September 29, 2008

Blaming the Victim (As printed in the Beacon News)



I took a class in graduate school entitled “Victimization”.  The main focus of the curriculum was based on the premise that crime victims play a large part in their own victimization.  There are criminologists who have dedicated their careers solely to this field of study and I was intrigued by the notion that partial responsibility was placed on the crime victim rather than the offender. 


My intrigue turned to defiance as I found myself arguing vehemently on behalf of the many innocent and unsuspecting victims with whom I have come in contact throughout my career as a police officer.  I thought it absurd to suggest that the robbery victim was somehow responsible for getting her purse snatched while walking through the parking lot after exiting the grocery store.  I became angry that an elderly man who trusted a stranger to seal-coat his driveway would be responsible for that person entering his home and taking his life savings.  The very thought that a date rape victim was questioned about why she didn’t yell “no” louder or dress less provocative is beyond my comprehension.


When my fog of anger cleared and rationale returned, I had to be honest with myself and admit that I have been on many calls where I secretly wondered of the victim, “What were you thinking?!”  Those thoughts normally creep in when a car is reported stolen and the owner admits that he did leave the car running with the doors unlocked.  The same question arises when I learn that the stolen ipod and cell phone were taken from the cup-holder in a vehicle with the windows down.  In these situations, I’ve learned to use both empathy along with education of these individuals whose behavior I can only describe as “naive”. 


The lines of victimization become cloudy when investigating crimes of opportunity.  Is there such thing as a criminal who does not seek out criminal behavior but takes advantage of an opportunity to steal an ipod out of an unlocked car?  Does this make them a criminal or opportunists in self-interest?  In the recent senior prank at East High we can apply the same thought process.  Several student leaders were allowed to enter the school and were given clear instructions on what was acceptable for “decorating”.  Those students took advantage of their access and called upon other students to enter – many of whom ultimately caused thousands of dollars of damage to the school.   Are they criminals or opportunists?   In this situation, the police officer was found to be responsible for allowing them in the school.  If you allow someone into your home and they destroy your belongings without your permission, should you be held responsible?   Those on both sides of this argument have their passionate viewpoints and it is difficult to determine which is more correct.  Now you may be starting to understand how criminologists can dedicate their professional lives to one field of study.


From the perspective of a police officer and the law, the issue is not as cloudy.  We may find ourselves questioning the actions of some victims and decide that they have made themselves vulnerable to criminal activity.  Despite this, the elements of the crimes committed are very clear and rarely open for interpretation.  We don’t base arrests on how the victim could have prevented the crime.  And for most of us, an unlocked, running car does not conjure up a thought of stealing it, nor does an ipod and cell phone in plain view tempt us.  For others, however, values and morals may not be in tact.  We can attempt to examine the many theories on what leads a person’s values to be skewed but the fact remains that we are ultimately responsible for our own actions – even when confronted with temptation or opportunity.

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