A local police officer has inserted himself into the national debate over police brutality with a t-shirt that mocks the brutal death of an unarmed man in the streets of New York City.
Mishawaka police officer Jason Barthel designed the “Breathe Easy — Don’t Break the Law” shirt for his South Bend-based business.
The message that his shirt sends can be summed up in the inverse and it is quite ugly: break the law, and you won’t be breathing easy.
He says so much in his own words.
“When you break the law, unfortunately there’s going to be consequences, and some of them aren’t going to be pretty,” Barthel bluntly told the South Bend Tribune.
The problem, of course, is that Eric Garner and others who have died at the hands of law enforcement were only alleged to have broken the law.
In the United States, we have a court system that determines guilt. Police officers are not executioners. They are not Judge Dredd.
The shirt dismisses the very core of American justice with its careless words.
Even worse, Barthel is profiting and self-promoting his business on the last words of a dying man. Garner’s death sparked nationwide protests against a trend that is alarmingly clear with at least 461 Americans killed by law enforcement last year alone, the highest in two decades.
Notice the words “at least” — the FBI statistics are incomplete, based on self-reported information from police departments across the country. Not every department reports this information, making the data set incomplete. In other words, the number could be much higher.
Eric Garner, who was killed on July 17 on a New York City sidewalk, just happened to have his police encounter recorded on video, which gave his case notoriety. Without the video, Garner sadly would have been just another statistic.
The Staten Island father was allegedly selling cigarettes — a misdemeanor that would not even land him in jail — before he was choked to death by police officers.
The video shows Garner pleading with police to leave him alone and raising his hands in the air before being thrown to the cold, hard cement sidewalk where he would never get back up.
Police did not even attempt to talk Garner down — who was visibly upset over what he said was frequent police harassment — and did not give him the chance to voluntarily accept arrest.
Instead, the officers escalated the situation, charged him without provocation, slammed him to the ground in a few seconds, and put him in a chokehold against police procedures.
“I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!” Garner cried multiple times before being killed on the scene.
These words carry powerful weight for those who wear shirts honoring Garner. The “I can’t breathe” shirts have been worn by both activists and athletes alike in peaceful protest.
But such sentiment must not hold sway for Barthel, who twisted Garner’s words into a shirt that the Mishawaka police officer (comically) says is meant to improve race relations and show support for law enforcement.
One would hope that a police officer would have the sense to not fan the flames of distrust in our community between law enforcement and citizens — but that is exactly what happened here.
Public officials are held to a higher standard than the one that Barthel set.
Police are no exception, which makes this case all the more disturbing. This was not an “average Joe” acting irresponsibly. It was a man who day in and day out wears a uniform, holds the legal authority to end someone’s life, and is expected to carry out his duties impartially without prejudice. It’s difficult to imagine how he is capable of doing that given his off-duty antics.
This shirt represents profiting off of someone’s death. It sends the message that it is perfectly defensible to kill people for allegedly breaking the law even when they commit minor offenses.
Messages like this only make our hardworking police officers’ jobs that much more difficult to rebuild trust in communities where there is none.
We need leaders who can recognize the systemic problems plaguing law enforcement agencies across our nation — and working to correct those problems — while at the same time recognizing that the majority of cops are committed to their communities and doing good work that often goes unrecognized.
No one in this debate derides the invaluable work of law enforcement. Police protect our homes, our businesses, our schools, and our government.
But some people seem content to defend bad cops, poor behavior, and a lack of discipline.
This offensive shirt fails to acknowledge these distinctions because the business owner printing them is pandering to a customer that sees the world in black and white. A customer whose authority worship is the antithesis to American ideals of justice and a long-standing tradition of holding those who hold power to account for their actions.
This shirt is not what our city or our country represents.
We can both support the efforts of law enforcement while demanding justice for those who our system has wronged. These concepts are not mutually exclusive.
Further, supporting Barthel’s shirt and the message that it represents does not support law enforcement.
Quite the contrary.
It undermines law enforcement. It makes their job more difficult. It breeds further distrust.
Going forward, we should look to do the hard work of actually improving — rather than senselessly dividing — our community.
This means building bridges between law enforcement and the citizens that they serve through meaningful dialogue. This means making law enforcement more reflective of our city. This means that we will not hide behind empty rhetoric and authority worship but rather look for sensible solutions to complex problems. This means better police training and employing common sense to avoid conflict. And yes, this means holding law enforcement to account for their actions.