Criminal Motivation

by Greg Ellifritz

Trying to figure out why a criminal chooses to commit a crime can be a bit tricky at times.

Most crimes have very clear motivations. The one we see most often is that you simply have something the criminal wants and he thinks he can take that thing (your money, your property, your body) without getting hurt or caught. A close second place is when a criminal believes you have either insulted him or have physically harmed him.

It’s pretty easy to understand a criminal’s motivation when he steals an unattended purse. It’s also easy to understand why you are getting an “educational beatdown” after talking smack to a gang member. But some crimes are more difficult to categorize.

After writing an article on handshake techniques last week and describing how a criminal once attacked me, I got a few questions. One of my friends asked me to describe in more detail what happened when the criminal attacked me with the handshake ruse. Another asked me to describe some other crimes I’ve seen where the criminals didn’t have a clear motivation.

Let’s talk about the handshake attack first. The criminal had absolutely no reason to attack.

I had been called to a nursing home on the complaint that a homeless man was sitting outside being argumentative with staff and residents. The nursing home staff didn’t want charges filed against the guy. They just wanted me to get him to leave.

I found the man sitting on a bench right in front of the nursing home entrance. I approached him, introduced myself, and explained the reason why I was there. He told me that he was homeless and stayed at a local shelter. He had a bus pass, so I offered to give him a ride to the nearest bus stop so that he could get “home.”

The interaction couldn’t have gone better. I was nice and polite. He was nice and polite. He understood why the nursing home didn’t want him there. I wasn’t going to arrest him. I asked him where he wanted to go and was in the process of taking him there. There was absolutely no motivation for him to attack me.

Yet he did. He extended his hand to shake and when I took it, he shot in for a double leg take down. I sprawled, took his back, and got him cuffed in just a few seconds. As soon as I got his arms behind his back, he stopped fighting and apologized.

If I recall correctly, he was in his mid-40s (a few years older than me at the time). He was really tall, but very skinny and undernourished looking. No past criminal record other than some minor convictions for trespassing and disorderly conduct. He wasn’t on any drugs.

He was just crazy. The voices in his head told him to do it. After I arrested him, he was calm and polite again. He couldn’t tell me why he had tried to take me down. It was almost like he suffered from extremely poor impulse control. He had a strange thought and he just suddenly had to act on it. No rhyme or reason.

It was one of the few examples of completely random violence that I’ve ever experienced. There was no predicting this attack. There was no way to avoid it. What I did or didn’t do had absolutely zero effect on his crazy thoughts.

A lot of people simply can’t comprehend the idea that sometimes the criminal has literally no motivation whatsoever to attack, but yet does so anyway.

It’s a good reminder that we simply can’t control all the variables.

We can blame the handshake attack on severe mental illness. I’ve seen a couple more situations that were fueled by poor impulse control as a result of consuming a harmful drug or too much alcohol.

I was once dispatched to a traffic crash in the early afternoon. After I arrived on scene, I quickly determined that the person who caused the crash was incredibly intoxicated. He was a tiny (103 lbs) male in his 20s and drunk out of his mind (later tested at .229). As I was handcuffing him, I asked him a question:

“Do you have any weapons on you?”

Nods head yes

“What do you have, a gun?”

Nods head yes

“Where is it?”

He says “right here!” and rapidly goes for his waistband.

Greg smash. To the ground we go. I land on top of him, get control of his hands and cuff him. After he’s cuffed, I search him. No gun.

“Why did you say you had a gun?”

Laughs. “Cuz I’m a f**kup”

How is that for motivation?

“Cuz I’m a f**kup.”

Again, he had no motivation for telling me that he had a weapon or by attempting to draw it. People sometimes make very stupid decisions when drunk. Sometimes people are just “fuckups” and have no discernible motivations.

Drugs can also be a factor in seemingly unmotivated attacks.

About a year ago, I responded to a very chaotic call. A college-age male was playing basketball with his friends on a junior high school playground. His friends reported that he sort of “spaced out” and then suddenly ripped off his shorts and shirt. Clad only in his boxer shorts and shoes, he ran away from his friends at full speed. The friends were puzzled by his actions and started following the nearly naked man.

