Turning a Family Member In to the Police. Could You Do It?

Carolyn V. Murray

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It didn’t take long for police to catch Atlanta mass murderer Robert Aaron Long. His parents called them as soon as they saw the video of their son on the news. They didn’t agonize for days and wonder what the right thing to do was. It was a quick and easy decision for them. And by easy, I don’t mean that it wasn’t painful and gut-wrenching. I mean they absolutely had to do it and couldn’t even consider any alternative.

If they did stop to weigh the pros and cons, the nature of this vicious and unforgivable killing spree just wouldn’t have left room for any ambiguities. No one is going to reproach them and ask how could they turn in their own son. No one is going to accuse them of ruining his life.

Whether they now regard their son as mentally ill or a monster, they understand that he’s beyond their ability to help him, that the victims and their families deserve justice, and that, unless arrested, their son would probably kill again – a consideration that probably outweighed all others. Even their own lives may have been in danger if their son suspected that they might “betray” him.

Not so clear cut

But there have been a multitude of other cases of people being turned in by family members these past few months – namely surrounding the January 6th Capitol rioting. Hundreds of people have been arrested for their participation in it and are going to be facing a variety of criminal charges ranging from trespass to assaulting police officers, and some will even be charged with sedition – conspiring to overthrow the U.S. government.

The FBI received over 200,00 digital tips from the public identifying the rioters. A large number of these tips came from co-workers, neighbors, ex-spouses, friends, and family. But there’s a big difference between turning in your ex-husband and turning in someone who lives under the same roof as you. It’s those individuals who turn in members of their own families who face the biggest dilemmas.

It also raises the issue of how many of the rioters who haven’t been caught are being shielded from arrest by family members who wouldn’t dream of turning them in. What are the factors at play here in this extremely difficult decision?

Father and son – a permanent estrangement?

The Reffitt family is a useful case study, as it contains both family members who did their best to shield Guy Reffitt, 48, from criminal charges, and one family member who turned him in. In case you haven’t heard of them, Guy Reffitt was a member of far-right militia group, The Three Percenters. His family hadn’t been aware beforehand that he was going to the Capitol. But they saw footage of him there on the evening news. Afterward, as he saw other rioters being arrested, he warned his family, “If you turn me in, you’re a traitor, and you know what happens to traitors…traitors get shot.” He was also taped at home threatening that there was more “patriot activity” to come.

His wife and daughter claim that they knew these were just loud and empty threats. But his 18-year-old son Jackson believed differently. He decided to turn his father in and face the consequences, whatever they turned out to be. There were many, as it turns out, that help to illustrate why his mother and sister responded so differently.

Premeditation vs. getting swept up into it

A lot of people at the Capitol that day say that they simply came to exercise their legal entitlements to peaceful assembly and protest and that they cannot be blamed if any violence or illegal activity sprang up around them. As long as they never entered the Capitol and weren’t caught on tape engaged in threatening anyone, they probably have nothing to worry about.

But if someone was taped uttering threats to kill someone – yes, that includes, “Kill Mike Pence,” if they harmed or threatened an officer, if they brought guns or bombs, or plastic handcuffs, or wore hardcore military gear, or hunted down political officials – then their actions will be judged as premeditated and violent.

Guy Reffitt attended the Capitol riot in tactical gear, with two guns, an AR-15 rifle and a pistol, and a Go-Pro style camera attached to his helmet. He was clearly not there solely to chant slogans and voice his opinions. He was there for physical confrontations. He was armed for violence.

Jackson Reffitt had no doubt that it was his father’s intention to instigate violence and that played a big role in the son’s assessment of whether or not his Guy Reffitt posed a future danger to society.

Fear of consequences

Fear of destroying family relationships

Jackson calling the police on his father came with huge consequences. He was pitted against his mother and sister, who were both trying to convince authorities that Guy Reffitt wasn’t serious when he threatened to kill the traitors in his family.

The teenager has had to move out of his own home and according to the Justice Department is holed up somewhere in an undisclosed location. It sounds as if he’s being hidden from the wrath of his father, his father’s fellow Three Percenters, and anyone else who condemns him as a traitor and wants to see him pay for it.

Fear of destroying the rioter’s life with felony charges and prison

Most of the rioters are going to be facing jail time. They will be convicted felons for the rest of their lives. They will be shunned by many people in their former social circles and they’re likely to have difficulties making their way back into the job market. The rioter and all family members who side with them will blame the one who turned the rioter in for ruining their lives.

Fear of losing the rioter’s financial support

One reason family members are going to be reluctant to turn in one of their own is that they can’t afford the financial blow to the family of losing that person’s income. Even if they feel uneasy about what their family member did – it’s done. It can’t be undone. Why make the situation worse by impoverishing the family?

Fear of being censured for “snitching” on family

It’s not only family that will weigh in on the actions of a person who turns a family member in. They’re likely to be attacked on every social media platform they’re on. Co-workers, neighbors, “friends,” and strangers may judge them harshly for what they felt compelled to do. This judgment is something that could follow them around for many years.

Agreement or disagreement with the rioter's values

Guy and Jackson Reffitt had long had tensions over clashing political views. The father had no illusions that his son was going to approve of his actions at the Capitol – which explains why he believed that the “death to traitors” threat would be necessary to keep his family quiet.

The interesting thing about a lot of rioters is how loudly and publicly they communicated their intentions and actions. Sixty-eight percent of rioters arrested by the first week of March had sent text messages and video to family and friends documenting their activities in real-time.

William Robert Norwood III sent out a group text to family members bragging how he intended to dress and pass himself off as Antifa so that the wrong people would be blamed for his actions. He also boasted afterward of disarming a cop and taking his body armor and helmet. He included a selfie that showed him wearing a Capitol Police tactical vest under his camouflage jacket.

Maybe he thought his family would get a kick out of this. Maybe he thought they’d be proud of him. What he didn’t count on was his brother yelling at him and wanting to know what was wrong with him. He also didn’t count on his sister turning him into the police.

The very fact that he communicated all this incriminating evidence to family indicates that he assumed that they shared his opinions and also that they would always support his activities, no matter what they were. This is a miscalculation that other rioters made as well.

No matter how much distress or guilt was involved, a substantial number of people refused to overlook actions that they considered to be immoral. The fact that the act was being committed by a family member probably shamed and saddened them. But it didn’t stop a lot of them from doing what they thought was the only morally correct option.

The ultimate factor - moral compass

We know why the parents of the mass killer in Atlanta turned their son in without hesitation. These other scenarios are murkier, less clear cut, more controversial. If you poll a large group of people, there’s not going to be a consensus on whether or not 18-year-old Jackson Reffitt did the right thing.

His mother and sister may never forgive him. His father almost certainly will not. This was a huge decision for a very young man. He followed his moral compass and will live with the hardships and consequences that result from it. But there’s no telling what future harm or violence his father might have engaged in if he hadn’t been arrested. Even at the age of eighteen, Jackson Reffitt knew what regrets he wasn’t willing to live with.

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At the moment, I'm highly interested in the ways in which we can cope and thrive during, after, and despite a global pandemic. My background is in sociology, education, and creative writing. If you were to scroll through the tabs on my laptop, you'd find music, travel, politics, longevity, and brain health.

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