Jun
11

Rodney King in a Bikini? Nope

We have now entered the silly season of the emerging national debate about the use of force by police officers. We have Eric Casebolt to thank for that. He’s the officer who just resigned from the McKinney, Texas, police department after a video of him confronting some teenagers at a Texas pool party went viral.

I think I know why Mr. Casebolt resigned, and it had little to do with his conduct at poolside.

Police officers are under a microscope as never before. Whether in Cleveland, Baltimore, Ferguson, Charleston or Staten Island, police decisions to use force, often deadly force, have spawned a much-needed debate on when and whether officers should use force.

What did Mr. Casebolt do to find himself in the center ring of this new circus?

He either took a teenager to the ground, or slammed a 14-year-old bikini-clad girl to the ground — depending on who is telling the story.

Police in McKinney were called to Craig Ranch, a planned community, in response to a fracas. It appears as though a couple of white women told the teens at the party, who were mostly black, to leave and to “go back to their Section 8 homes.”

That ignited a tense confrontation. As is so often the case, police officers were called to calm things down, a function sometimes known as community peacekeeping.

One resident of Craig Ranch, Benet Embry, told CNN that the community has strict homeowners’ association rules prohibiting bringing more that two guests to the communal pool. When security guards asked some of the teens to leave, the teens ignored him. So the guard called the cops.

“This was not a racially motivated event — at all,” Mr. Embry told CNN. “This whole thing is being blown completely out of proportion.” Mr. Embry, I note, is black.

Once officers arrived, things were tense. The teens didn’t want to leave the party. A teenager who filmed the Casebolt incident said: “I think she was ‘running her mouth.’”

Indeed.

The video shows a tense neighborhood confrontation. Young people not at their best. A cop in the middle of the roiling emotions doing what he can to get to the bottom of things. Mr. Casebolt, for reasons that are not clear from the video, used what is known as a takedown hold on the teenager, Dajeeria Becton.

This was not the Rodney King incident. Not even close.

Officers are trained to use takedown holds, and other forms of force, to overcome the resistance of others. It is part of the training officers undergo in the use of force.

I can’t tell from looking at the videotape whether Mr. Casebolt had asked Ms. Becton to do anything or not. But it does not appear that she was selected at random, or that she was picked on because she was black. Several other young people are in the area lying on the ground. Presumably, these kids got the message: Officers on site.

What happened next was truly shocking. Fellow teenagers were outraged by what they saw. Several appear to have tried to come to her aid. One young man rushed up on Mr. Casebolt, coming dangerously close to his gun belt. It looked like bedlam for a moment or two.

What did Mr. Casebolt do? He drew his gun and pointed it in the direction of the swarming kids. The kids sensibly, ran off. Mr. Casebolt then went back to Ms. Becton, kneeling on her back, and surveyed the area to see what would happen next.

Listening to critics, you’d think the officer pulled his gun on worshippers at a prayer, and then run off with the collection plate.

(What's the difference between critics responding to a video, and lawyers who've litigated police misconduct claims? The former emotes about images, the latter applies neutral principles to uncomfortable facts. McKinney is not a federal case.)

I’ve handled scored of police misconduct claims. This video, while ugly, doesn’t shock me. Police have a monopoly on the use of force, and are expected to use force in situations just like these. It’s a rare case in which an arrestee is randomly pushed, punched or shoved.

The video no sooner hit YouTube than a bandwagon was turbocharged, revved up, and cruising through prime time. Pamela Meanes, president of the National Bar Association, an organization of black lawyers, treated the media to a little show and tell, plopping onto the floor, placing her hands behind back, while a man knelt over her, his knees on her back.

Thank you, Pamela, for demonstrating in the orchestrated calm of a press conference half the reality law enforcement officers face daily: On the streets, cops never really know just how crazy things will get.

Ms. Meanes got things half right, however. She called for greater training on “de-escalation of force,” for training on dealing with mentally ill people, and for “race relations training.”

All this would be helpful, of course.

But who will train teenagers that when asked to leave a premise by a guy wearing a badge, it’s a good idea to listen?

Listen to the full report of the young man who filmed the takedown: “I think she was ‘running her mouth,’ and she has freedom of speech, and that was very uncalled for him to throw her to the ground,” 15-year-old Mr. Brooks said.

Memo to Mr. Brooks: the First Amendment doesn’t make the streets into an adolescent playpen.

The brouhaha over McKinney trivializes the very real problem of police use of force. Fourteen-year-old Ms. Becton is not a latter-day Betsy Ross, stitching a new republic’s flag. She’s a kid who was told to do something, decided she didn’t want to do it, and then mouthed off about it. And as for the young man who rushed at Mr. Casebolt, he’s lucky the officer did not have a faster reaction time — the young man could easily have been shot dead with justification.

So why did Mr. Casebolt resign? I suspect he decided it just isn’t worth it any longer. He was about to be tarred and feathered for how he responded to a routine call. There are plenty of other, and safer, ways to make a living.

Plenty of cops I am talking to these days feel the same way. Lord of the Flies, anyone?

Related topics: Journal Register Columns
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About Norm Pattis

Norm Pattis is a Connecticut based trial lawyer focused on high stakes criminal cases and civil right violations. He is a veteran of more than 100 jury trials, many resulting in acquittals for people charged with serious crimes, multi-million dollar civil rights and discrimination verdicts, and scores of cases favorably settled.

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I believe that the state is a necessary fiction and that failing to combat it is the first step toward tyranny.
– Norm Pattis

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Nothing in this blog should be considered legal advice about your case. You need a lawyer who understands the context of your life and situation. What are offered here are merely suggested lines of inquiry you may explore with your lawyer.

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