Syracuse's major evening paper, The Herald-Journal, leads with this editorial tonight (5/8/97, A13):
He must have known it all along.
John Vojtas of the Brentwood, Pa., police department must have known it was acceptable to beat a black man at the side of the road. He must have thought it was OK when he wished Jonny E. Gammage dead, when he knelt on Gammage's back as he struggled to breathe, when he participated in the killing of an innocent man.
He was right. His community accepted what he and four other officers did. And Brentwood did better than that. It ended up rewarding him. On Tuesday night, the Brentwood Borough Council voted unanomously to promore him to sergeant. We're told that cheers broke out.
We're left aghast. This case has broken our hearts so many times that it is hard even to express the outrage. But that is exactly what this is - an outrage.
Our imperfect justice system acquitted Vojtas in Gammage's deeath. The deck was stcaked from the beginning. But rewarding a rogue cop for killing a man is beyond sense. Think about it. The job of police officers is to serve and protect. A man that Vojtas was being paid to protect was killed instead. That sounds like professional incompetance.
Yet it was rewarded.
Raising Vojtas' pay and statute says something to police officers in that department and in others: It is okay to kill while on duty; a black man has no rights when pulled over ina white suburb, and it si perffectly all right for a police officer to act as judge, jury, and executioner.
This terrribly stupid decision could be called a slap in the face to the Gammage family. but it's small potatoes compared with the grief of losing a son, a brother, a good man. It really is a slap in the face of any American concerned about racism. The fact is that Gammage was killed because he was black. If a white man had been driving a Jaguar through Brentwood, the traffic stop - if it happened at all - would be a distant memory.
Vojtas is trouble - has been for years. A girlfriend of his used his service revolver to shoot herself in the head. She was found dead at a bus stop. Another ex-girlfriend - the mother of his children - had three orders of protection issued against him after she said he abused her physically and verbally. He was suspended once when his two young children were found home alone. And, he was recently tried for involuntary manslaughter - even though a coroner's jury said he should have faced a murder charge.
Sure, he sounds just like the kind of amn any police department would want to have supervising other officers, making life-and-death decisions. Maybe when Charles Manson gets out of jail, Brentwood can hire him as police chief.
On the night he was killed, Gammage stopped his car just over the Brentwood line. It's as if he was trying to make it in to the city of Pittsburgh. It's as if he knew about Brentwood police, about the "Good 'Ole Boys" as they liked to call themselves (misplaced apostrophe and all). They wear T-shirts under their uniforms that say so, along with pictures of riders on horseback with six-shooters blazing.
The nearly all-white borough of Brentwood has proven itself worthy of Gammage's fear. Vojtas is a killer who, it seems, acted with the complicity of his town. And none of the leaders there are even smart enough to be ashamed.