I know everyone hates the police for using tasers and anyone who challenges that position is considered a insensitive clod for supporting a police state that brutalizes unarmed citizens. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Today's PG features a tidbit about the deceased Mr. Thomas who died after being tased by Swissvale police. Battles ensue over cause of death. Lawsuits are filed. Advocates speak out.
What I learned in the PG is that he had a similar experience four months ago in New Kensington after exhibiting bizarre behavior. Now it is hard to believe that the New Ken police are in a conspiracy with Swissvale (a bastion of police craziness tis true) so this is what keeps running through my head …
What has his family been doing for the past four months to get Mr. Thomas some help? He clearly had some issues, be they mental health or D&A. Your typical person does not rip out a debit card keypad and use it as a cell phone.
The police encountered Mr. Thomas for a few minutes. His family was (hopefully) part of his everyday life and witness to the choices and causes underlying his behavior. Did anyone try to help him? Was the money they raised to pay for a private autopsy available for a stint in rehab or a consult with a good psychiatrist?
Maybe they did everything possible to help Mr. Thomas. Maybe it was the systems that let him down as funding shrinks and programs close and opportunities shrivel up.
I'm not justifying the police use of the taser or their behavior afterwards. I'm simply saying that the tragedy of Mr. Thomas' death is much larger than his final moments. There's a lot of gray here when it comes to his life leading up to those final moments. Where were all the activists and protesters and lawyers when he was struggling through the criminal justice system prior to 2008? Did anyone write columns about his life back then? Did he even register on the radar of the local social justice community until he became another piece of evidence on the anti-taser crusade?
Andre Thomas is dead for reasons for more extensive than the brutality of the Swissvale police. Pick that as your issue if you may, but I am firsthand witness to how the systems have let down another young man with a similar background. He's barely 20 years old with two jail terms behind him and all of the magical programs set up to help kids in his position are doing nada. His family enables him to continue living the high life, even counting on his badass reputation to intimidate neighbors. He's a human being and has demonstrated moments of compassion and decency, even courtesy to me. That doesn't offset the impact of his drug dealing, drug use and mostly inconsiderate behavior on the quality of life and safety for my family and our neighbors.
I don't want him or any other young men to die, at the hands of the police or as a result of their own choices. But I can't help wondering more about Andre Thomas' background. Who reached out to him? If he fell through the cracks, should some of the media spotlight be on those cracks, too?
If we ask how Mr. Thomas died, shouldn't we be asking how he lived, too? And considering if there is something WE could have done — we the family, the neighbors, the friends, the community — something we could have done before his encounter with the Swissvale police? Or the New Kensington police?
Yes, the police systems need reform. The profession attracts some crazy power hungry bastards and what seems to be an inpenetrable union keeps them employed. Are tasers less brutal than piling up on someone with those beat down sticks? I don't want to ever be in a position to make that call. Does the police accountability system set up at the people's behest work in Pittsburgh? If not, is it always someone else's fault?
These are questions I cannot answer. I can say that the MH system and the D&A system and the criminal justice system are underfunded and overextended. I can say that an adult with a criminal record may not find a job with health insurance. And an adult without health insurance is gonna have a tough time accessing the services that do exist. Or making a decent enough living. I can say that having a strong family support network when you are struggling with recovery from a mental illness or an addiction, or when you are reentering society from incarceration, makes all the difference.
We need better systems. We need anti-gang programs that return phone calls. We need COLA adjustments to reduce staff turnover in programs that work. We need to strengthen families so they can be a source of support for members who need a bit of tough love. We need better after school programs and more adult male mentors and job opportunities with health insurance benefits and so on and so on.
The tragedy of Mr. Thomas' death is lost if we simply focus on those last few moments. They deserve scrutiny, but the lives of those who continue to struggle in this Grey area demand that we also consider the bigger picture.
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