Eric Casebolt -- the officer involved in the altercation with teenagers at a pool in McKinney, Texas, last Friday -- has resigned. The McKinney police chief has called his actions "indefensible." Still, some in the media and elsewhere may feel inclined to defend Casebolt.
If they care about law enforcement and freedom, they shouldn't.
To be sure, the outsourcing of violence from individuals to the state in the form of police -- as opposed to people settling vendettas on their own -- is one of the greatest inventions of modern human society. It's no coincidence that the places with the highest degrees of gang violence in America are the places where people don't trust cops. And it is precisely because of the police's importance to society -- not in spite of it -- that citizens must not give police officers carte blanche.
Let's review what unfolded in McKinney.
A resident with access to the community's private pool threw a party with loud music and invited more people than were allowed under the rules of the local homeowners association. The loudness of the music and the size of the party were violations of the HOA agreement, but because the party-goers were guests of someone with legitimate legal access to the property, they were not trespassing. The only "law-breaking' apparently was a violation of a contract, specifically a violation of the HOA agreement on pool usage. HOA disputes are notoriously testy but are usually safely arbitrated between community members without police involvement.
Witnesses, both black and white, say the cops were called after some white residents started shouting racial slurs at the African American party-goers, leading to an argument. The officers' arrival was not welcomed -- and was greeted with rude remarks -- in part because cops are rarely welcome at parties (as any frat boy can tell you), but more significantly because the party-goers had not committed any crime and had already been called racial slurs.
No one envies the cop for having to deal with this situation, and situations such as this one are among the reasons why being a cop is one of the toughest jobs in America, a job that deserves to be compensated generously when done well.
But here's the important thing: telling a cop to " ... off" is not illegal. Even getting in the officer's face and saying " ... off" is not illegal. It's protected speech under the 1st Amendment. The rules of military engagement do not apply.
The 1st Amendment, including its allowances for people to talk back to police, exists because sometimes authority figures throw their weight around when no crime is being committed. Authority cannot be used without the mandate of law, and if it is, it's tyranny.
Casebolt's escalation of the situation was, at the least, unprofessional, but by detaining people without reasonable suspicion that they had committed a crime, he broke the law. By throwing someone around who was exercising her 1st Amendment rights, he broke the law. And when an officer of the law breaks the law, it undercuts other law enforcement officers who are trying to do the right thing.
Because police forces are so essential to a free society, and because in a democracy their use of force is explicitly a reflection of the will of the people, that use of force must be held to a high standard. And if an officer uses force in contradiction of the law, it is a violation of the trust society has placed in him.
This analysis may sound abstract, at least in part, because it’s easy to say these things when working in a violence-free profession. But it’s also important to remember that even with a few high-profile, tragic incidents, research shows that being an American police officer, while stressful, is less dangerous than being a garbage collector. It isn’t a war zone out on America’s streets, contrary to what we see in TV shows and movies. In fact, in 2013 more officers died in traffic accidents than because of gunfire or other violence.
When a police officer violates the law and punishes people who have not broken the law themselves, it undermines police everywhere -- and, in so doing, undermines one of the foundations of society. It's an affront to the people whose rights were unduly violated, to law-abiding law enforcement officers, and to the society itself. If we truly care about law and order, then, we must make sure that incidents such as what we saw in McKinney simply do not happen in America, anywhere.
To do otherwise would be indefensible.