denise Dick and Ed Runyan.

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