Television review

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The Independent Culture
In the case of most crimes, detection is far more difficult than legislation - it's easy enough, that is, to make robbing banks a criminal offence, but considerably harder to catch the career criminals who do it. Stalking may be one of the few crimes where this rule of thumb is reversed. How exactly do law-makers discriminate between a persistent lover and an obsessive one, between mute adoration and dumb menace? But once you've grappled with these problems and framed some kind of legislation, you don't exactly need to call on Sherlock Holmes to catch the offenders - they are, by definition, people who can't help but return to the scene of the crime.

In Los Angeles they do have proper laws, as well as a police team dedicated to enforcing them, and in the first of a new series of Inside Story (BBC1), James Cutler filmed the Threat Management Unit at work and talked to those in need of their services. "There is no profile for a stalker," one of the policemen noted early on, but though Cutler began with the arrest of a female stalker, his film effectively argued otherwise. With that one exception, all of the cases involved men obsessed with women who had rejected them. A final credit caption - "90 per cent of women killed by their ex-partners are stalked first" - reinforced the impression that this is mostly a male crime, an amorous desire for possession soured into something pathological.

For reasons already stated, the fascination of the film lay in the psychology of the stalkers, rather than any elaborate police procedures. The characteristic expression for these police officers is one of bemused exasperation, rather than apprehension. You can see why: even with the handcuffs on, the fantasy of intimacy and misunderstanding persists. "Marla is ballistic," said an officer to the man he'd just arrested for making one telephone call too many. "Livid, huh?" replied the man with an indulgent smile, "That's Marla... she's very dramatic."

The presence of the television camera wasn't a reminder of the gravity of his behaviour, just another way to get a message through to the object of his deranged infatuation - "Marla, this is so silly..." he said, staring straight into the lens. "I forgive you." Others, too, took the view that they were victim rather than victimiser: "I have never said a threatening word to her. All I have tried to do is comfort her," explained another man indignantly as he was arrested, oblivious to the fact that she only needed comforting because he had pursued her relentlessly for 19 years, finally taking an apartment opposite her driveway so that he could watch her every move. The depth of his delusion was such that he even threatened her with the withdrawal of his affection - "I'm rapidly starting to fall out of love with this woman," he said, as if to warn her that his patience wasn't endless.

Cutler prevented this turning into a black comedy by including some of the telephone calls received by victims - rambling messages heavy with unspecified menace - as well as pursuing the story of a woman repeatedly assaulted by a mentally unstable ex-lover. Incidentally, while I don't begrudge Cutler his flight over Los Angeles in a police helicopter, it's worth pointing out that it added nothing to his film but an overworked documentary cliche. Stalkers aren't apprehended from the air, or trapped by that probing column of brilliant light - they are arrested on their bicycles or in their homes, inadequate men with bemusement, or something worse, gleaming in their eyes.

And when Cutler ran emergency- call recordings of a stalking crime over aerial footage of a quite different police call-out, as if to suggest that we were witnessing the thing in its immediacy, cliche turned into something a bit less reputable. Perhaps the next director to visit the city could enjoy the municipal fun-ride but leave the actual footage on the cutting-room floor.