It is a tragedy when a police officer is killed in the line of duty.
Like nearly everyone in McKeesport and the surrounding communities, I mourn for Officer Sean Sluganski who was shot to death last week.
And I hope for the quick recovery of his fellow Officer Chuck Thomas Jr. who also was injured in the same incident.
However, unlike many of my friends and neighbors, I will not be putting up a sign in my yard saying “We Support Our Police.”
Nor will I be buying blue lightbulbs or other jingoistic bric-à-brac – even if the proceeds are supposed to be going to the Sluganski family.
“Why?” you may ask.
“Why won’t you join in on this act of communal loss, unity and pride?”
Put simply – because it is at best an empty gesture. And at worst, it’s something much more sinister and alarming.
“But it’s just a sign,” you say. “How can putting up a sign cause any harm?”
Okay, I respond. Then tell me what that sign means.
Really. What does it mean to say “We Support Our Police”?
Does it mean we should pay them more? I might be able to get behind that sentiment.
Does it mean we should acknowledge the danger they put themselves in to keep people in the community safe?
Okay. I acknowledge it.
But let’s be honest here – most of the time police don’t keep the community safe.
They don’t stop crime. Typically they arrive AFTER a crime has already been committed. If anything, they are an instrument of justice – of ensuring the guilty are punished, but let’s not keep up this fantasy that they routinely prevent crime from taking place.
At best, this is a deterrent to crime. But that only works if the justice system works – and, frankly, our courts are in shambles.
How many times have we seen criminals escape consequences – especially if they’re rich and powerful?
We have people like George Santos in Congress caught in multiple lies and frauds. And nothing seems to be happening to them.
We have people like Matt Gaetz in Congress accused of sex trafficking and assault, and they aren’t even being actively investigated.
We have a former President who lead a coup against our government, and he isn’t being held accountable at all. In fact, he and the other lawmakers who enabled him are still in power and even seeking new terms in office.
You think police deter crime? Not in a country without justice.
If you’re poor and you’re accused of a crime, you often have to spend weeks or months in jail awaiting trial because you can’t make bail. And when you’re incarcerated, you could lose your job, your reputation and who knows what violence may befall you behind bars?
And this is just if you’re accused. There’s no “innocent until proven guilty.” You’re treated like you’re guilty UNLESS you can pay to be treated innocent.
“But this is the justice system,” you say. “The police aren’t responsible for the justice system.”
Maybe not, but they support it. They prop it up. The system couldn’t exist without them.
We often call police the thin blue line, but what is that line between? It’s not between criminals and the law-abiding. It’s between the government and its citizens.
And increasingly between businesses and consumers.
The purpose of police is to prop up our system – and it is an unjust system.
If police refused to do that, maybe the system might get fixed.
Take the incident in question where Officer Sluganski was killed.
According to accounts in local papers, he and his partner were responding to what they thought was a domestic dispute. A McKeesport resident – a former member of the military – was suffering from PTSD and acting violently toward his family. He had guns in his home and had already made a death threat to people at a banking institution weeks earlier.
The police knew all about the incident, according to the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, but the details don’t seem to have been accurately conveyed to the officers responding to the scene. And the result was gun play and death.
Is that supporting our police?
Wouldn’t real support be sending a counselor to this person’s home long before it ever got to this situation? Wouldn’t support be disarming someone with a mental illness before he got violent? Wouldn’t it be responding immediately after he made the death threat and not only after he was ready to act on it?
And speaking of supporting the police, what about this mentally ill veteran? If you really want to support our men and women in blue, don’t send so many of our children across the sea to unnecessary wars that enrich the wealthy and waste our resources here at home.
That’s what I’d call supporting the police. Not putting up a stupid sign.
You want to support the police? How about common sense gun regulations so that there aren’t so many firearms out there with which to shoot them? The US literally has more guns than people and you think a yard sign is doing anything for law enforcement!?
It won’t help the police. All it will do is make any criticism of the police or the system they serve seem outrageous.
How dare you criticize our officers or our system!? Don’t you appreciate how this man died!? Don’t you appreciate the bullets he and his partner took for you!?
And that’s the BEST case scenario.
Now let’s look at the other possibility.
You think there’s no harm that can come from signs like this all across our community? Ask a black person.
How many of our black brothers and sisters have police murdered without justifiable cause?
Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Michael Brown…. Poor little Antwon Rose! He was a 17-year-old boy shot and killed five years ago as he was running away from police in East Pittsburgh – not far at all from McKeesport and where last week’s incident took place.
I know his mother. He has family and friends in the school where I’m a teacher.
Michael Rosfeld, the officer who killed Antwon, was fired and he was sued civilly in court. But that doesn’t make up for the murder of a child.
Where are Antwon’s signs? Where are his novelty lightbulbs?
And he is not alone. US law enforcement killed at least 1,176 people in 2022, making it the deadliest year on record for police violence since 2013 when experts first started tracking the killings nationwide, according to new data analysis.
Police across the country killed an average of more than three people a day, or nearly 100 people every month last year according to Mapping Police Violence.
In 2021, police killed 1,145 people; 1,152 in 2020; 1,097 in 2019; 1,140 in 2018; and 1,089 in 2017.
And you want me to put up a sign saying “We Support Our Police?”
I know all police officers are not bad. But the system is. It is broken, and putting up a sign like that helps draw attention away from that fact and ensures nothing will get done to fix it.
After all, why should we bother? Everyone here supports our police.
There are real solutions we could enact that might bring us some peace.
Clinicians and medics could responded to mental health calls like the one last week instead of the police. In fact, this has been tried successfully in Denver. If they need backup, THEN call police. But you shouldn’t start the interaction with armed law enforcement officers who do not have sufficient training or expertise for these types of situations.
You could restrict traffic stops for minor violations. Decriminalize things like jaywalking and other minor infractions. We don’t need broken windows policing when it leads to more citizens in body bags and more police getting killed.
And can we get some gun control? Please?
We need broad systematic change to reduce lethal force from police. We need to get rid of qualified immunity for officers so that if they make a mistake, they can be held accountable for it. We need incentives to make them think twice before taking a life.
These are the kinds of things that would START to bring about positive change. These are the kinds of things that I DO support.
But, no, I don’t support police without qualification.
I don’t support anyone that far.
It is ridiculous to oversimplify our world down to such a slogan.
That’s why I will mourn with my community over this senseless act of violence.
And I will appreciate all that law enforcement does right.
But I will also demand better for our boys and girls in blue, our community and my black and brown brothers and sisters who bear the brunt of our societal dysfunction.
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