Forged in the Crucibles of Difference: The McKinney Texas Pool Party

It’s amazing how having something happen in your own backyard changes your perspective. When I first realized that the clip of police brutality was actually from a McKinney Texas pool party – you know, the place where I live – I was shocked. That kind of thing only occurs in the inner cities of large metropolitan areas (just how big did I think Ferguson, Missouri was?). That doesn’t happen here! But maybe it does. After all, I’m white and privileged. If it did happen here, it probably wouldn’t happen to me. And my ignorance (denial?) is part of the problem.

For those who don’t know: there was a party at a community pool and park (only a few miles from my house) to celebrate the end of school. Accounts are mixed about what exactly happened but what seems certain is that there were a number of black youth at the pool and, as teenagers do, they got unruly. Some white people started yelling racial epithets. A fight broke out between the racist name-callers and some black women and the police were called. One police officer, Eric Casebolt, got out of control: handling black teens roughly, cursing at them, threatening them with his gun, and throwing an unarmed black girl in a bikini to the ground and then kneeling on her back as she cried and screamed for her mother. No white teens, including the kid who filmed the incident, were treated in a similar manner.

So now we have all the predictable reactions. There are those who believe Casebolt used excessive force and should have resigned. On the other side are people who think the teenagers deserved what they got for “mouthing off” and failing to obey the officer’s orders to sit on the ground. These arguments aren’t nuanced to any degree and they aren’t helpful. This is a complicated situation and it cries out for a multi-faceted response. What I wish is that, instead of listening to the usual talking heads, we as a nation would stop pussyfooting around and get real about making changes. Regardless of which side you’re on, hopefully everyone can agree that the status quo isn’t working.

But let’s take race out of the equation for a second and look at what happened. Some teenagers were treated badly by an adult in authority. Sure, we can hand-wave all the excuses: he was already emotionally overwrought when he got there, was physically out of sorts (he mentioned he was hot and carrying around a lot of heavy equipment), and he lost his temper. But, rather than taking a moment to calm down and assess the situation, he abused some teenagers. This is absolutely unacceptable. Regardless of their antics (they’re teenagers which developmentally means they’re impulsive and sometimes make poor decisions), nothing they did warranted such a violent response. And for anyone who thinks otherwise, please ask yourselves two questions. First, if any adult other than a police officer threw a teenage girl in a bikini on the ground, twisted her arm and forcefully kept her there merely for “running her mouth,” would we even be having this discussion? No, we would not because that person would be arrested for assault. Second, if that girl were your daughter, wouldn’t you be outraged? So, regardless of race, what happened was deplorable.

Now let’s add race back in. Some people are trying to say that it wasn’t a racially biased incident. Of course it was. The whole problem started with some white people making racial slurs and it just escalated from there. One of the white agitators called 911, complaining that a lot of unwelcome black kids were in his neighborhood pool (there is an awful racist history of white people getting upset at black people using public pools). So, while the teenagers were acting up — and let’s ask the police just how many calls they get to break up teenager parties (I’m guessing lots) — white people started this whole debacle because they were being racist. Yet despite this fact, except for one of the white women being placed on administrative leave, none of them have paid any price for their actions but some of the innocent black party-goers sure did. And when he arrived, Casebolt didn’t bother to assess the true nature of the trouble. He hand-cuffed the white girl who came up to tell him what was going on (she had faced off against the racists) without listening to her and then ran off to confront the group he assumed was the problem. So there were tons of racial overtones to what happened and the commentary that followed has gotten even worse.

The McKinney Police Department stated that of the 12 police officers there, only one got out of control. This may be true but it isn’t really the point; we need to look deeper. When counseling couples or families, you try to avoid getting bogged down in the superficial details (the stories of arguments) or what we call the content. Instead, you work to see past this and get to the heart of the matter, which is what we call the process. That’s the only way true transformation occurs and that’s what needs to happen here. For way too long, our conversations about race have focused on the content (people double down on the details) and completely ignored the process. This has to change.

For example, in this situation, there were 11 other officers present who did not abuse the teens (content). However, Casebolt clearly felt comfortable enough to cuss, make his assumptions about who the perpetrators were and become violent. He operated the way that he did, secure in the belief that his fellow officers wouldn’t stop him. And they didn’t. We’re lucky that things didn’t get worse. So, the problem goes much deeper than Casebolt (process). And the problem spreads much wider than McKinney. We’re only the most recent city to have a problem. Unless we significantly alter the process, we won’t be the last.

What can we do? As is true with any problem, first we have to admit that we have one. So, let’s stop denying there is an issue. We have a problem with race relations in this country and this negatively affects police departments. When we accept that, we can move on. Some people already have. FBI Director James Comey gave a great speech last February about race. He admitted we have a problem. Former Attorney General Eric Holder acknowledged it as well.

But many local big city police chiefs won’t recognize that there’s a problem and neither will numerous white pundits, politicians or some members of the general public. They don’t want to concede that things are unfair and that the mainstream culture has long been flawed. They don’t’ want to admit that skin color matters in everything from healthcare and education to safety and justice. But it does and the behavioral scientific evidence for that is overwhelming. Implicit bias (your unconscious, unfiltered gut response) is a huge factor in how we treat others and it needs to be addressed, especially with people like police officers who deal with diverse communities.

Perhaps part of the issue is that people associate bias with a basic personality flaw. Maybe they believe that if they are biased, then they must be horrible people. It’s even possible that some of them don’t realize that what they’re thinking and saying is racist (or sexist or any other bias). But what if it doesn’t have to be that way? What if implicit bias doesn’t make you awful but just makes you human? And what if there is something you can do about it?

It turns out there is. There is an Implicit Bias Training seminar for law enforcement and at least 75 police departments nation-wide, including the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, have completed it. The LVPD recognized they had a problem, took steps to correct it and have had great success. Some of their good outcomes may stem from the idea instilled in the seminar that we all – every one of us – have bias and it doesn’t mean that we’re racist, sexist or any other ist. All is means is that we hold stereotypes based on our knowledge and experiences. That’s it. If we become concerned about these biases, we can change them.

And that’s the other piece of this. We have to be concerned enough to want to change. With all the outrage of late, it seems like maybe we are reaching that point. African-American communities are tired of burying victims of police brutality and police departments are drained from paying huge sums of money in victim compensation. Police officers are weary of being labeled as the bad guys and the public is fed up with the continual instances of shameful treatment. Are we concerned enough yet?

In his speech on race, FBI Director James Comey said, “There’s nothing more American than the conversation we need to have now about race.” I must respectfully disagree. The need for that conversation is over. It’s time for solutions. So, in my next blog post, that is exactly what I plan to offer.

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