From Cop to Servant: Paying Penance to the Needy

By Bonnie Price Lofton | August 15th, 2008

Thaddeus Hicks. Photo by Matthew Styer.

On September 8, 2007, Thaddeus Hicks, MA ’08, was handing out bottles of water and sandwiches from a Salvation Army emergency canteen in downtown Atlanta, Georgia.

Working as a “Salvation soldier,” Hicks had just handed a water bottle to a man on a bicycle when a pick-up truck hit the man and ran him over.

Hicks leaned over the man sprawled in the street just long enough to make sure that he was responsive. And then Hicks took off at a dead run after the hit-and-run driver. The truck headed into a dead-end, then backed up and tried to come back by Hicks.

Hicks jumped onto the driver-side running board, reached an arm through the driver’s open window, threw the gear into park and pulled the keys from the ignition. Then he dragged the driver out of the truck, pushed him in a spread-eagle stance against the hood, and began frisking him for weapons.

When local police officers arrived on the scene, they were astonished to find a drunken hit-and-run suspect in the custody of a 6-foot, 6-inch, 295-pound man wearing a Salvation Army uniform.

They didn’t realize they were dealing with an eight-year veteran of policing.

“I used to be a cop’s cop,” says Thaddeus “Thad” Hicks. “When that man got run over in front of me, my old instincts kicked in. The adrenalin started pumping, and I really forgot that I was no longer a police officer.”

Hicks is not only no longer a cop, he is a graduate student in conflict transformation under EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding. On June 21, 2007, he married a fellow graduate student in his program, Marie-José Tayah of Lebanon, who has joined Hicks as a soldier in the Salvation Army.

Hicks’ vocational journey began in his family where several of the men were police officers. He earned a four-year degree in criminology before becoming a patrol officer in Mansfield, Ohio.

Hicks had the large, muscular build and no-nonsense demeanor that fits many people’s image of an effective cop. He often led his police department in number of arrests and excelled at catching drunk drivers, earning the respect of his peers.

“Thad” Hicks with his wife Marie-José Tayah. Photo by Jon Styer.

“I wasn’t a hippy policeman – I liked wrestling and kicking in doors. I could talk to people in a way that would make them shudder.” He drew his gun many times, but he never needed to shoot anyone.

Hicks enjoyed police work for his first five or so years on the job. “Like most police officers I figured that the current law enforcement system was working very well,” he recalls. “I figured that offenders had forfeited some of their rights when they committed acts that society deemed wrong. I went home after an eight-hour shift and slept fine.

“But something inside of me didn’t like what I was becoming,” he adds. “Society needs police officers, but the job will chew you up and spit you out. You have to harden yourself to do it.

“Every cop I knew was divorced. The offense rates for cops’ kids are much higher than for other professions. I think it’s because cops begin to treat everyone alike – like everyone is out to get them, even their wives and kids. I still have a hard time trusting anyone. I still think they have ulterior motives, that they are out to hurt me.”

Without quite knowing why, Hicks started attending church for the first time since joining the police force. Not just any church. He ended up at a church that was deeply involved in helping the homeless and needy.

Hicks found himself breaking up fights as a uniformed officer at 2 a.m., then – after getting off work and changing into civilian clothes – serving coffee and a meal to some of the same people involved in the fights. These folks were hungry. They had come to his church for help after a horrific night. Often the people he served would look at him with a puzzled expression, trying to place why he looked familiar to them, but rarely would anyone connect Hicks-the-Samaritan serving them breakfast with Hicksthe- Enforcer of the night.

“These men and women could not feed their families; they couldn’t find a job, or a place to live,” Hicks says. “This really caused me to start thinking. I realized there had to be something more to what I did. I can see now that I started working with the homeless and needy to try to pay penance for what I was doing to them during my shift at the police department.”

Hicks felt troubled that he had taken an oath as a police officer to protect and serve all the citizens of his city, yet he was not protecting and serving the most vulnerable. “I would arrest someone, and they would go to jail for a few nights, and then they would be back out. They were not being rehabilitated. They were not getting better. It wouldn’t be long before they re-offended and the cycle would continue.”

Searching for answers, Hicks signed up for a trip to Colombia in South America with Christian Peacemaker Teams in September 2005. Through contacts there he learned that EMU had a Center for Justice and Peacebuilding (CJP) where a new approach to crime, called “restorative justice,” was being taught. He checked out the program online and was pleased to see that it emphasized “practice” and “practitioners,” which “sounded like a good fit to me.”

Restorative justice encourages offenders to be accountable for their acts by increasing their awareness of the harms they have done and to “put things right” as much as possible. Restorative justice emphasizes addressing the needs of the victims, who are often sidelined by the criminal justice process. Restorative justice also embraces the positive roles that can be played by family and community members.

By the fall of 2006, Hicks was enrolled in CJP’s restorative justice concentration in pursuit of a masters degree. He also started work at the local Salvation Army.

“I was not an instant convert to restorative justice,” Hicks says. “Those circle processes [used to facilitate dialogue]… I hated them at first. But Howard [referring to Dr. Zehr, professor of restorative justice] has been good to recognize that everyone comes from a different place. He gave me space and time, and I came to decide that circle processes work and should be given a try.” Hicks adds: “It took some time to clean out eight years of indoctrination. I’ve re-thought some of my feelings, and I now see the need to restrain some of them.”

Hicks has been trying to ascertain how restorative justice might be applied to his work with the homeless at the Salvation Army. Once Hicks finishes his masters degree, he hopes to take on the additional challenge of introducing restorative justice concepts to police forces, perhaps even doing some work in his wife’s home country of Lebanon.

Meanwhile, Hicks is planning an offender re-entry program at the Salvation Army to help offenders make the transition from living in prison to living as law-abiding community members. The program will include training in life-skills, such as how to make and stick to a household budget and how to prepare for a job interview. It will also include a bank of helpful contacts, particularly employers and landlords willing to give offenders a chance to succeed.

Thad Hicks in a Salvation Army dorm room. Photo by Matthew Styer.

Without such a re-entry program, a person released from prison has a two-in-three chance of ending up back behind bars, says Hicks. Re-entry assistance drastically reduces these numbers, which he notes “translates into hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars saved on the local level alone, plus a safer community.”

Hicks points out that the founder of the Salvation Army, William Booth, pledged in a speech over 100 years ago to fight to keep men and women from re-offending. So it makes sense for Hicks and his wife, Marie-José, to continue that fight.

“If I could go back to 2005, I think I would have trouble recognizing myself,” says Hicks. “It’s not that I have completely changed – to be honest, I really loved the adrenalin rush of chasing that hit-and-run driver last summer. I love policing – it excites me – but I can also step back and see that it is not good for me.”

Sidebar: What is the Salvation Army?

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