Dear Criminal Justice 2014 graduates,
By now you have decided that criminal justice is the path you want to walk. Here are some words of advice from someone who has walked that path, words of advice I wish I received when I was your age.
Consider those two words “criminal” and “justice.” Understand the two do not necessarily coexist. You will meet many criminals who never received justice. You will meet even more victims that can never receive justice. The “crime” in “criminal” is a fine line. Legally, a person who kills to protect their loved ones is a criminal. Legally, a hungry person who steals food is a criminal. Also, “justice” can be a double edged sword. Is it justice when a rapist posts bond and walks free? Is it “justice” if correctional officers beat an inmate for throwing fecal matter in their face?
The job is not like television shows. On “Cops” you will never see the hours of report writing, the monotony of working security at an abandoned warehouse, the people who take up your valuable time with nonessential worries. On prison shows, you never see the duties of counting inmates, watching the rec yard for hours, or trying to calm a visitor who insists the visitation rules do not apply to them.
It is rare you will be the hero. When you are at social gatherings, no matter what, you will be “the cop.” People will continually ask you for legal advice that will never be right because you are not “taking their side.” The public will assume you are crooked, the enemy, out to get them, or out to get anyone. Until they need you ... and then your response will never be fast enough, smart enough, or bold enough.
In security, you will be called a Mall Cop, a Flashlight Cop, a Guard, or worst. It will be assumed you have no power, no education, no sense, and no pride. In prison, people will call you a Guard, a Screw, or worst. It will be assumed you have no education, little sense, and no pride. People will believe you are torturing inmates and persons in custody. Off duty, someone will always approach you and have to tell you about the time they were (unfairly) arrested and (unjustly) treated.
Get used to jokes abut handcuffs, donuts, weight, and IQ. They will tell them as if it is the first time you have heard them. Get used to freaking out certain family members. Get used to dates who want to go out for the wrong reasons.
You will find one officer’s actions will reflect on all, and good news rarely make the news. If an officer shoots an unarmed citizen, it will make the news and the public will see you as racist, or sexist, or homophobic, or just plain out of control.
So why are you going into this business?
You have the power to make positive change in a way no one else can. You will recover the stolen purse, hold the hand of a wounded teen in a car wreck, give a ticket to the dangerous driver, and make a child feel safe. You will pull the person out of the wreckage, embrace the woman whose child did not live, and get a drunken driver off the roadway.
You can shape history. On June 17, 1972 a security guard at the Watergate Complex noticed tape covering some door latches and called the police. Eventually, President Richard Nixon resigned as a result. A “flashlight cop’s” actions brought down the most powerful man in the country.
You ensure people’s freedoms and rights, the most precious things we have in the United States, are safe. You will report illegal activity by fellow officers, you will listen to both sides in an argument and make the best decision, you will enforce the law and use discretion. A well-written report and honest work will ensure a child predator will never harm another child. An open ear can stop prison violence against your coworkers.
Class of 2014 Criminal Justice students, never sell your integrity. Never forget why you are in this business. Never stop believing in this line of work. May St. Michael follow and watch over you on your path.
- Judith A. Yates