'This impacts everybody': Officers experience grief, anger after Pa. chief's death

"My assessment of how members of the LE community are feeling after this tragedy is that they are very sad ... and very pissed that it happened," a chief said


By Tony LaRussa
The Tribune-Review

BRACKENRIDGE, Pa. — When the armed man police were seeking for more than a day ran past Brackenridge police Chief Justin McIntire's cruiser Monday afternoon, he reacted the same way most law enforcement officers would in that situation.

McIntire was aware the suspect on the loose in his town likely was armed — an empty holster was found in a car he abandoned — and he was a convicted felon wanted for a parole violation involving weapons.

The man police were trying to arrest, Aaron Lamont Swan Jr., 28, of Duquesne, fled from a state police traffic stop along Route 28 on New Year's Day.

Swan fled a second time Monday after a police officer spotted the car he was driving at the Sheetz in Harrison.

Harrison Chief Mike Klein said Swan was approached by officers and had his hands up when he stomped on the accelerator pedal and threw the car into drive. Officers pursued, but Swan managed to elude them once again.

A short time later, the car Swan was driving was found abandoned in Brackenridge with the empty gun holster on the seat.

The search intensified about 3 p.m. when police were advised that two suspicious men were seen in the vicinity of that car.

Officers from several local departments, including McIntire, converged in the borough and tried to capture Swan.

"Justin was driving down the street when the guy ran right in front of him," Klein said. "He's a cop, so his reaction was to put the vehicle in park and go after him."

Tarentum Chief Bill Vakulick said whatever natural hesitancy or fear a police officer experiences during a situation like the one McIntire encountered has to be suppressed and replaced by a "let's go get them" attitude.

"We better feel that way. That's what we're here for," he said. "It's our job. It's what we signed up for."

McIntire, 46, made the ultimate sacrifice trying to protect the residents of his hometown when he pursued Swan.

"(McIntire) followed the guy when he saw him going between some houses," Klein said. "But the guy ducked behind one of the houses and ambushed him. It was an assassination."

Swan's actions after McIntire's fatal shooting confirmed the chief's assessment that the gunman had to be stopped.

Police tracked Swan to Morgan Street, where he wrestled with a resident who managed to disarm him as he tried to hijack the resident's work truck.

But Swan had another gun in the bag he was carrying; he fired at officers who were pursing him. One shot hit Tarentum Officer Jordan Schrecengost in the leg. Swan was able to escape on foot and steal a car at gunpoint from a Pacific Avenue resident.

A killer on the loose

After a radio dispatch went out informing police there was an officer down, "that's when police solidarity really came together," Klein said.

"Officers from everywhere were out looking for the suspect once they got word that there was an officer down," he said. "It was all hands on deck."

Once Vakulick knew that enough manpower was headed to the scene for the manhunt, his thoughts turned to his wounded Tarentum officer.

"The mayor ( Bob Lang) and I went right to Allegheny General Hospital," he said. "I never drove so fast in my life. He's a young guy, and I wanted to be there with him."

Schrecengost was released Tuesday and is recuperating at home, according to Lang.

The search for McIntire's killer ended in Pittsburgh's Homewood-Brushton section, where Swan exchanged gunfire with Pittsburgh police and was shot multiple times.

He was pronounced dead at the scene with a Glock 9 mm pistol at his feet. The weapon had an extended magazine and was altered so it could fire like a fully automatic weapon, police said.

In all, investigators said Swan had access to five firearms; four were recovered in Brackenridge.

Beginning the healing process

Klein and Vakulick agree that, while McIntire's fatal shooting will take time for the community to grieve and process, the immediate focus needs to be on the impact his death has on the family he leaves behind and his officers.

"This impacts everybody in law enforcement because it's like losing a member of our family," Klein said. "But I think, for right now, it's important for all of us to remain cognizant that this isn't about us.

"The number one thing that should be on our minds is Justin's family. Then, we can begin looking at helping the other Brackenridge officers and the residents of the community deal with what's happened."

Klein said it can be particularly difficult for police officers to take the time they need to grieve and process what has happened.

"When you're in law enforcement, you are expected to wear an emotional suit of armor," he said. "But you're still not immune to stress and trauma, which can spill over into your personal life. It's important for us to remedy unresolved trauma and not think that we can just handle it."