He ran to a neighborhood across the street from the school. He walked up to the front door of a house and kicked it in. He entered the house and began tearing up all of the furniture and destroying all the art in the house. He did not know the owner of the home and seemingly chose the house randomly. In less than five minutes he caused almost $30,000 in damage and ended up cutting himself pretty badly.

He walked out of the house, took his shoes off, and ran back to the school. There was a girls’ lacrosse game going on. The man ran directly onto the lacrosse field and tried to take lacrosse sticks from a few of the girls. An athletic trainer saw this bleeding man wearing only underwear and appearing disoriented. The trainer approached the bleeding man and asked if he needed medical attention. The man punched the female trainer in the face.

By now, the fans watching the game noticed what was happening. Several of the girls’ fathers chased the man down and tackled him. They held him down until we arrived. It took several cops to get him under some semblance of control and into the back of the police car. He banged his head on the plastic screen that separates the back seat of the cruiser from the driver for almost the entire drive from the scene to the jail.

When he arrived at the station he punched an officer and it took four of us to get him controlled and buckled in to a restraint chair. He soon became almost catatonic. We summoned the medics to come check him out. Blood pressure and heart rate normal. No difficulty breathing. No wounds deep enough to need stitches. He got a clean bill of health.

So why did he destroy a house, attack an athletic trainer, and punch a cop?

We don’t know. About an hour into the arrest, the suspect became fully coherent. He didn’t remember any facet of the incident. He said that he had consumed some “magic mushrooms” and shortly thereafter started acting irrationally. He said he did the mushrooms regularly and that he took the same dose that he always takes. He’s never done anything like this before.

I’ve been a cop for 24 years. My undergraduate degree is in natural resources management. I went to class every day in college with hippie “tree hugger” types who liked to smoke dope and eat mushrooms. I’ve also been to Burning Man five times. I’ve seen LOTS of people high on psychedelic mushrooms. None of those stoned people acted like this guy.

I suspect that he was either lying about what drugs he took, or that he had consumed some contaminated mushrooms. His behavior is more consistent with the behaviors of people doing synthetic cathinones (Spice, K-2, Bath Salts). He was displaying signs of excited delirium, not what I would expect from a person who has taken a “normal” dose of ‘shrooms.

For the purpose of this article, it doesn’t really matter. The kid took some drugs and went crazy. There were absolutely no rational explanations for his violence. There was zero motivation for the man to kick in someone’s front door and destroy a house. There was zero motivation for him to hit an athletic trainer who was trying to help him.

Sometimes it’s mental illness. Sometimes drugs and alcohol contribute to random violence. None of the crimes I’ve discussed so far had any rational motivation you can understand. The crimes were truly “random.”

Don’t confuse an unmotivated criminal offense with one whose motivations you just don’t understand yet. Sometimes criminals perform actions that seem unmotivated, but deep inside their brain that action had a logical motivation. Let me tell you about a shoplifter I arrested …

The man was a heroin addict. He, his sister, and two friends were stealing things at a department store. Store loss prevention employees called us and provided their description. We caught them outside in the parking lot waiting for another accomplice who was still inside stealing clothing.

My guy didn’t have any stolen items in his possession, but he had warrants (with nationwide extradition) for failing to pay child support. As I approached him, he looked ill. He was shirtless and completely dripping with sweat. He immediately told me “I’m really dope sick and I have two needles in my pocket.”

“Dope sick” (for those of you unfamiliar with the lingo) means suffering acute heroin withdrawal symptoms. Those symptoms commonly consist of feeling like you have the worst flu imaginable. The person who is dope sick commonly sweats, vomits, and has uncontrollable diarrhea. He will usually have bad body aches, insomnia, serious anxiety, shaking extremities, and general malaise. The symptoms last three to 10 days depending on the individual and the person’s history of taking the drugs.

Since it’s generally such a miserable experience, most addicts would do almost anything to avoid having to suffer through the withdrawal symptoms. Keep that in mind. You’ve all had the flu. What would you do to avoid having a week-long bout of the worst flu in your life? That’s often the addict’s sole motivation and affects every aspect of his behavior.

