Fighting Evil

Fighting Evil

By Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D

With all of our understanding of human development, trauma, family dynamics, and psychology some may believe that the concept of evil has been displaced by other explanations for aberrant behavior. I’ll let the philosophers, theologians, and therapists debate among themselves whether evil exists but there is no doubt in my mind that it does because I, like most cops, have seen it at work.

We talk about evil as though it is a force or entity. When we talk about Nazi Josef Mengele’s medical experiments on humans at Auschwitz, we don’t say he did evil things, we say he was evil or did evil. And we don’t say he had a bad childhood or an unknown brain tumor that made him explore ways to exterminate Jews and other “defectives”, just that he was an evil man working in an evil outfit run by the epitome of evil.

In Florida, firefighters in Highlands County responded, along with sheriff’s deputies, to a report of persons burning piles of debris on the side of a road. They encountered 39-year-old Richard Myron Ham, who was attempting to burn his girlfriend’s 9-year-old son whom they believed was possessed by the devil. Ham refused to drop the metal rods that he was holding at the time the officers arrived. They deployed a Taser on Ham, who pulled the probes out of his body and struck a deputy with a metal rod, at which time he was shot and pronounced dead at the hospital. The mother Lakenya Lavonn Phillips was charged with cruelty to a child and resisting arrest after she assaulted deputies who were rendering aid to Ham after he was shot. Drugs and firearms were seized from a nearby vehicle.

We can offer hypotheses of drug-induced psychosis or schizophrenia for Ham and Phillips, but two people agreeing to incinerate a little boy just sounds like evil. I could relate a hundred cases that would titillate Americans’ seemingly endless fascination fueling the true crime industry and the category of horror movies. After serving five years with the coroner’s office, I don’t find such things entertaining.

I am not condemning the audience for these stories, or even the oddly grotesque fun at murder mystery parties by the most innocent of participants. But it speaks, somehow, to our collective fascination with evil. Maybe by analyzing, gasping, or even laughing we can distance ourselves from the realities of real-life horror. I’ll leave that to the philosophers, theologians, and therapists, too.

I was once in one of those serious struggles – not the usual resisting, but a fight for one’s life – by a man who said he was the devil and I was Jesus and he had to kill me. Sure, he was riding a psychedelic trip, but why invoke the supernatural and make a genuine attempt to kill me? I would guess that asking veteran police officers whether evil exists, most would say that it does. If you ask if they’ve ever experienced its presence, many would confess that they have.

There are some moments where evil is palpable. You can almost smell it, and the fear that it evokes goes beyond the everyday courage required to walk into dangers unknown. It might be the altar of a drug dealer with candles burning to a narco-saint venerated by criminals. It could be the haunting text of a suicide note, or the callous disregard for the pain of a victim viciously attacked. The fine hairs on your neck bristle, and the brain sends alarm signals while trying to find a rational reason for the feelings.

There may be perfectly scientific reasons for those feelings and for the violence, harm, and callousness of some criminal behavior. But the frontline police officers who confront evil know it when they see it.