The McKinney Cop's Barrel Roll Is Worth Discussing

June 10th 2015

Update: 6/12/15: Since this piece was published on June 10, readers have taken issue with the original post's assumption that former McKinney, Texas officer Eric Casebolt's tuck-and-roll in the beginning of the video was an intentional move. While the video evidence is inconclusive––Casebolt's feet are out of frame right before he either trips or ducks into a roll––it is possible, even probable, that he tripped in his unnecessary haste, and the post has been updated to reflect this. Whether he tripped or not is still disputable, whether his approach was responsible is not. As University of Baltimore criminologist Jeffery Ian Ross told the Washington Post: "I see an officer wanting to gain control of the situation all by himself. The officer does look like he tripped, and I suspect that that just added to the adrenaline rushing through his body at the time." 

It's easy to find humor in the action-movie barrel roll executed as former McKinney, Texas police officer Eric Casebolt, recovers from what could've been a trip as he sprinted to respond to a call about a rowdy pool party last Friday. 

Taken by itself, the scene seems vastly inappropriate, but also harmless -- even endearing in a strange way. But the viewer's smile fades as the video plays on, and Casebolt chases kids that look barely older than 15, cursing at them and at a tense climax, pulling his gun out and waving it around. The video concludes with Casebolt wrestling a teenaged bikini-clad bystander to the ground, visibly pulling her hair, his knee pressed between her shoulder blades. 

Casebolt's behavior was the latest example of overbearing police tactics meted out in an unwarranted setting. It fell neatly into place in a string of racially-charged police violence that has sparked a nation-wide conversation surrounding the use of force, simmering racial tensions, and a militarized police force. But the run-up to his tuck-and-roll provided a glimpse into a particular mindset of policing using unnecessary tactics, and informed with an action-movie zeal.

In April, the Washington Post's Radley Balko wrote a piece that included a handful of police department recruitment videos harping on what could be called barrel-roll policing. Many of the videos seem to sell the potential for violence, and the thrill of being a gun-wielding napper of bad guys. One video, from the Hobbs, New Mexico police department largely consists of footage of officers shooting at things, driving an armored vehicle, and conducting SWAT-style raids on a house.

The Post asks: 

Now ask yourself: What sort of person would be attracted to a career in law enforcement based on the images and activities depicted in that video? And is that the sort of person you'd want wearing a badge and carrying a gun in your neighborhood?

Probably not. 

Balko goes on to observe that the citizens the video courts is not the only problem or concern here; it goes deeper into the fabric of the departments themselves, and the police officials who want to highlight those particular aspects of policing and put them on display for the community. This gets at a complaint that has been lodged against numerous departments across the country by concerned citizens and the news media in recent months: the overbearing culture of policing, not necessarily individual actors, that has people scared. 

In McKinney, officials told reporters Tuesday that Casebolt's actions were "indefensible" and that he was an anomaly that day. "I had twelve officers on the scene, and eleven of them performed according to their training," McKinney police chief Greg Conley said at a press conference. "They did an excellent job."

But a culture of the sort of policing we've seen more and more of in cities across the country over the past year can be pervasive. In Texas, one need only look to Denison, a town about 40 minutes by car from McKinney, to spot another over-the-top recruitment ad. This one is replete with shots of SWAT-style operations, night-vision goggle-view, and even a shot of an armed man depicted through the cross hairs of a sniper's scope. It seems somehow more sinister with the addition of an abrasive dub-step soundtrack.

These videos seem to reflect war-zone-like images from Ferguson, Mo. that shocked the nation a little under a year ago. But as the public –– these days by way of cell phone video –– becomes increasingly aware of the dangers an overbearing police force, bristling with army-grade weaponry, pressure on a seemingly unchecked system is getting stronger. 

And it's having a tangible effect. Many of the officers implicated in wrongdoing in cities like Baltimore, and Charleston, S.C., are actually being held accountable for their actions. And last month, President Barack Obama announced bans on some military-style equipment, like armored vehicles, camouflage uniforms, high-powered weapons like bazookas, and ammunition higher than .50-caliber, which local departments were allowed to acquire through a federal provisions program. 

The announcement came as the latest top-down effort by the administration to smooth relations between police departments and the citizens they are enlisted to protect. The picture of policing painted by recruitment videos like the ones above, in addition to recent high-profile incidents, has not aged well, and this idea of policing seems on the cusp of being remade due to demands form both the public and the federal government.

"We are, without a doubt, sitting at a defining moment in American policing," Ronald L. Davis, director of the Justice Department's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services said last month. 

"We have a unique opportunity to redefine policing in our democracy, to ensure that public safety becomes more than the absence of crime, but it must also include a presence for justice," Davis continued.

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