The folks who have their name on the masthead of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette should be ashamed. They should apologize to the readers. The editorial headline below the masthead on February 4 reads “Officer Down: Pittsburgh loses another K-9 in the line of duty.”
The editorial references an imaginary “line-of-duty” owned by the slain police dog. Animals don’t have duties. Dogs don’t have duties. People have duties. Freshman philosophy students know this. Law students know this. But apparently the editors of the P-G are unaware of this simple truth and their duty to respect it.
Dogs don’t have duties not to bark, not to poop, or not to bite when their tails are pulled. But their owners or handlers DO have a duty to restrain their dogs, to clean up after their dogs, to protect their dogs. Those duties come with the privilege of enjoying the loyalty, companionship and protection afforded by animals.
By irresponsibly anthropomorphizing the animal, by willfully portraying the now dead animal as a voluntary employee of the police department, a conscious agent of law and order, the editorial distracts the reader from a host of issues raised by the deadly encounter on Sunday, January 31. By fostering the illusion that an actual police officer—and not a service dog—was killed and that the dog was acting autonomously, the editorial obfuscates both the dimensions of and responsibilities for the events.
And by once again orchestrating an ill-conceived public outrage, the editors promoted the embarrassing funerary spectacle of contrived city-wide mourning for a service animal cruelly and unnecessarily abused by its handlers, a spectacle pathetically modeled after the virtual shut down of Oakland for the sainted police dog, Rocco.
Lost in the unseemly display over the killing of a service animal is the fundamental fact that a man was rousted from his reverie while drinking with his father peacefully and solitarily on Port Authority (public) property. Like any of us who have carelessly or irresponsibly drunk in a public park, a campus, or any other public space, we move on when rousted. We don’t expect to die. Mr. Kelley and his father did move on. But he died anyway.
For what happened subsequently, we only have the police reports and a partial surveillance video.
With no more evidence than this, the P-G editorialist deigns to speak for all of us: “Pittsburgh mourns the loss of another K-9 officer killed in the line of duty…” But for Kelley, Pittsburgh is apparently silent. The writer adds insensitively: “…and Kelley’s survivors wish this had ended differently as well.”
But with even the scant evidence and questionable testimony, we can draw some relevant conclusions and pose some challenging questions.
Mr. Kelley’s record points to the likelihood of mental illness. His encounters with the law involve alcohol, drugs, and erratic behavior. A pattern of judicial probation points to the fact that his bad behavior places him in the gray area between incarceration and treatment. The lack of treatment facilities in Pennsylvania frequently places the mentally ill on the streets, often placing law enforcement in an untenable situation. The responsibility for the violence that ensues begins with the choking off of treatment funding by elected officials. Of course no one steps up to take this responsibility.
The rush to judgment fanned the flames of indignation towards Mr. Kelley. The early reports cited the brandishing of a terrifying 14-inch knife, a claim repeated by the P-G editorialist and a letter from a wise-cracking local chief of police (remind me to avoid Sharpsburg). But by Friday, February 5, the P-G reported a 4-inch knife and DA Zappala displayed a picture of a far less terrifying device.
We know that Kelley and his father initially tried to walk away. We don’t know why they were not allowed to simply leave. Is there any doubt that if a group of white adults were found drinking in North Park that the police would see disbursal as a happy conclusion?
Whatever transpired next, it is hard to believe that nine fit, trained officers were unable to disarm a 37-year-old man without risking the life of a service animal and a human being. Since there were no independent witnesses, there was no immediate threat to the public and no urgency.
Apparently none of those indignant over the death of the police dog were moved to ask why the police officers unleashed the dog in the first place, putting it in harm’s way. When nine officers surrounding a single man feel threatened by him, why would they risk the life of their supposedly cherished “fellow officer?”
No one distressed by the killing of the police dog sees that it is irresponsible to use a dog trained for explosive detection as an attack dog.
Those angry over the dog’s death do not question why it was not fitted with available protective gear (It is sophistry to say, as the authorities do, that it wouldn’t have helped or that it cannot be worn all of the time: responsible handling would have considered the dog’s training and recognized the lack of protection or provided it at the time).
Asking these questions is to acknowledge the “line of duty” owned by the dog’s handlers—to hold a person responsible for putting the dog in harm’s way. It is convenient, of course, to take the P-G editorial line and simply blame Mr. Kelley, who is dead and has no spokesperson.
Nor do those anxious to forget Mr. Kelley recoil from the harsh fact that two police officers fired 12 rounds at close range at his body, an example of massive overreaction and a hair-trigger escalation from deterrence to homicide.
In the days to come, we will be lectured by authorities on police protocol, judgment, police authority, and hair-splitting legalisms. But the morality of taking Mr. Kelley’s life will be evaded. Mr. Kelley will be, like so many others, a forgotten victim of the curse of race and class.
POSTSCRIPT: On Saturday, February 6, the Post-Gazette reported that Mr. Kelley did not knife the initial officers as originally announced. The knife appeared after the initial tussle and the use of pepper spray on the part of the officers. We learn this from the police– no thanks to the P-G editorialists and their obscene rush to judgment.