James Rourke was living out a parent’s worst nightmare when two Pennsylvania State Troopers arrived and promptly made matters much worse.
A little after 6:00 p.m. on January 28, Rourke, a 59-year-old man widely respected among residents of Doylesburg for his generosity and service to others, learned of a car crash involving his 19-year-old son Freddy.
James and his wife Betty rushed to the scene on Path Valley Road, where the car — which was driven by a family friend — had collided with a utility pole. Freddy and his friend, Chad O’Donel, were trapped inside, and live power lines snaked across the wreckage.
At the request of emergency personnel, Mr. Rourke — who had been sitting in a van across the street — walked to an emergency vehicle in the middle of the road to provide a brief medical history on his son. He was accompanied by his daughter, Betty Barrick.
As the medical discussion took place, a police vehicle pulled up and decanted two truculent troopers — Elmer Hertzog and James Erne — who were apparently looking to drum up business for themselves.
Eyewitnesses described Hertzog and Erne as “rude and disrespectful, using profanity in addressing Rourke and calling him a vulgar name” as they ordered him away from the emergency vehicle. The verbal abuse took place before Rourke and his daughter had a chance to leave — as did the ensuing assault by Hertzog.
By his own admission, Hertzog was the first to lay hands on Rourke, grabbing him by the front of his coat and pushing him backwards. This was an act of criminal battery. Rourke, a 59-year-old man with a heart condition, grabbed Hertzog’s jacket in what his daughter described as an effort to keep from falling backward to the pavement.
A local newspaper account twice uses the expression “deliberate attack on the trooper” to describe one possible description of Rourke’s action. Both he and his daughter deny that Rourke did anything more than act out of an understandable defensive reflex. However, given that Hertzog had committed an act of criminal violence against him, Rourke was entirely within his rights to counter-attack, if necessary and possible, irrespective of the official costume worn by his tax-devouring assailant.
Trooper Erne, Hertzog’s cohort in official crime, didn’t exactly “have his partner’s back.” Instead, in a fashion familiar to students of bullying tactics Erne ganged up on the victim by attacking him from the back, striking him in the small of the back with a knee and then piling on when Hertzog took Rourke to the ground.
Rourke’s daughter, frantic for her father’s safety, demanded that his assailants leave him alone, only to be given an abrupt reminder of how members of the state’s coercive caste perceive the rest of us: “You don’t ever touch a cop,” one of them snarled at her.
“I told them they didn’t need to do this, but it was as if they had to show their authority,” she later remarked.
Eventually the uniformed bullies allowed the victim to stand. But as eyewitness Timothy McMillen recalls, the harassment “didn’t just stop at the scene after they took him to the ground, but continued at Chambersburg Hospital,” where Freddie was flown for treatment.
By that time, a horde of donut-grazers had gathered to show solidarity with Hertzog and Erne. “There were four carloads of cops there when we got there,” continues McMillen. The stalwart defenders of public order apparently had no better use of their time than to intimidate and persecute a father whose son was in critical condition.
One of them, apparently stranded in perpetual adolescence, was playing the familiar bully’s game of bumping into Rourke in an attempt to antagonize him, and then lying by claiming that Rourke had bumped into him. While this was happening, doctors were telling Rourke that his comatose son might not survive.
An EMT, giving adult guidance to the overgrown playground tormentor and his playmates, told the police to let the Rourke family leave and to let the doctors get on with the task of saving Freddy’s life.
Freddy was still in a coma when Rourke was informed that he was being charged with aggravated assault, simple assault, and “failure of disorderly persons to disperse upon official order” — for the supposed crime of refusing to allow himself to be thrown to the ground for no reason by an officious prig in a government-issued costume.
Freddy, an honor roll student planning to major in (of all things) criminal justice, will require extensive hospitalization and rehabilitative therapy. When he returns to his home, notes local crime reporter Vicky Taylor, Freddy “will probably find major changes, not only in his life, but also in his parents’ lives. The aggravated assault charge James Rourke faces carries a state prison sentence of as long as 10 years.”
The only role played by the police in this tragedy was to insert themselves where they didn’t belong, assert “authority” they didn’t possess, assault a man who had done nothing wrong, and charge their victim with crimes he didn’t commit.
All of this offers a compelling case for the proposition that we would be much better off without the state’s armed enforcers. And it’s difficult to think of two bullies more richly deserving of getting their backs dirty than Troopers Elmer Hertzog and James Erne of the Pennsylvania State Police.