The focus of law enforcement is changing.
That was the message Virginia State Police Special Agent Jon Cromer told attendees at the annual luncheon hosted by Culpeper Victim/Witness Program Monday, commemorating National Crime Victims’ Rights Weeks.
Cromer, a Psychological Criminal Profiler, ICIAF Fellow Virginia State Police Bureau of Criminal Investigation, talked about three things he’s learned throughout his 27 year career, 21 of those focusing on violent crime.
As a trooper, you’re taught to catch the perpetrator, Cromer said, and at times that can become the sole focus. He’s had to remind himself of the human element, that the victims are affected by the crimes and need to be addressed as though they are your friends, neighbors and fellow citizens.
“The temptation exists to gain distance from survivors of heinous crimes because they take time, they take cognitive attention away from pursuit of the offender,” Cromer said. “I have been compassionate in all cases, but I’m confessing that there is a temptation to distance yourself. The opportunity exists to serve those individuals.”
Progress has been made in victims rights and services and Cromer said building stronger relationships is key, especially addressing how to engage the community and what law enforcement’s’ role should be.
“At one time, victims in our community was an afterthought,” Cromer said. “Victims were little more than crucial witnesses to me. In other words my job was to identify what had been committed and then if probable cause exists. Don’t forget to send a subpoena to a victim.”
That mentality has changed in recent years.
“The good news is that society has improved over the years and on the local, state and federal level we as people have made strides to how we can better understand the needs of victims,” Cromer said.
Now, the focus is being redirected to help reduce crime by awareness and prevention programs and officers are using lessons learned in the field and applying them to help with victims rights.
“That experience has taught me some things I wasn’t taught or I failed to learn as a rookie,” Cromer said.
His experiences have led him to realize that victims cannot forget. He referenced the book “Seven Sins of Memory” and talked about the final sin – persistence.
“Repeated recall of disturbing information, that we would prefer to banish from our minds altogether,” Cromer said. “In other words these are things we cannot forget.”
Victims are forever haunted by the atrocities they’ve witnessed, and law enforcement – while working to solve the crime, need to be aware of their feelings as well.
He talked about going along to tell a family of two young girls – ages 10 and 12 – who went missing on March 25, 1975, that they thought they had a suspect. The response from the mother changed his perspective.
“I saw in her face and I heard in her voice something I was not expecting,” Cromer said. “She said ‘I no longer care’ that you have a suspect. ‘I just want my girls.’”
The second lesson he’s learned is that “catching the bad guy is way less edifying than you may think.”
“I’ve never been near anything that looks like a celebration,” Cromer said. “At the heart of the matter is a very sad story that cannot be undone.”
That has also led him to realize that crime affects a person more than he thought and the definition of a victim is changing. He recalled the story of his nephew Kyle, who was on campus the day of the shooting at Virginia Tech. He was not in the same building as the shooter, but all throughout the experience the air conditioner above them made a popping sound, making those in his building believe the shooter was nearby. It was a traumatizing experience and he too, is a victim.
“I’ve learned how crime affects people, it’s far greater than we ever knew,” Cromer said.
He also addressed vicarious trauma, trauma that affects first responders.
“I’m starting to wonder if seeing repeated effects of violence is like receiving multiple concussions,” Cromer said. “They have a cumulative effect.”
This year’s theme for Crime Victims Awareness week is “Expanding the Circle.” That has led Cromer to have revelations about law enforcement and how they can better help.
“I no longer assume I know exactly how to help,” Cromer said. “I no longer expect the incarceration of the offender to produce a celebration. The individual effects of crime are far greater than we ever knew.”
Following Cromer’s presentation, Mark W. Nowacki, Director, Culpeper Victim/Witness Program honored Culpeper Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court Clerk Bethany McClanahan with a plaque for her work with victims.
“I am a public servant and I have been for 16 year, any deputy clerk that has worked with me, I refer to them as my girls,” McClanahan said. “We are caring, loving and we try to put ourselves in the victims’ shoes. I hope when you think of my office, you think of it in a good way.”