In a widely shared video released over the weekend from McKinney, Texas, a police officer sprints toward a crowd of teenagers at a pool party, trips and recovers into a barrel roll while clutching a heavy flashlight in broad daylight. At one point, the officer, who has been identified by media outlets as Sgt. Eric Casebolt, pulls out his gun after subduing a 15-year-old girl in a swimsuit.
Meanwhile, a second officer, who has not been identified, can be seen in the video calmly walking up to a group of teenagers and talking to them about how startling it is for police when suspects run.
“He’s educating,” Seth Stoughton, assistant professor of law at the University of South Carolina, told Al Jazeera. “Then the other officer [Casebolt] takes center stage, walks up cussing out the kids with loud verbal commands and waving his flashlight around.”
The difference in the actions of the two officers during the confrontation — one whose aggression escalates the situation, the other whose demeanor defuses it — highlights how the need to establish dominance by some members of law enforcement can inflame a situation, especially if there is real or perceived bias on the part of an officer.
“The mindset, I think it’s really important — there is one officer calmly explaining things to a group of kids, engaging, educating, and no one is fighting or running or cursing at him,” Stoughton said. “Then enter Officer Casebolt, who is taking a very assertive, aggressive and demeaning tone — ‘Get your ass across the street!’”
Police officers face real threats in the line of duty, and there is an element of uncertainty when crowds outnumber officers, so police are taught early on about the need to establish command over a situation.
“In police training, officers watch videos showing other officers getting killed after failing to control the scene,” said Joseph Giacalone, a retired detective sergeant in the New York Police Department who is now a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
In the video, Giacalone explained, Casebolt "went up the use of force continuum. The video shows him give orders, use his command voice, use curse words, and he got caught up in the moment. I won’t fault him for that.”
But in this case, the level of aggression may have been inappropriate. Although he agreed with Casebolt’s objective to establish control over the situation, Giacalone said the officer may have gotten carried away.
“He came in probably a little too strong for that type of situation, but we don’t see the entire video … so to make a complete decision that he was totally wrong, we would have to see all of it,” Giacalone said.
Others experts were alarmed by Casebolt’s swearing at the teenagers, which is audible in the video. “It shows disregard to the public,” said De Lacy Davis, a former police officer and a founder of the National Coalition of Law Enforcement Officers for Justice Reform and Accountability, a police reform group of mostly black and Latino former and current officers. “You tell them to 'get your ass on the ground,' it means you don’t see them as humans or worthy of being respected.”
The aggressive tone likely exacerbated the situation, Stoughton said, leading to a battle of wills that the officer felt he needed to win. “Officers need to be trained to approach situations differently, in some situations you want the officer to establish unquestioned command,” Stoughton said. “In other situations, you can take a much softer touch.”
As the confrontation escalates, Casebolt gets into an argument with a 15-year-old African-American girl who apparently did not comply with his command. Casebolt then pins her to the ground by kneeling on her back.
Although training may focus on establishing control of a situation, some experts say the video shows that bias also plays a role in the decisions that officers make during a confrontation.
Davis questions whether the officer would have used the same level of force in a similar situation with white teenagers. “What crime did she commit? After we find out, the question becomes is it an offense that requires the use of deadly force?” Davis asked. “In communities of color or poor communities, police officers are often aggressive first then later figure out the situation.”
As authorities in McKinney launch their investigation of the incident, advocates for reform say that changing how police interact with people of color requires a different approach to training, rather than just more of the same.
For Stoughton, there are three prongs to police reform — training, culture and accountability. “You need all three to prevent the situation like this one from happening again,” Stoughton said. “This is really a learning opportunity for police agencies."
He added: "What I would like to see in police departments across the country tomorrow is officers and recruits watching this video and having a discussion about how it could have gone better.”