A Professor’s Street Lessons
Loud Defendants and Silent Victims
As someone who had always been greatly concerned about the rights of offenders, I now began to consider for the first time the rights of police officers. As a police officer, I felt that my efforts to protect society and maintain my personal safety were menaced by many of the very court decisions and lenient parole board actions I had always been eager to defend.
An educated man, I could not answer the questions of my fellow officers as to why those who kill and maim police officers, men and women who are involved in no less honourable an activity than holding our society together, should so often be subjected to minor penalties. I grew weary of carefully following difficult legal restrictions, while thugs and hoodlums consistently twisted the law to their own advantage. I remember standing in the street one evening and reading a heroin “pusher” his rights, only to have him convulse with laughter halfway through and finish reciting them, word for word, from memory. He had been given his “rights” under the law, but what about the rights of those who were the victims of people like himself? For the first time, questions such as these began to bother me.
“As a corrections worker and criminology professor, I had never given much thought to those who were victimised by criminals in our society”.
As a corrections worker and someone raised in a comfortable middle class home, I had always been insulated from the kind of human misery and tragedy which become part of the police officers life. Now, the often terrible sights, sounds and smells of my job began to haunt me hours after I had taken the blue uniform and badge off. Some nights I would lay in bed unable to sleep, trying desperately to forget the things I had seen during a particular tour of duty: the rat-infested shacks that served as homes to those far less fortunate than I, a teenage boy dying in my arms after being struck by a car, small children clad in rags with stomachs bloated from hunger playing in a urine-splattered hall, the victim of a robbery senselessly beaten and murdered.
In my role as a police officer, I found that the victims of crime ceased to be impersonal statistics. As a corrections worker and criminology professor, I had never given much thought to those who are victimised by criminals in our society. Now the sight of so many lives ruthlessly damaged and destroyed by the perpetrators of crime left me preoccupied with the question of society’s responsibility to protect the men, women and children who are victimised daily.
“I would like every clinical psychologist, every judge, every juror to see Jones, not calm and composed in an office setting but as the street cop sees him – beating his small child with a heavy buckle, kicking his pregnant wife.”
For all the tragic victims of crime I have seen during the past 6 months, one case stands out above all. There was an elderly man who lived with his dog in my apartment building downtown. He was a retied bus driver and his wife was long deceased. As time went by, I became friends with the old man and his dog. I could usually count on finding both of them standing at the corner on my way to work. I would engage in casual conversation with the old man and sometimes he and his dog would walk several blocks toward the station with me. They were both as predictable as a clock: each evening around 7, the old man would walk to the same small restaurant several blocks away, where he would eat his evening meal while the dog watched dutifully outside.
One evening my partner and I received a call to a street shooting near my apartment building. My heart sank as we pulled up and I saw the old mans mutt in a crowd of people gathered on the sidewalk. The old man was lying on his back, in a large pool of blood, half trying to brace himself on an elbow. He clutched a bullet wound in his chest and gasped to me that three young men had stopped him and demanded his money. After taking his wallet and seeing how little he had, they shot him and left him on the street. As a police officer, I was enraged time and time again at the cruelty and senselessness of Acts such as this, at the arrogance of brazen thugs who prey with impunity on innocent citizens.
A Different Perspective
The same kinds of daily stresses which affect my fellow police officers soon began to take their toll on me. I became sick and tired of being reviled and attacked by criminals who could usually find a most sympathetic audience in judges and jurors eager to understand their side of things and provide them with “another chance”. I grew tired of community pressure groups, eager to seize upon the slightest mistake made by myself or a fellow police officer.
As a criminology professor, I had always enjoyed the luxury of having great amounts of time in which to make difficult decisions. As a police officer however, I found myself forced to make the most critical choices in a time frame of seconds, rather than days: to shoot or not to shoot, to arrest or not to arrest, to give chase or let go – always with the nagging certainty that others, those with great amounts of time in which to analyse and think, stood ready to judge and condemn me for whatever action I might take or fail to take. I found myself not only forced to live a life consisting of seconds and adrenalin but also forced to deal with human problems which were infinitely more difficult than anything I had ever confronted in a correctional or mental health setting. Family fights, mental illness, potentially explosive crowd situations dangerous individuals – I found myself progressively awed by the complexity of tasks faced by police whose work I once thought was fairly simple and straight forward.
Indeed, I would like to take the average clinical psychologist or psychiatrist and invite them to function for just a day in the world of the police officer, to confront people whose problems are both serious and in need of immediate solution. I would invite them to walk, as I have , into a smoke filled pool room where five or six angry men are swinging cues at one another. I would like the prison counselor and parole officer to see their client Jones – not calm and composed in an office setting, but as the street cop sees him – beating his small child with a heavy belt buckle, or kicking his pregnant wife. I wish that they and every judge and juror in our country , could see the ravages of crime as the cop on the beat must: innocent people cut, shot, beaten, raped, robbed and murdered. It would, I feel certain, give them a different perspective on crime and criminals, just as it has me.