Tony Norman: Demanding answers in police shooting of Bruce Kelley Jr.
February 9, 2016 12:34 AM
The steps of an abandoned building on Whitney Avenue where Port Authority police fatally shot Bruce T. Kelley Jr. on Jan. 31.
By Tony Norman / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
On Monday afternoon, Bruce T. Kelley Jr. was finally laid to rest. No honor guard accompanied his family to the church service in Washington, Pa. No sirens or blinking hood lights cleared a path for the solemn procession from the Apostolic church to the place where Mr. Kelley was to be buried.
In contrast to the send-off given to Aren, the police dog he fatally stabbed on Jan. 31 during a confrontation with Port Authority officers, Mr. Kelley had the more modest funeral, by far. While much overtime was presumably paid to many of the officers and K-9 units from around the region who attended Aren’s Feb. 4 funeral by the hundreds, Mr. Kelley’s family requested donations to cover the cost of his service.
While Aren had a flag-draped coffin and funeral honors worthy of a pharaoh — or at least a pharaoh’s favorite dog — no part of Mr. Kelley’s funeral was televised. The Kelley family asked that media stay away from the service because of what they saw as a disrespectful fixation on the dog’s life at the expense of their loved one and their grieving during the weeklong coverage.
Because their loss was barely acknowledged in the media coverage, the Kelley family wasn’t interested in granting that same media access to their grieving. Perhaps they knew better than those who wanted to capture their sorrow in sound bites and photo-ops that there is something undignified about participating in these cliches of grief knowing that it imparts little context or understanding to the public. The overriding media narrative, whether intentional or not, is that the Bruce T. Kelleys of the world don’t matter — especially in Pittsburgh.
While there is an undeniable empathy gap that kicks in whenever someone who resists police is sent to an early grave, there was something close to universal disapproval about the circumstances of the death of a man whose original crime was drinking at a gazebo with his father when Port Authority officers spotted them. Mr. Kelley Jr. and Sr. fought with two officers, somehow getting the best of them and injuring one badly enough for a trip to the hospital. The father and son then fled the scene.
Reinforcements were called and Mr. Kelley was eventually surrounded by at least eight officers with guns drawn. Surveillance footage and photos of Mr. Kelley, defiant yet trying to walk away, speak to the complexity of the encounter. According to police, Mr. Kelley was impervious to their Tasers because of the layers of clothing he wore. He carried a knife, which he threatened to use on Aren when the dog and his handler, Officer Brian O’Malley, arrived.
When Mr. Kelley kept his promise to kill Aren when the dog pounced on him, two officers, including Officer O’Malley, fired 12 shots at him. The public doesn’t know how many bullets struck Mr. Kelley, but we do know that Officer O’Malley is responsible for 10 shots and an unidentified officer shot the other two.
To outraged citizens of all backgrounds, this looks like revenge by the dog’s handler because it is out of proportion to the danger Mr. Kelley represented. He wasn’t made out of steel, so why was so much firepower used on him? Why the disparity in response between the officers? Why did only two of them fire if Mr. Kelley was so dangerous? If this is truly sanctioned by police training, then are we prepared to live with the status quo? Why was he shot at all? Several months ago, police took a protester at a Planned Parenthood clinic alive after he killed several people, including a cop. Is that kind of restraint a fluke?
After every shooting, apologists for unlimited police power insist that proper protocol was followed and that a body, no matter how many bullets are in it, is never evidence of a bad shoot. Some have given up appealing to “what is right” in exchange for “what is legal” when it comes to police shootings. For them, an officer’s fear should always outweigh considerations of justice or proportionality. What happens to law and order when cops fear for their lives becomes a reflection of what society allows.
We don’t know the nature of the demons that made Mr. Kelley act in a belligerent way that day, be it addiction, mental illness or something else. Still, drinking at a gazebo shouldn’t end in an execution. The fact that one man with a knife could hold off so many highly trained officers speaks volumes about their training and the public’s level of safety.
Ultimately, none of these questions matters much to a family dealing with such a loss. Still, the Kelley family should know that people of all racial and socioeconomic backgrounds in Pittsburgh share their outrage and sympathize with them in their grief. More than that, we demand answers to these and many other questions in the weeks and months ahead.
Tony Norman: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1631. Twitter: @TonyNormanPG.
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