CJCCJ/Volume 65.2 (2023)
Go Ahead and Shoot Me! And Other True Cases About Ordinary Criminals
By Doug Heckbert
Calgary, AB: Durvile & UpRoute Books, 2020. 288 p.
Go ahead and Shoot Me! is a compilation of true crime stories written from the perspective of an experienced Canadian probation officer, Doug Heckbert. Heckbert strove to share his belief that many of those who commit crime are “ordinary” people caught up in irregular situations, people who make poor decisions, or people whose life circumstances put them in a place where crime seems the best option. Heckbert shares, “All of the people I write about as well as their offences are ordinary in one way or another. All Chapters in this book explore this idea in more detail” (p.5).
Heckbert realized people know very little about the Criminal Justice System through conversations with friends and family and found they often had inaccurate information. He feels that the media does a good job reporting on crime. Still, the chosen topics are generally the most stunning, tragic, and sensational events. There is usually no follow-up to explain the outcome, to provide information on the person who committed the offence, and no public education. Therefore, he believes public input into serious matters, such as crime and justice, is sometimes based on false information. Heckbert’s goal in writing this book is to share his view that regardless of the types of crime or the number of convictions, each person has a life, a history, and a future, and in sharing their stories, he hopes it will help reduce stigma.
The book is written in two parts; the first outlines stories of probationers dating back to 1966 when the author began working as a probation officer, and the second part is more recent and based on interviews with persons on parole and probation. Throughout, the author offers basic explanations of the legal processes and presents them in an easy-to-understand way. From the perspective of a practitioner in the Criminal Justice field, I find the book’s content most beneficial for readers with little prior knowledge of the field or those who want to know more about probation, corrections, and parole.
Heckbert begins by explaining the role of corrections, including community-based services like probation and parole and institutional services, including remand centres, correctional institutions, and penitentiaries. He then explains that justice personnel undertake risk assessment processes to glean knowledge to manage offender risk through controls and interventions, and only as much as necessary to manage the risk. Heckbert also explains various types of sentences, including probation, conditional discharge, an absolute discharge, and custodial sentences.
In the opening chapter, Heckbert shares some of his thoughts and experiences when starting his probation career at the tender age of 20. He describes in an easy-to-read and entertaining manner how he learned to incorporate empathy, compassion, and professional discretion into his work. The language, culture, and values of the times are reflected in his writing. The format and style used allow the reader to observe some changes in Canadian cultural norms and values that subsequently altered the criminal justice system throughout time. The author cautions he uses language that was deemed ‘appropriate’ at the time but not today.
Part one includes eight case studies taken from early on in Heckbert’s career. To his surprise, Heckbert describes how he noticed almost immediately the number of ‘ordinary’, normal, and average cases he worked with. He describes how this realization impacted and affected how he did his job.
Sally’s story, also the namesake for the book “Go ahead and shoot me”, offers one example of what Heckbert would consider an ‘ordinary’ person experiencing some instability in their life. Still, from an outsider looking in, they were living an everyday existence. Go ahead and Shoot Me is about a married couple who lacked healthy communication. Sally’s husband frequently returned home drunk for years and even started demanding sex. Sally did not know how to express her needs and one such night she threatened to shoot him. He egged her on, and she did! They were otherwise a ‘normal’ couple who worked, owned a home, had two children, and did well financially. However, his drinking and instability eventually led to something extremely serious.
The book’s second part includes seven interviews with persons who had been involved in more serious crimes. Heckbert noted the stories in the second part of the book offer hope by sharing their remarkable recoveries. These folks were much more entrenched in their harmful lifestyle than those from Part 1. Heckbert explains how he attempted to demonstrate a pattern between Parts 1 and 2. The majority of cases were with individuals who led a reasonably stable life with a ‘normal’ childhood before becoming involved in crime.
Heckbert also shared stories of individuals who experienced long-term turmoil through substance abuse, homelessness, and mental illness, contributing to many prison terms; these profiles of significant instability are typical in the criminal justice system. Further, he stated he did not think prevention influenced these folk’s lives. Heckbert wrote, “Patience, faith and support would seem to be more helpful to those in recovery than orders (conditions) or punitive responses (jail instead of treatment)” (p. 132).
