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Shawn Inlow: Why police shootings happen

| Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2018, 7:03 p.m.
In this file photo from July 15, flags flew at half-staff in tribute to state police  Trooper Michael P. Stewart, 26, at the state police station in Greensburg.
Christian Tyler Randolph | Tribune-Review
In this file photo from July 15, flags flew at half-staff in tribute to state police Trooper Michael P. Stewart, 26, at the state police station in Greensburg.

After reading a friend’s social media comments on another tragic police shooting, I wanted to share my perspective.

There is a lot of mental illness in police work. There is also substantial racism and classism. Rich people are “good people.” Poor people are the opposite.

Training in the use of force continuum — an escalating series of actions an officer may take to resolve a situation — is step one. I believe the Pennsylvania State Police do this very well.

But, what police do very poorly is admit they are sometimes not safe. When I worked as a state trooper, I had days when I didn’t know where I was, and when I got hold of myself, I determined I was unsafe and took myself out of service for the day.

Police work is a Chinese water torture of stress, sickness, substance abuse, hatred, hurt and misery.

People snap.

Imagine waking up every day, and everything you do will be part of someone else’s worst day of their lives. Then you go back to the barracks and a supervisor who can’t find his own way kicks you when you’re down — just because he can. No, he must mess with you. And if you file a complaint, you are mercilessly hounded for months.

You get home and your wife asks, “How was your day?”

So you drink.

My assessment, based on my own experience? Most police officers have contemplated suicide. That’s my guess. I was driven close to the brink myself, and I didn’t work in what you would think of as a dangerous place.

I think police suffer a kind of PTSD, and it can be deadly. The police don’t do anything about it. You don’t admit weakness. “You wanted to wear the big hat,” you’re told. And there is no redress to an officer’s grievances.

While adherence to “the law” is a noble calling that holds our society together, those who construct that blue wall stretch to hold that status quo together.

I had a kid in custody who had a swastika tattoo on his arm. He didn’t seem like a Nazi. He seemed like a nice kid. And I asked him if he knew what that symbol was. He called it a “twisted cross.” I said, “Son, 7 million people died under that symbol.” He seemed ashamed.

The next week, kids at Penn State ran out of beer and inexplicably started rioting and setting things on fire and tossing bottles from the balconies down into Beaver Canyon. And when I showed up in a riot helmet, a kid shouted into my face that I was a Nazi pig.

What happened to me — a liberal arts major, a poet and singer who somehow got into the system — was that I became sick and black. Distorted into some weird shape of who I once was. You can only absorb so much hate before it breaks you.

Still, this does not excuse the murder of innocent people.

When I saw the Rodney King beating, it was a shock. There is no police training in the world that makes that acceptable or right. When I saw the little boy playing with a toy gun in Cleveland get shot dead in seconds. When O.J. walked. When the planes crashed. There is so much hate.

You never see the police officer drinking his courage for another day. Drinking himself drunk at 7 a.m. and wetting his bed. Or worse. That’s a secret. We don’t speak of those things.

When you see that shocking video, ask yourself not whether or not the person in the video is racist. He could be, yes. But you need to ask whether or not that person is well. He probably isn’t.

Shawn Inlow is a retired state trooper and journalist. He lives in Clearfield County.

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