When you work in law enforcement, you have defining moments. Those times where something occurs that is so profoundly contradictory to your world view that you have to stop and take a moment, or more, to try and reconcile a new reality. Usually these times involve having a belief things are one way and then something happens or someone explains to you that that is not really the way things work rendering your belief obsolete. These can be particularly poignant in public safety because our truth before we start our careers becomes vastly different once we have a few days under our belts.
For me, one of these defining moments was when I learned that there are two kinds of victims. Before entering law enforcement, I believed anyone and everyone who has a crime committed against them is viewed and treated the same. Same crime. Same response. Same results. This belief was shattered about six months into my career when I overheard two officers talking about a sexual assault case they had worked. The crime occurred but the prosecutor dropped the case citing an “unsympathetic victim”. After getting clarification from the officers, my new truth involved situations where no matter what had happened to someone as defined by our laws, if the belief is that a jury would not empathize with them the case would go nowhere. The criminals would not be punished. The victim would not get justice. Since that time I have run into numerous situations where stereotypes or beliefs about real victims vs. not real victims, as well as victims that are masked as suspects affect how we do our job especially in juvenile justice where we are already struggling with the concepts of child vs. adult and all the variations of development and culpability. Some of the most common situations that stretch our “truth” are missing children, prostitutes and vagrancy.
When we hear about a missing child, most of us imagine a young girl or boy, usually less than 9 years old grabbed off the street by a stranger while waiting at the bus stop. Massive searches begin and resources abound as law enforcement joins with the community to find this child and bring the abductor to justice. But, what about situations where the child is a little older? What about a 15 year old boy who has been struggling with some behavior issues and some substance abuse? Would we treat this case differently? Most likely. Should we? Probably not. This child is just as vulnerable to being victimized and deserves for us to look beyond our stereotypes of what makes a good victim or not. What about non-stranger abductions? Too often, we are called out on situations where the non-custodial parent has absconded with a child. For the most part, if the child is young and we define the non-custodial parent’s lifestyle as questionable, we will treat these with seriousness. If not, we’d rather family court handle it. There is no set way to handle a missing child case but we must learn to look beyond whether we feel a true victim exists as we investigate.
Another heavily stereotyped crime and status of victimization occurs around prostitutes. Because of the nature of their work, often when they are violated they are not viewed as true victims. After all, their lifestyle seems to indicate that they are willing recipients in any sexual activity that occurs, even if the sex worker is a child especially a teenage girl or boy. Unfortunately, this non-victim mentality is incredibly damaging as the background behind why so many young women and men get treated as if they somehow encouraged the crime committed against them. This is as ridiculous as dismissing the aggravated assault of a cage fighter just because his activities involve fighting. Sexual assault is a crime regardless of the background, dressing style, behaviors or any other personal attribute of the victim. It can be very tough for a law enforcement officer to see a brutalized and raped 8 year old 3rd grader and a brutalized and raped 16 year old high school drop out in the same light, but we need to. The crime is not any less real. To call the second victim unsympathetic or not a true victim degrades the victim adding one more violation when we refuse to go after the perpetrator.
Vagrancy and all the actions inherent in it is another area where we often see through a varying lens. When kids congregate, especially teenagers, society often looks at them as if they were already doing something wrong. Before I moved from Arizona, Tempe was fighting a political battle over sitting on the sidewalk. Many citizens and business owners wanted the act categorized as obstruction and trespassing. Others wondered what is the big deal about some kids hanging out. In the same vein, officers are often faced with juveniles being out past curfew. When these children are picked up for panhandling or trespassing, it is easy to not look beyond the behavior that caused the nuisance for someone. Then we fail to see all the ways the situation was created by adult failings. In recognizing how we could have done things differently (we meaning mental health, juvenile justice and social services) and how we can take what appears as a crime could be a call for help. A call that we should address instead of just locking them up. Again, this category is often colored by age, race, ethnicity and economic standing.
As law enforcement professionals, most of us pride ourselves on the ability to be fair and just. We want to treat everyone equally and be the best enforcer of laws that we can. We want to offer guidance and try to keep our stereotypes out of our business. Unfortunately, this often is hard to do and bias crops up in unexpected places especially when dealing with juveniles. One thing I try to remember is laws do not have fine print that reads, “Only applicable if the victim is a young, white, suburbanite honor student.”