When Shelby Looper, ’16, learned she’d be given a U.S. Department of Justice award for her pioneering victim advocate work, she was flabbergasted.

It’s the same way she felt when, a year earlier, she learned she’d been hired to take charge of the Muncie Police Department’s Victim Advocate Program.

She was 23 then, just one year out of college.

Her early success startles her sometimes, but it hasn’t gone to her head.

Looper gives complete credit to her Ball State criminal justice and criminology professors, Michael Brown and Bryan Byers, for receiving the 2018 Tomorrow’s Leaders Award, which she accepted at a ceremony in Washington, D.C. Both men wrote recommendation letters.

“The people in D.C. didn’t know who I am. Shelby Looper from Daleville, Indiana? But my professors had enough faith in my adventure, my expedition from college to adult life, and they are the only reason I have the award.”

The answer reflects both humility and a law officer’s respect for facts. Ask her a question, you’ll get a straight answer. Like how does she process all the bad stuff she’s seen in hundreds of cases, including domestic battery, child abuse, even murder?

“There’s some stories and images that are very vivid in my mind and they always will be, but I truly do not take this stuff home with me.”

Looper also looks out for her staff and interns, making sure they are mentally coping, despite the often brutal situations they deal with. Cristina Oliver, ’19, is one of five Ball State criminology majors who interned in Looper’s office this year.

Looper with Ball State student intern

Davinia Givens, left, is among several Ball State students who have served internships in Looper’s office. (Photo by Samantha Strahan)

“One of the first things Shelby tells you is that self-care is important,” said Cristina. “If you need a day, take it. Because if we’re not OK, the people we’re helping aren’t OK.”

An instant bond

Looper grew up in Daleville, a small town about 12 miles outside Muncie. She decided early on to live by a code: “Just do the right thing. Treat people with respect, treat people right.” She was never shy about speaking out against injustice.

Her parents were factory workers. She is proud of them but decided she wanted a different life and to be first in her family to go to college. She never looked anywhere but Ball State.

In her first year, she gave journalism a try but realized after a few classes it wasn’t for her. Then she saw there was a criminal justice and criminology major and took a course.

Looper felt an instant bond with her classmates and professors. “Lots of different backgrounds, all the same goal: Helping people, truly.”

Most criminal justice and criminology majors pursue policing, legal, corrections, or forensics careers. Looper was more drawn to helping victims. For a required internship her senior year, she chose Muncie Police’s Victim Advocate Program.

Growing up in Daleville, she knew crime victims in Delaware County’s smaller towns often don’t get the help they need. Law officers do what they can, she said, but often don’t realize they can offer victims some services through the Muncie Police Department. Her supervisor approved her going to those towns to talk with officers.

‘Big step’

Their reaction, Looper said, was lukewarm at first. Explaining she was herself from a small town helped her cause, and she said in the years since, many of those towns have warmed up to her message. Yorktown police even invited her this year to come speak to officers, which she regards as a big step.

During her internship, Looper also went on her first domestic violence call after being trained as a victim advocate. “Like most domestics, the end of the story is (the victim and abuser) were back together within the next couple of days.”

Looper's DOJ award

Above, Looper’s award from the Department of Justice sits on her desk. (Photo by Samantha Strahan)

It was a hard truth to learn about victim advocacy, but it’s never stopped Looper from trying her best to help. That’s a lesson she learned from Ron Locke, a Muncie Police veteran who was the department’s domestic violence officer during Looper’s internship.

“Ron always dealt with every call like it was the first time he was ever called there, even if he was called there 15 times, and I picked that up from him because he didn’t allow being jaded to interfere with him doing his job.”

From start to finish

A Muncie resident (her name withheld for safety concerns) described how Looper helped her obtain a protective order against her abuser and assisted through the entire legal process.

“She answered all my questions and even sat through my trials with me,” said the woman. What makes Looper good at her job? “Being there for others and actually caring for the victims and their families,” she answered, adding that Looper has remained in touch to help whenever called upon.

To learn more about the Muncie  Victim Advocate Program, follow them on Facebook.

“The goal of Victim Advocate Office,” said Police Chief Joe Winkle, “is to walk the victim through the process from start to finish. And Shelby’s relationship with the prosecutor’s office and the police department has made that process much smoother.”

Looper said her office’s role includes “finding shelter for the victim and their children, helping with paperwork, later helping them find a job. We let them know what we can do for them, and then it’s entirely up to them how much or how little help they feel they need.”

Focusing energy

Especially tough, said Looper, are trial cases where victims or their families may feel justice was not served. “For instance, cases where it was a hung jury. These kinds of outcomes are hard to hear and process. They feel shock or anger, and that’s understandable.”

Looper believes police and prosecutors do their best to ensure justice is served on behalf of victims but perceives an imbalance in the nation’s criminal justice system. “We focus a lot of time on offenders. Due process forces that, and it’s a good thing. But if we took care of victims the way we took care of offenders, we would get somewhere.”

Helping victims, Looper said, reduces crimes like domestic violence. “If a woman leaves her abuser, nine out of 10 times she’s going to back to him or to another man who treats her the same. Because the way she views herself, the way she views life, has not changed.

“So if we can focus our energy on her, get her OK, get her kids OK, get her a job, get her a place to stay, make sure her kids are well taken care of and clothed — maybe, just maybe, she will carry on with her life.”

The ultimate compliment

It’s a message police officers are more receptive to hearing, she said. At her recent meeting with Yorktown police, officers listened intently as she set out facts such as how victims often suffer brain injury from repeated strangulations at the hands of their abusers, which can make it harder for them to think clearly and make good decisions.

Looper talks to Yorktown police

During her Ball State internship, Looper had the idea to speak with police in rural towns about resources available to crime victims. As head of the Muncie Police Victim Advocate Program, she was recently invited to speak with officers in Yorktown, west of Muncie. (Photo by Don Rogers)

Winkle, who urged Looper to apply for the director job, said she is highly regarded among officers on his force. He even paid her what, in his world, may be the ultimate compliment: he encouraged her to become a full-time police officer. Looper, who finished training to be a reserve officer, said she plans to stay in her current position for now. She still has work to do.

At the top of her list is getting her office better known in Muncie and surrounding communities. Her efforts so far, such as community events and a well-viewed Facebook page, are paying off. In her first year as director, the program served about 5,000 people — 1,000 more than the previous year.

“I’ve always had that personality, like, let’s just help everybody, even though that’s impossible. I now know that. And knowing that can be incredibly frustrating, but it’s just important to remember your ‘why,’ the reason you’re doing it.

“Because I always say — and it’s cheesy but it’s true — if you help one, then you’ve done your job.”