When I was a young man I was absolutely convinced that I knew what a criminal was. Twenty five years later, I’m not so sure I can answer that question as simply and as righteously as I used to. Calling someone a criminal requires a little judging or name calling even though some folks find that perfectly acceptable. Refusing to label or call someone a criminal doesn’t mean I condone criminal behavior. Please allow me to explain.
For twenty five years, I chased “bad guys” and criminals. I was a police officer in one of those little police departments that represent the vast majority of all the police agencies in this country. Those little unsung places that will never find themselves on an episode of “Cops.” I was never particularly resentful of my big city brothers and sisters and after a few years time, I settled into my small town role. Small town policing offers an opportunity that is unique, particularly if you police that small area for an extended length of time.
Small towns give police officers the luxury of time. I used that extra time to pay attention and most importantly to listen. I listened to crime victims but I also listened to suspects, the ones we call criminals. I watched as the sons and daughters of people I had arrested, grew up and got arrested themselves. In turn, I watched as their children grew older and had problems with the law. I began to see the cause and effect through three generations of family members as each began parenting our future “criminals.” I spoke to those original criminals, now grandparents. I asked them how they had been raised. In many cases, I learned the stories of their parents. Everything began to make sense. The cause and effect was obvious and the conclusion was inescapable.
I came to believe that not one child was ever born with a black heart. That criminals, from burglars to murderers, were educated and raised in a way that simply fed into criminal behavior. Perhaps boys who were molested by family members grew up thinking molesting was acceptable to some extent and in turn molested their own children and others. I seized children from parents who were drinking, selling, and shooting drugs sometimes before school in the morning. I watched those unloved and abandoned kids find comfort in booze and drugs and in turn get pregnant, kicked out of school, or land in jail.
As they grew older and had children of their own, they taught those children to behave the same way. I watched the children of violent homes grow up with anger issues and pass anger and violence down through their children.
If your were shown hate and fear, you learned to hate and to be afraid. If you were constantly criticized, you grew up with self esteem issues and criticized others. A fish, born in the water, is unaware of what dry land is. The fish is incapable of comprehending survival outside of water, so it simply does the only thing it was taught and knows how to do-swim in water.
The only difference between a normal, rational, law abiding citizen and a criminal is two things. Luck and knowledge. The law abiding person was lucky to have been born into a family that was able to instill the tools into their children that would most likely allow them to succeed and thrive with a minimum of mistakes and dysfunction. Their parents were able to teach them, primarily from setting an example, the difference between right or wrong. They were shown love. They pass those tools onto their children. Unlucky kids are born into settings where the parents lack skills, are drug and alcohol addicted or unavailable, have anger issues, sexual issues, or any host of emotional problems carried on for generations. Unlucky children often are unaware that the deck has been stacked against them from the very start. They then simply try to live their lives armed with the same dysfunctional beliefs and tools as their parents had. Many never escape. We call them criminals.
The only thing that separates any of us from criminal behavior is a little luck and knowledge. That’s it. For the lucky ones, they run around and condemn the unlucky ones. The unlucky ones often never figure it out until it’s too late. But what about that “criminal” who figures it out? That guy or gal who realizes that they were given faulty belief systems and changes them? Do they deserve a lifetime label?
No. I was given the opportunity as a police officer to peer into the personal lives of three or four generations. I came away humbled and with far more understanding and empathy than I went in with. For some people, criminal behavior is pretty simple, black and white. I understand people that choose to believe that way, it’s simple and neat. When I see criminal behavior-I see an untold and undisclosed human story. I resist the urge to call people criminals even when their behavior is clearly criminal by our accepted definitions. Many of those criminals simply don’t know any other life than the criminal and dysfunctional life they were taught. I don’t think of them as criminals so much as I like to think of myself as lucky instead.