Although this is not necessarily prevention, Heckbert discusses how, throughout his career, the increase in specialized courts (e.g., drug, domestic violence, Indigenous, and mental health courts) and the relative impact on the justice process. Although the author does not provide statistics pointing to an increase in addiction and mental health issues, he does offer some anecdotal observation.
I have worked with federally incarcerated men and women for 15 years and agree wholeheartedly with Heckbert; the people we work with require understanding, compassion, and patience. Most people can make a change when they are ready. I have also observed an increase over the years in addiction and mental health issues in offenders, adding complexity and the need for creative approaches to rehabilitation – so Heckbert’s observations and comments resonated with this reader.
Early on in Go Ahead and Shoot Me!, Heckbert expresses his desire to see a shift in the Criminal Justice System’s focus from reactive to proactive, to change the focus from ‘punishment’ to ‘prevention’. He challenges the reader to think about standard rhetoric such as ‘get tough on crime’ and ‘you do the crime, you do the time’ (xvii). Those who are less familiar with the criminal justice system will likely find the book informative and acquire a richer understanding of how and why some people end up in conflict with the law. Throughout his book, Heckbert (2021) discusses the personal instabilities that contributed to many of the offender’s criminal history, including discrimination, mental health and addiction, and addressed the over-representation of Indigenous persons in Canadian jails and prisons.
While reading the book, I also participated in a Webinar held through the Alberta Criminal Justice Association, where the author discussed his book. In addition to providing an overview of his book, Heckbert acknowledged his concern about the over-representation of Indigenous persons, the need to increase prevention and diversion measures, and re-defining substance abuse as a health matter, not a criminal one. However, while reading the book, I hoped he would have provided more insight or reflection on the social issues contributing to criminal offending, thus hopefully leading to some compassion, understanding, and curiosity to learn more.
In the second part of Go Ahead and Shoot Me!, Heckbert states he is “horrified by the over-representation of Indigenous people in the justice system” (pp. 253-254). He asks if this is an opportune time to review the “Call to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission” and a good time to reflect on the recommendations of ‘Reclaiming Power and Place’, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. It seems he starts from the assumption that most Canadians are aware of our dark history of abuses towards Indigenous persons, but I question how common this knowledge actually is? It would have been helpful to outline some information on systemic racism, colonization, residential schools, sixties scoop, and the current over-representation of Indigenous children in foster care.
Many examples of social issues and law/policies that create a bias towards specific groups. After reading the book, I hoped readers recognize themes in the cases Heckbert presents, ask why, and dig deeper to learn more about these social issues.
The book’s overarching purposes are to inform the reader that just because someone commits a crime it does not mean they are inherently ‘bad’; to demonstrate humanity; and to show that people can recover. Offenders make choices based on their circumstances at the time; poor judgement, addiction, mental illness, and lack of guidance and support are a few examples. The author wishes to point out the need for increased prevention via substance abuse treatment, support for those with mental illness, and draw attention to the over-representation of Indigenous persons. As a practitioner in the field of Corrections, I could not agree with Heckbert more. His book offers insight into human nature, our weaknesses, strengths, and overall resilience in the face of real adversity. People can make a change when they are ready and have the means to do so, and those of us working in the system require empathy, compassion, and stamina to help them through.
This book would benefit anyone interested in seeking a broad understanding of the human side of crime to see that those involved in crime are persons struggling with some kind of instability. The book offers easy-to-understand explanations of how criminal justice personnel protect the public by managing risk through probation, parole, and incarceration and how we support their rehabilitation. The individual stories can be used to add realism when teaching the fundamental theories of crime and rehabilitation or to show the realities of Canadian social justice issues. This book can also be used as a teaching tool for Criminology and Criminal Justice students, specifically social justice, social policy, theory, introduction to corrections, and introduction to policing.
SHANNON MADDALOZZO TOU, BA MA
INSTITUTIONAL PAROLE OFFICER CORRECTIONAL SERVICE OF CANADA