My demographic niche, specifically “very late baby boomer,” missed out on the fight-the-man ethic of the 1960’s, so my view of the police has always been one of cautious respect. That view wobbles a little when I am on the receiving end of a ticket, but a policeman’s job is crucial to a civilized society, stressful and not particularly well paid. On a NewsHour segment last week the reporter gave a statistic that the life expectancy of a police officer is 10 years shorter than average. If policemen and women are going to give up 10 years with their grandchildren, the least I can do is make their jobs as easy as possible.
I had enough exposure to civil rights cases early in my career to understand that the law, as a general principle, gives the benefit of the doubt to police officers who injure the public. An officer can be held responsible for his acts but the standard is higher than regular negligence. Which makes sense. Who is going to do the job if the first thought when confronting danger is “how do I get out of this without being sued?” Juries extend this legal benefit of the doubt even further because civil rights plaintiffs often are not what one would characterize as “contributing members of society.”
All to say that in most of the recent “police crime” incidents that have dominated our news, my sympathies were with the officers even if procedural errors existed. I understood why the officers were not prosecuted and why the civil suits against them would likely fail or be settled for small sums. As a for instance, I am sorry that Michael Brown is dead. But if he had not robbed and assaulted a store clerk then openly defied and charged a police officer he would be alive. In other words, Michael Brown seemed to be a strange person to build a cause around.
I am having a much harder time understanding the actions of the berserk McKinney police officer in the video that has gone viral. I am familiar with the community in which the events occurred and lets just say that “the mean streets of Craig Ranch” is not a phrase I have ever heard. Craig Ranch is a tony enclave, complete with golf courses and high-end shopping. The whole point of Craig Ranch is a safe, ordered existence like the one in the famed Connecticut neighborhood of the 1970s book and movie. So a dispatch call indicating a teenage pool fight at Craig Ranch should not have raised too many red flags.
And by all reports, that call did not sound the bugle for most of the responding officers. In a news interview with a friend of the assaulted girl, the friend commented that several of the police “were trying to be helpful.” Officer Casebolt, however, was definitely not trying to be helpful; during the video he can be heard berating a group of kids about having to chase them around in the sun. Notably, the video does not show anyone running and particularly it doe not show the people who were the subject of Officer Casebolt’s diatribe running.
If the facts support Office Casebolt it is understandable that he does not like it when people run from him but that sort of conduct pretty much comes with the territory. Within minutes of arriving on a scene that looked to be well under control, however, the officer was proving the wisdom of fleeing by manhandling a young girl who did not run. This victim’s misdeed was not moving far enough away (can you sing “should I stay or should I go now?”) from the “crime scene” to make room for the rather large civilian wondering through the middle of that scene, apparently invisible to the cops.
Given how Officer Casebolt was treating the black teenagers, there could only be two reasons for the stranger’s invisibility: the civilian was an adult and he was white. I do not know Officer Casebolt or everything that went on at the scene, so I am not going to ascribe motives to him. What is manifest and undeniable, however, is that Officer Casebolt was on a power trip. The man was seriously jacked that things were not as they should be at Craig Ranch and he was going to set the world right by making examples of people who upset his world view. In doing so, he used excessive force to right some wrongs that appeared larger to him than anybody else.
Which brings me back around to how we should judge the police. We give the thin blue line the benefit of the doubt because there is a sound policy reason to do so. At some point, however, we have to look at the flip side of that coin. Left unrestrained, fallible humans will slide from enforcing the law into enforcing their law. It is easy to ignore that danger when rogue enforcement happens in the ghetto; when things get out of hand on the streets of Stepford we look at police conduct a little harder. And that distinction is wrong; the constitutional phrase in play here is that all citizens deserve “equal protection of the law.” If we are upset with how Officer Casebolt acted at Craig Ranch, we need to be just as upset when police enforce their own code in the Baltimore ghetto.