Why the term “Victim” actually does a disservice to the entire Criminal Justice System.
The term “victim” is one of those words that evoke instant emotions in rational human beings. We like to think of ourselves as empathetic, caring and responsible citizens. We all want to provide services, care, medical treatment, financial support and legal assistance to those people we label as victims. There are millions of dollars and innumerable jobs associated with the “industry” of being a “victim” in today’s modern criminal justice arena. Most law enforcement agencies, prosecutor’s offices and state agencies have “victims” advocates, counselors and ombudsmen assigned to work with victims. Now, these victims are not people that have been deemed victims in any court of law or by any due process at all. Rather, they are people that have been so designated by law enforcement or social service agencies. We want to help legitimate crime victims but we all have different ideas of what constitutes being a victim. Most people have a stereotypical ideal of a “victim” in their mind. The problem is, to each of us, the term victim means something different. Reality has a way of being messy and not conforming to pre-conceived notions or definitions. Don’t believe me? Read on… Let’s set up a hypothetical situation that has happened and will happen again in cities throughout America: • A person drinks way too much alcohol and stumbles right into a roadway in the path of oncoming traffic. The driver of the oncoming car is driving legally in every way, yet is unable to avoid striking the inebriated person in the roadway. o Is the drunk a victim in this case? If so, by whose definition? o Is the driver of the vehicle a suspect? A “person of interest?” o Is the driver of the vehicle a victim? o Are both the inebriated pedestrian and the driver victims? Are neither victims? In virtually all law enforcement agencies, the responding officer(s) dispatched to the scene would have been told that the victim was lying in the roadway. The officers would respond, would secure medical assistance and write the above incident report. Inevitably, they would list the inebriated pedestrian as the “victim” on the official report. The driver of the car would either be listed as a “suspect” or “person of interest.” Now here’s where the fun really starts. The inebriated pedestrian above (now officially classified as a “victim”) qualifies for a host of services, funds and even free medical care just due to his status as a victim. The driver in our hypothetical scenario qualifies for…well, nothing. So a person who voluntarily got drunk and broke the law by wandering into traffic is now the “victim” while a law abiding driver who broke absolutely no laws is considered to be a suspect. Do you think the above scenario is far-fetched and couldn’t possibly happen? Think again, it happens every day. Let’s talk about how this process starts and how human psychology plays a part all throughout this process. When a person calls the police (typically some sort of law enforcement dispatch center) the dispatcher begins to assess the call, the caller and the situation. The caller always has a point of view and a perception of what has happened, all of which is relayed to the dispatcher. The dispatcher then makes a series of preliminary decisions based upon the telephone information. For illustrative purposes, these decisions involve the need for medical assistance, how many officers are needed at the scene, any persons who have left the scene and information about the caller. Based upon one person’s point of view (the caller) law enforcement then makes a very crucial decision. One person is labeled a victim and other person(s) is/are labeled as suspects. Officers are dispatched to “meet the victim” at a certain location while being advised that the “suspect” has left the scene or is still on scene. Human psychology is strongly at play here, based on nothing more than a snap judgment made by a dispatcher relying solely upon a phone call. This happens thousands of times every single day. So what? Why do we care who is labeled a suspect and who is labeled a victim, anyway? These seemingly innocent labels have a strong meaning in the criminal justice system and they shape the very way first responders view a situation. Perception is always filtered by our beliefs, experiences, values and prejudices. We can’t help this as human beings; we process what we see through internal filters in our mind. • For example, if responding officers see a man running down the street, they may observe and wonder what is happening. • If the person running has been previously identified as a “suspect” then the perceptions of the first responders are altered radically. o Now the suspect is fleeing the scene. Unfortunately, there have been many instances of the wrong person being arrested, apprehended or even shot when “suspects” were mislabeled and were really “victims” or witnesses. There is another, more fundamental reason it is improper for law enforcement to label someone a victim or a suspect. The entire job of the criminal justice system is to decide who is a victim and who is a perpetrator. In today’s court setting, many people have already decided and labeled the “good guy” and the “bad guy” in any given case before the case is even heard in court. Due to enormous political pressure, there is a common perception, (bolstered by department policy) among first responders that says “The first person who signs the General Report is the victim.” This is wrong, unprofessional and undermines the professionalism of modern law enforcement. Law enforcement would be better served to quit labeling people as suspects and victims. If a label is necessary for pragmatic reasons, a far more appropriate label would be “involved person.” The descriptor “involved person” is non-judgmental and does not presuppose guilt or innocence. Similarly, victim advocates should not decide who is in fact a victim; that’s the job of the court. At the very least a preliminary hearing should be conducted, and probable cause found by the court that a crime occurred and a suspect identified is the perpetrator, before someone else receives an official recognition as a victim. Millions of dollars and precious resources are at stake. Far more importantly, designations of “victim” after due legal process would ensure that those who really are victims receive our best professional efforts.