Vakulick arranged for counselors to be available for first responders, and both chiefs encouraged their officers to take the time they need off the job to deal with what they are experiencing.

"We recognize that everybody processes trauma a little differently," Klein said. "So, if they need some time, then we understand that they need to take it."

To give Brackenridge officers time away from work and to assure residents that someone is still there guarding their safety, police from across the region have been volunteering to patrol the borough.

Klein said the same thing happened after the October 2011 fatal shooting of Lower Burrell police Officer Derek Kotecki and when New Kensington police Officer Brian Shaw was gunned down in November 2017.

"It's not only helpful for residents to know that police from around the area are patrolling in their town after something like this has happened," Klein said. "It tells the police officers there that we support them, that we are here for them."

New Kensington Mayor Thomas Guzzo said the "outpouring of love and the sharing of grief with the wonderful Shaw family" was part of the healing process after their officer's death.

"Our city and the entire community came together to grieve, to be of assistance and to be there for each other," Guzzo said. "This is another horrific, unimaginable tragedy. I am sure that this will occur again for the McIntire family, the Brackenridge Police Department and the entire Brackenridge community."

Guzzo said he contacted Brackenridge Mayor Lindsay Fraser to offer condolences on behalf of New Kensington residents and to offer "our help in any way we can be of assistance."

Rich Callender, who was serving on Lower Burrell Council when Kotecki was killed, said all the things being organized to show support for the McIntire family and the police department are an essential part of the grieving and healing process.

"Some of these officers might feel they are ready to go back out on the streets, but are they really ready?" said Callender, who served four years as mayor after his stint on council.

"They need time to grieve," he said. "Even officers in other communities are affected when a police officer is killed, because it's one of their brothers or sisters they have lost."

Callender said Shaw's death in New Kensington was especially painful for Lower Burrell residents.

"Brian worked in New Ken, but he was from Lower Burrell," he said. "So we felt like we lost one of our own."

Klein said the public display of support from people who lined the streets Tuesday to view the procession of public safety vehicles escorting the ambulance carrying McIntire's body to a funeral home was an emotional experience for him.

"I was trying to keep it together, but when you talk about having a physiological response, that's what I experienced while sitting in my police car," he said.

"Seeing all the people coming out and the police cars lined up farther than I could see behind and ahead of me really made me feel the solidarity that we have. It's unmatched, and it is unbelievable."

A tempest of emotions

While sadness naturally has been the overwhelming emotion washing over people in the wake of McIntire's death, for some that sadness is tinged with anger.

"This is the third police officer in the Alle-Kiski Valley since 2011 to die serving their community," Callender said. "It's so sad that we are getting used to this, that it's become so commonplace.

"It's sad that we know how to organize these funerals and set up the fundraisers to help the family. I think it's horrible that we've gotten so good at doing those things. It has to stop."

Klein thinks Swan's actions can serve as a prime example of how the eroding attitude toward law enforcement has made an already dangerous job even more so.

"I don't agree with all the things that law enforcement officers do," he said. "But I equally don't think it's fair to paint all police with a broad brush as bad."

Using incidents of police misconduct as political weapons and the organized calls to cut funding in recent years have eroded public trust in law enforcement to the point where the number of people willing to do the job is shrinking, he said.

"The people talking about defunding the police and not putting criminals in prison need to ask themselves how that is working out," Klein said.

Klein and Vakulick agree that, while members of the region's law enforcement community are mostly feeling sadness over the loss of McIntire, they no doubt are experiencing anger over a legal system that failed to keep Swan locked up.

Swan's extensive criminal record includes a homicide charge filed in connection with the shooting death of a man in Homewood.

By the time a preliminary hearing was held, the homicide count was withdrawn in exchange for his cooperation. He pleaded guilty to robbery and criminal conspiracy and was sentenced to three to six years in prison.

A search of Swan's criminal history by the Trib shows the judicial system served as a revolving door that repeatedly put him back on the street.

"My assessment of how members of the law enforcement community are feeling after this tragedy," Klein said, "is that they are very sad over such a loss and very pissed that it happened."

___

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