A Few Thoughts on Policing

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Though the killing of Trayvon Martin was not a police killing, that event three years ago started off a chain of events that has dramatically heightened the prominence of the national conversation about policing and race in the United States. Today we’re talking about this latest incident in McKinney, Texas in which – thankfully – no one was killed or seriously injured but a police officer has already resigned over behavior caught on the now ubiquitous hand held video.

There are a couple stories I want to highlight for you about this incident this morning because I think they capture the gulf between what you might call Fox News policing and actual professional practice of policing, even though of course best practices police work can often diverge pretty dramatically from actual police work.

Here’s what I wanted to highlight.

Greg Conley, the Police Chief of McKinney, Texas held a press conference Tuesday in which he called the actions of Officer David Eric Casebolt “indefensible.” Casebolt was resigning from the force around the time the news conference was held. “He came into the call out of control, and as the video shows, was out of control during the incident. I had 12 officers on the scene, and 11 of them performed according to their training,” said Conley.

That brings me to this piece we published yesterday. You really need to read it. It’s that good. It’s by a guy named Seth Stoughton, a law professor at the University of South Carolina who is a policing scholar and a former police officer himself.

Stoughton analyzes the video and shows that there are two very different stories on display in the video. One cop on the scene does everything pretty much how he should and gets good results. He takes control of the situation but in a calm, professional way. There’s no violence, things don’t escalate. Then the other guy shows up on the camera, Casebolt, pretty much as Conley describes him – “out of control” when he got there and “out of control” all the way through. So the video isn’t just another example of an out of control cop; it’s actually a surprisingly good illustration (though obviously no video captures everything that happened) of how the police should handle a tense but defusable situation and how they shouldn’t.

Which brings me to Sean Hannity.

Hannity noted last night that Casebolt only drew his gun on the two teenagers because they were “provoking” him and “mocking” him. I’m not sure I have ever seen a better example of Fox News policing, which I would call policing reimagined as a set-piece battle in the culture war. (Before going further I would say, it’s not lost on me that there is a decent amount of policing that actually goes down just like that. But it’s obviously not what we want. And it’s also not the majority of cases.)

Here’s how Stoughton describes the same part of the encounter …

Although the short video does not provide a complete picture of the scene, it appears likely that force in this case could have been avoided. Consider how Corporal Casebolt took issue with the way a group of girls standing on the sidewalk some distance away were “running their mouths,” so he yelled at them: “Leave!” and “Get your ass gone!” As one bikini-clad girl, 15-year-old Dajerria Becton, did exactly that, Corporal Casebolt stopped her—possibly after some verbal exchange not captured by the camera—and wrestled her to the ground. When quickly approached by two young men who appear unhappy with his treatment of Becton, he unholstered his firearm almost two seconds after those two young men began backing away from him. About ten seconds later, as Becton continued to sit on the ground where he left her, Corporal Casebolt again grabbed her and forced her down, pushing her face into the ground and planting a knee in her back as she cried. The kids now have a story about an officer, and it may well be one that sours their faith in police for years to come.

Every policing professional I’ve ever spoken to has made the same point about these kinds of situations, which is that a police officer shouldn’t unholster his gun unless he or she may need to and is prepared to use it. You don’t just pull it out to show who’s in charge or to stop people from disrespecting you. Similarly, police routinely have to deal with people who are angry, disrespectful, possibly menacing or maybe just high and acting erratically. The guns are there for a reason. But every time a gun comes out it can lead to a chain of events that ends in the injury or death of a civilian at the hands of the state with no due process or adjudication of any sort. The stakes are high. When it happens it has to be because it needs to happen. Culture war chest thumping is exactly the wrong prism.

Meanwhile, Stoughton focuses on just what quality, professional, community-protecting police work can look like.

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