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Choosing whether to report online abuse to law enforcement is a decision only you can make. If you feel you are in immediate danger, however, please consider calling 911.

Unfortunately, there is no exact formula for knowing when to turn to the police. You are the best person to judge whether online abuse has made you fear for your safety, or the safety of your loved ones. If you’re trying to gauge whether or not online abuse has made you feel unsafe, here are some questions you can ask yourself.

Not every community and individual will feel comfortable involving law enforcement, and law enforcement officials are not always well-equipped to handle problems that arise online.

In general, the police are able to respond when a crime has been committed. For that reason, they may be better positioned to respond to the following forms of online abuse:

  • You’ve received or been named in direct threats of violence (i.e.: threats that suggest a time, place, or location are more likely to be taken seriously by law enforcement).
  • An online abuser has published nonconsensual, sexually-explicit images of you.
  • You’ve been stalked via electronic communication (see below).
  • You know the identity of your online harasser and wish to seek a restraining order.

These are by no means the only reasons you may decide to turn to law enforcement for help. We encourage you to use your own judgment.

What to Know in Advance

Alerting law enforcement of online abuse can feel intimidating and overwhelming. It can help to have a trusted ally by your side if you go to your local precinct in person, or if law enforcement sends an officer to your home to take a statement. You may be asked to answer detailed questions about the online harassment you’ve experienced and provide as much detail as possible. You may also be asked to present evidence, so it’s critically important to document abusive content because it can disappear quickly (if the abuser deletes it or the platform takes it down).

Filing a police report is important because it can initiate a criminal investigation. It can also help you prove that the harassment made you fear for your safety and that the harasser was engaging in a “course of conduct” (i.e., harassing you repeatedly rather than just once), which can be helpful should you decide to pursue a criminal or civil case against the harasser.

Law enforcement is more likely to intervene if a crime has been committed. However, the reality is that, when it comes to online harassment, the burden of educating local law enforcement about existing cyber laws often lies with the victim. For that reason, you may want to look up your state’s cyber laws and have them in hand when you interact with law enforcement. Take a look at the State Law section of this Field Manual for additional information.

Pro Tip for Women Writers

In a PEN America survey of writers and journalists, more than two-thirds of women writers who reported contacting law enforcement about their online abuse also reported feeling that law enforcement wasn’t helpful. As legal expert Danielle Keats Citron reports in her book Hate Crimes in Cyberspace, “Law enforcement agencies often fail to follow up on victims’ complaints because they are not trained to see online harassment as a problem and feel uncomfortable getting involved.”

Filing a police report does not always result in immediate action or relief. There are various reasons for this. Sometimes a hateful online message falls within the realm of protected speech, and the law doesn’t apply. Sometimes local law enforcement has not been adequately trained to respond to cyber harassment—an area of policing that continues to evolve. Sometimes the police officer handling your case may be unfamiliar with the online platforms where the harassment occurred. Law enforcement officials who are not well versed in technology and online harm may not treat online harassment as significant or urgent. This can be demoralizing. If possible, bring along a trusted ally so you’re not alone.

What Can Law Enforcement Do?

Law enforcement can help you bring criminal charges if you report a possible crime. Law enforcement can expedite search warrants with online platforms to obtain evidence of harm, which is not something a lawyer can do unless you are bringing a civil lawsuit. They can also potentially connect you with victims’ rights advocates that work for the state. Some states have enacted a “victim bill of rights,” which provides access to counseling and assistance with pursuing restitution, compensation, and restraining orders.

When to Turn to a Lawyer

Because laws governing online harassment vary state to state, if you’re considering pursuing legal action it is critical to seek the advice of a lawyer who practices in your state. A responsible lawyer, experienced in online harassment, can help you decide whether or not to pursue civil or criminal action, engage law enforcement, seek an order of protection, or advocate with social media platforms or other technology companies. That said, obtaining legal advice can be costly. Please see the Legal Resources section of this Field Manual for more information about some subsidized and pro bono options.

Further Reading

PEN America is deeply grateful to Covington & Burling LLP and C.A. Goldberg, PLLC Victims’ Rights Law Firm for providing pro bono feedback and insights on legal considerations for people facing online abuse. We are also grateful to TrustLaw, Thomson Reuters Foundation for facilitating this pro bono legal support.