By Sean Callahan
The Uniting All People (UAP) club—committed to bringing together people of various ethnic groups, religions, and sexual orientations—has persisted in its mission with a webinar on policing. The club organized a panel with Dr. Jeff Mallory, executive vice president of Saint Vincent College, and various public figures in law enforcement, including Latrobe Chief of Police John Sleasman and a local district attorney.
The panel occurred on Feb. 18, running from 7 p.m. to almost 8:30 p.m. The discussion mainly revolved around race and police-related questions, presented by UAP member Laura Horn, sophomore history student and a moderator for this event.
The initial question, for example, involved the extent to which race played a part in each panelist’s job.
Pennsylvania State Police Corporal Aaron J. Allen and Lieutenant William Slaton agreed that they had to consider race in police conflicts on the street.
But some interviewees felt race played a much smaller role in their jobs. Sleasman felt that because Latrobe was a small community—as opposed to a larger city—race wasn’t a prominent part in his occupation.
Michael Mahady, a judge in the Westmoreland County magisterial district, agreed with Sleasman, due to his commitment to make decisions based off the law. Similarly, Dr. Eric Kocian, assistant professor of criminology at SVC, emphasized that he had been taught mutual respect and equality through past careers.
“One of the lessons that was instilled in us during our military police training in boot camp was that we were all different shades of green,” Kocian said. “Some lighter, some darker. So race didn’t come up much at all.”
But from Slaton’s perspective, his occupation must be sensitive to racial differences.
“Some police officers just simply don’t understand the history of police and minorities,” Slaton said. “[Back then,] police in the south were slave catchers.”
He highlighted the racial violence during reconstruction, through the Civil Rights Movement and argued that minorities had a right to be frustrated with law enforcement. He voiced desires to root out “implicit biases” despite the issue’s complexity.
Allen added to Slaton’s assertion of frustrated minorities with his own story. He commented on being an African American and watching his father get arrested, which led him to despise law enforcement at the age of 16.
“I hated the police as a kid. But positive interactions that I had with local police officers were so important because they changed what I could have been. I could have easily gone to jail and followed my dad,” Allen said.
Allen added that it was those small interactions that led him to become a state trooper today, to make a difference among the police.
Likewise, Mahany spoke highly of officers, but acknowledged the power gap.
“It really affects young guys when they get all of that authority. And some of them let it go to their head. Some of them abuse it,” Judge Mahany said. “In the old days no one would say anything to them. Nowadays the younger officers will take them to task over it.”
Assistant District Attorney Anthony Imanrelli strongly agreed.
“Every police officer that I work with, who cares about this job, wants nothing more than to punish bad police officers,” Imanrelli said.
But Kocian took a modified stance on the issue of race-based police violence.
“I think we had a police brutality problem sixty or seventy years ago,” Kocian said. “But I would contend that today, we have more of a civilian compliance problem.”
Kocian clarified that while high profile cases—such as that of George Floyd—could have been handled much better, noncompliance with law enforcement escalated those situations. He also expressed concerns that facts such as noncompliance were being overlooked by the media, because of social outrage.
“Once upon a time, with regards to the media, the nomenclature was ‘if it bleeds it leads,’” Kocian said. “Now it’s become, ‘if it bleeds black and was shot by white, it most certainly is going to be the lead story.’”
However, Lieutenant Slaton argued that—to some minorities—compliance can mean death by an officer anyway. He explained that his department is better educating incoming officers and their civilian community on topics such as law enforcement stereotypes and racial profiling. They are also making citizens comfortable and familiar with officers using local town events.
Concerning local happenings, Chief Sleasman recounted a story of a Black Lives Matter protest that occurred in Latrobe, following George Floyd’s murder. He peacefully walked with the protestors through town, with no arrests or complaints. He claimed he wanted to maintain trust with his community, a struggle that fellow panelist Imanrelli also shared as an attorney.
“Who are my victims? They’re the underprivileged, the underserved. We’ve got to level the playing field for them,” Imanrelli said.
During closing remarks, the panelists emphasized the importance of staying informed on criminal justice matters and knowing what career people wish to pursue to better their communities.
“You have to remember why you’re there. Stay true to yourself. And if you don’t like what you see: Fix it,” Sleasman said.