My arrestee was 31 years old and was quite intelligent. I spoke to him for about an hour during the arrest paperwork process. He was incredibly candid and self-aware. He started abusing opiates at age 14, snorting crushed up Vicodin pills at parties. He told me he has been addicted since his teen years and that the only time in his adult life that he has been sober was when he was in jail. All together he’s spent about six years of his life in prison for drug possession, drug trafficking, and theft charges.

My guy is a heavy heroin user. Most of the users I deal with inject half a gram to a gram of heroin a day. This dude injects four to five grams a day. Do the math. He doesn’t have a job and he has a heroin habit that costs him $600-$750 a day. His full time occupation is theft in support of his habit.

Reselling items stolen from stores usually only nets the criminal 50 cents per dollar value of the stolen property. That means that my arrestee has to steal at least $1500 worth of merchandise a day just to keep from getting dope sick.

He moved to Columbus from a rural town about an hour south of here. He moved because heroin here costs $100 less per gram than the prices in his rural hometown. The Mexican drug cartels control the heroin distribution in Columbus. Dope is a lot cheaper here as the city is one of the hub distribution points created by the cartels. My prisoner couldn’t afford his dope habit in his hometown so he moved here because it was cheaper to feed his addiction. He’s been living in a van with his sister for those six months. The two have been stealing full time since they came up here to fuel their habits.

I asked him if he ever tried to get off the heroin. He said:

“No. I don’t want to get off of it. The drugs don’t even get me that high any more. I inject the heroin just to keep from getting sick. It doesn’t make me happy like it used to.”

“What I like is the adrenaline high from stealing things. I also like the adrenaline high I get from buying the dope without getting caught by the police. Those are my motivations; the drugs just keep me from getting sick. I just really like the thrill I get when I’m stealing things and the heroin ensures that I keep stealing. You can put me in jail, but I’ll start stealing and using again the first day I get out. I’ll never stop. I don’t want to stop.”

How is that for motivation? Did you ever consider that a criminal is making a rational choice in his own mind because he values adrenaline dumps more than his own freedom?

While I would not say that my guy’s motivations were typical, the strange motivations aren’t unique to him. People use drugs for a variety of reasons. Some don’t have any desire to ever get clean.

What’s the point in telling all these stories?

The point is that the criminal who attacks you may have absolutely no motivation whatsoever for the attack. His motivations might also be altered by drugs or alcohol. He might just want the adrenaline spike he gets from committing the crime.

You might never really understand a particular criminal’s motivating drive. Unfortunately that lack of understanding doesn’t prevent the criminal from victimizing you. As I mentioned before, you don’t control all the variables. There are situations where no level of increased awareness, verbal judo, or “de-escalation” will prevent your victimization.

That’s a hard pill to swallow for most folks. You can do everything “right” and still get attacked. We can mitigate our risks against certain criminals, but we can never fully eliminate those risks.

vIf it’s your day, it’s your day. By all mean, stack the odds in your favor. Be proactive. Exercise good situational awareness. Carry weapons that are legal and appropriate given your skill level. Avoid dangerous places or dangerous situations. John Farnam has what he calls the “rules of stupid.”

“Don’t go stupid places. Don’t hang out with stupid people. Don’t do stupid things.”

It’s good advice, but it won’t work all of the time. You still need to do the work. Train diligently for those scenarios that you don’t understand or can’t comprehend.

There are a lot of things people can learn by studying criminal motivations. All the knowledge in the world won’t stop some attacks. You can do everything right and still get killed.

We can’t be prepared for every attack. All we can do is to pay attention and stack the odds in our favor by training hard. Sometimes the day chooses you. Be ready to step up to bat when that happens.

Greg Ellifritz is the full time firearms and defensive tactics training officer for a central Ohio police department. He holds instructor or master instructor certifications in more than 75 different weapon systems, defensive tactics programs and police specialty areas. For more information or to contact Greg, visit his training site at Active Response Training.