Yep. It happened two weeks ago.
I submitted the following op-ed to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but they weren’t interested in printing it. Here it is, with a few minor changes.
While off-duty last weekend in the Southside, Pittsburgh Police Officer Paul Abel pistol-whipped an innocent pedestrian in the head and then shot him right on the street, according to witnesses.
Apparently, the gun fired accidentally while Officer Abel was using it to beat Kaleb Michael Miller, but that is no reason to downplay the real possibility that Miller could have been killed. Despite this fact, the outrage against Officer Abel has not yet been equal to his effrontery to public safety and human decency. In a drunken rage, a police officer shot a random citizen! This should be front-page, above-the-fold news. Instead, on the front-page of my beloved Pittsburgh Post-Gazette we were given a photograph of a wiener dog race and the PG patting itself on the back with yet another article about the West Virginia University scandal. (The PG broke this scandal months ago, and it’s practically all they ever write about now). Meanwhile, residents of Pittsburgh want answers. And we demand justice.
As it happens, the assault of Miller is only the latest instance in a pattern of thuggery committed by Officer Abel. A pair of articles written this week by reporter Jerome L. Sherman (read them here and here) detailed some of the accusations leveled against him, which include nearly a dozen charges of misconduct brought before the Citizen Police Review Board. A brief summary should bring his pattern of behavior into sharp focus:
- In 2002, Charles Dixon was asphyxiated by police officers, including Officer Abel, while he aggressively resisted their attempts to restrain him at a birthday party in Mt. Oliver. Allegheny County Coroner Cyril Wecht recommended that homicide charges be filed. The recommendation was rejected, but the family of Mr. Dixon received a financial settlement from a wrongful death suit against Mt. Oliver.
- Last year, Officer Abel was accused of provoking his own brother-in-law into a fistfight inside the Allegheny County Courthouse and then lying about the details to sheriff’s deputies. The brother-in-law was acquitted of all charges except one, but over a year later Officer Abel has yet to be formally charged.
- In February of this year, Officer Abel’s wife testified in a court hearing that he forced her to falsely accuse that her daughters’ grandparents had sexually abused them.
- In January, Officer Abel arrested Joseph Stubenrauch and drove him to Allegheny County Jail. A nurse there insisted that he be taken to a hospital instead because of his injuries, which Mr. Stubenrauch claimed Officer Abel inflicted during and after his arrest. According to Mr. Stubenrauch, Officer Abel slammed his head against a wall at his home and, after beginning the drive to county jail, pulled over, took him out of the car and threw him against it several times “to have some fun and teach me a lesson.”
To be fair, police officers are not always at fault when a suspect is injured or dies. They must sometimes make difficult, split-second decisions about what level of force is appropriate to protect human life. The lives of citizens, as well as those of the officers, often hang in the balance. Policing is dangerous work, and under strenuous circumstances officers are not always able make the best decision. Also, some guilty suspects may think it is to their benefit to claim that they have been abused by arresting officers even if they have not.
But it is difficult to grant Officer Abel the benefit of the doubt when, while in uniform, he reportedly bragged to an employee at his step-daughters’ elementary school that he is “the type of cop that busted down doors and pulled people out by their necks.” Or when his brother-in-law claimed during a trial that Abel once showed him pictures of a man who had been severely beaten and said, “This is what happens when you mess with a cop.” Or when, like a grinning adolescent, he posted on his Myspace page the origin of his nickname, “Pit Bull,” which his coworkers gave him because of his “tendency to knock the [expletive] out of people.”
Although his actual personality is surely more nuanced and complicated – he is a veteran of the Iraq War – it is not difficult to paint a portrait of Officer Abel as a cruel, vicious Neanderthal in a police uniform. And now that his pattern of misconduct has come to our attention in the Southside, many of us who live here are asking, How is it that Officer Paul Abel – an angry, aggressive liar with a history of violence – was allowed to remain on the Pittsburgh police force for so long?
This is a question that must be answered to our satisfaction because the consequences of Officer Abel’s actions extend beyond those who have suffered at his hands, or at the barrel of his gun. People like Paul Abel compromise justice for everyone. And we must demand that the Pittsburgh Police eliminate them.
This truth is illuminated by my wife’s recent experience as a potential juror being interviewed for a murder case. In the same courthouse where Officer Abel and his brother-in-law beat each other in the hallway, she was asked whether she would be more likely to believe the testimony of a police officer than that of an average person. As any person who reads the newspaper would do, she said, “No.” She was thinking, of course, that while there are plenty of respectable police officers, there are also more than enough Officer Abels, and no practical way for the average citizen to know the difference.
Another potential juror effusively affirmed that, yes, she would be more likely to trust the testimony of a police officer because “they’re on the side of the law.”
Guess which woman was chosen for the jury?
Our community cannot say that justice is being served while our juries make decisions based in part on testimony from potentially untrustworthy police officers. But what are we to do? Should we eliminate, during jury selection, those who unquestioningly trust our police officers? No. We should, instead, demand that our police force diligently work to eliminate the Officer Abels from their ranks. As of right now, we cannot trust them to do that. This is why they now must do the right thing and begin to restore our faith in the justice they provide.
It should go without saying, but apparently it doesn’t, that Paul Abel should not be a police officer; the job of a police officer is to protect us from people like Paul Abel. Therefore, he must be eliminated from the Pittsburgh Police Department. Also, to avoid suspicion that Officer Abel continues to receive special treatment because he is a police officer, his sentences for the assault of Mr. Miller and for drunk driving should be to the fullest extent of the law.
This is the minimum we should expect. But I also make some additional suggestions.
In my religious tradition, Christianity, justice is not simply understood as the righting of wrongs by punishing the guilty. It is essentially about restoring peace to the community. A large measure of peace is trust. Right now, we can not have a peaceful relationship with our police force because they have broken that trust. We have learned that they will tolerate a dangerous officer until he is caught marauding the streets drunkenly, beating and shooting an innocent pedestrian. To restore our trust, the Police Department must come clean about how the system failed to prevent this from happening. They must admit their failure and seek our forgiveness. And they must be more transparent with us about problem officers in the future.
Neither do we have peace with Paul Abel – and his incarceration alone will not achieve it. He must seek privately the forgiveness of Mr. Miller and seek publicly the forgiveness of the city as a whole for undermining our peace and justice. And, for the good of his family and of our community, Mr. Abel should be provided with psychological counseling. I can only imagine the personal demons that haunt such a man. But he must face them and overcome them. Only then will peace be possible – with himself and with us.