McKinney pool party lawsuit: A curb on police violence against teens?

A number of incidents involving police brutality and black teenagers have made headlines recently. Now, a Texas teenager is suing her town on the claim that it failed to train its officers properly. 

Mike Stone/Reuters/File
Hundreds of protestors in McKinney, Texas, in 2015 call for the firing of police officer Eric Casebolt, seen in a video throwing a bikini-clad teenage girl to the ground and pointing his pistol at other youths at a pool party disturbance.

More than a year after a white police officer grabbed a black girl and slammed her to the ground as she tried to leave a pool party, the Texas teenager is bringing a $5 million lawsuit against her city, alleging that failure to properly train police personnel led to a discriminatory and dangerous practice.

The Black Lives Matter movement has shed light on police shootings that have killed dozens of unarmed black men, but cameras have also captured several incidents where officers apparently use excessive, but nonfatal, force on minority teens in schools or communities. The incidents have ushered in a debate as to whether racist officers or poor department policies are to blame for the high-profile clashes between law enforcement and young people caught on camera and shared on social media.

An attempt to bring criminal charges against the Texas officer failed, but a civil suit that takes aim at the institution rather than an individual could have broad-reaching impact, leading to a restructuring of the department’s leadership and training policies as well as redirecting the national conversation, Susan Bandes, a law professor at DePaul University in Chicago, says.

“The message suits like that send is very different from an indictment or firing of an individual,” she tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview Thursday. “It says, in her view at least, that this is a violation of her constitutional rights. That this isn’t just one individual acting against another individual.”  

For years, various civil rights complaints have made their way through the courts to find success and directly impact communities.

“There have been many successful examples of that,” Professor Bandes adds. “It’s really one of the most powerful ways to go beyond just compensating an individual when a police department can be shown to be engaging in something that they should know better than. It’s a very powerful weapon.”

The complaint, filed last month by 16-year-old Dajerria Becton and her legal guardian, stems from an incident that occurred in 2015 at a pool party in McKinney, a city just over 30 miles north of Dallas. When police responded to a disturbance report, officer Eric Casebolt approached the group of black teenagers and began cursing and waving his weapon. He grabbed Dajerria and slammed her face into the ground before forcefully straddling her and shoving his knees into her back and neck as he tried to restrain her. She was never accused of a crime at the scene.

Another teen captured the incident on video (video contains explicit language) and later posted it to YouTube. The scene went viral, with many decrying the actions as another brutal, race-based and disproportionate response on part of law enforcement.

"Civil rights were violated," Attorney Kim Cole, representing Dajerria said at a press conference on Wednesday, according to CNN. "When you're in trouble, you should be able to rely on law enforcement to assist, not to have them attack you."

Mr. Casebolt was placed on administrative leave following the incident and resigned from his position as a corporal for the police department soon after. A grand jury did not bring charges against him.

But a civil rights suit like this, which focus on customs and policy, could have a different outcome. Such suits have the potential to bring significant change by arguing that police departments aren’t acting under constitutional provisions or aren’t following their written policies. A similar suit brought an end to New York City’s stop-and-frisk policy, which disproportionately targeted blacks and Latinos, and others have been filed recently against police departments and cities where unarmed black men were fatally shot.

The suit also alleges that the officers responded differently to the disturbance call regarding black teens than they would have if white teens had been at the scene.

McKinney officials have denied the allegations and intend to fight the suit.

"The City of McKinney denies the claims alleged against it and the McKinney Police Department, and as such, will vigorously defend the recently filed lawsuit," a statement from the city says. "McKinney prides itself in cultivating the highest standards of training and professionalism for our officers, and it strongly believes that its standards and training will withstand legal challenge."

Despite the evident video footage of the incident, the suit might not be an easy win for Dajerria. She’ll have to prove that the department, not just the officer, failed to protect her rights and those of other minorities, Bandes says. That will require finding additional evidence or exposing poor policies engrained in the department’s training literature. Since the incident, the department has begun foot and bike patrols of minority neighborhoods, working to build bridges between the community and police officers, The Dallas Morning News reported.

As cellphone cameras have proliferated in schools and communities, more of these incidents are being captured on video, frequently sparking outrage nationally. The same day this suit was filed, a North Carolina high school student captured footage of an officer lifting a girl and slamming her to the ground as she tried to break up a fight between her sister and another student. In many cases, experts say poor training is to blame.

"When you look at these incidents that have been all over the news, a lot of it goes back to training," Don Bridges, first vice president of the National Association of School Resource Officers and an SRO in Maryland’s Baltimore County, previously told the Monitor.

Similar to how a trend of police shootings has opened a federal investigation by the Department of Justice into multiple police departments, Dajerria's suit could set a trend and send a message about large issue in departments where proper training or sensitivities are lacking.

"There are a lot of different ways that these suits can help people understand patterns," Bandes says. "People can understand this is not just an issue of alleged misbehavior. In school, it’s very possible that black students are getting treated with a far greater measure than white students for the same sort of thing. The public education of this is really huge.”

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