In police folklore, good cop/bad cop is an interrogation tactic used to elicit a confession from a suspect. But last weekend in McKinney, Texas, there was a very different version of good cop/bad cop — one that speaks to the promise and failure of American policing.
In a video that went viral, a white police officer responding to a disturbance at a local swimming pool, among other things, grabbed a bikini-clad African-American teenager, threw her to the ground, and pulled his gun on several of her friends trying to help.
It was yet another depressing example of the often arbitrary and violent manner in which African-Americans are treated by the police. It’s difficult to imagine this situation playing out the same way if the teenagers were white.
But there’s something else going on in this video.
The first officer we see is also a white cop, but he’s not yelling at anyone. Instead, in a calm, professional, almost folksy manner, he tells the group of kids, “Don’t take off running” when they see the police. He is listening to their concerns and engaging with them. In short, he is trying to de-escalate the situation, by treating the kids respectfully and with fairness.
Then, we meet Officer Eric Casebolt as he is literally dragging a young black man by his wrist to the ground. Casebolt spends the next several minutes berating, threatening, handcuffing, manhandling, and eventually drawing his weapon on the kids. He’s completely out of control, responding to constitutionally protected teenage defiance with anger and violence.
Jim Bueermann, president of the Police Foundation and a retired police chief, said that sergeants across America should be playing the video for their officers and asking, “What’s wrong with this picture?” Casebolt, says Bueermann, has inadvertently “provided police forces with a great training tool” to show how bad police behavior can escalate a situation — and what a good response should look like.
Still, the McKinney police force says Casebolt, who has since resigned, must “own his actions.” They also need to ask themselves, “Did we screw up in the hiring process? Was this person having problems that went undetected?”
Tracey Meares, a professor at Yale Law School, also says we should resist the “bad apple narrative,” because Casebolt’s behavior raises legitimate questions about training, policy on use of force, and perhaps above all, the monitoring of officers in McKinney. “Policing is a job that is incredibly stressful,” said Meares. “Incidents of suicide are inordinately high” among police, and health indicators are often less than optimal.
Officers often need to act like social workers while at the same time remaining ever vigilant in a society that is the most well-armed in the world.
It speaks to the need for better monitoring of officer wellness and the importance of annual mental health checks, said Meares. Indeed, Casebolt’s own lawyer defended his actions by noting that he’d dealt with a suicide fatality earlier in the day.
“When stress is induced, you can lose attachment to your training,” said Bueermann, but that’s an explanation more than an excuse. Police work after all “is a voluntary profession. You are expected to act better than other people. If you can’t, you’re in the wrong business.”
Indeed, the connective threads from Ferguson to Baltimore and North Charleston to McKinney are certainly about race — but they are also about cops acting badly. Wiping out the racial bias that drives these incidents is a laudable but difficult goal. Focusing on the actions of the “good cop” at McKinney and learning from the behavior of the “bad cop” — and what came before he was captured on a viral video — could perhaps prevent the next tragedy.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.