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Texas pool party gets out of hand, but those involved deny racial overtones

MCKINNEY, Texas — Benet Embry just wanted a respite from the heat when he went to his neighborhood pool Friday. Talking to CNN Monday about the national story that rolled out of that simple, mundane summer activity still has him pretty well dismayed.

The 43-year-old African-American has lived in Craig Ranch, a planned community, for eight years. It’s a nice place. Racially diverse. People get along there.

Thinking back on the pool party, he might have known it would be crowded. The invite to the party had earlier caught fire on Twitter and social media. Craig Ranch’s strict homeowners’ association rules prohibit bringing more than two guests to the pool.

So when crowds of teenagers showed up, huddling by the gate and shouting to let them in, things got out of hand. Some kids jumped over the fence, Embry said. A security guard tried to get them to leave but was outnumbered, so the guard called police.

Police would arrive, and one officer seen on a video later posted to YouTube, would be placed on administrative leave. The officer cursed at several black teenagers, yanked a 14-year-old girl wearing only a bikini to the ground and knelt on her back. He also unholstered his firearm and chased teenage boys as they approached him while he was trying to control the girl.

Shortly after the approximately seven-minute video hit YouTube, many on social media alleged that the white officer was racist. The Texas NAACP called meetings because members suspected as much, its president, Gary Bledsoe, said on CNN Monday.

Embry disagrees.

“Let me reiterate, the neighbors or the neighborhood did not call the police because this was an African-American party or whatever the situation is,” he said. “This was not a racially motivated event — at all. This whole thing is being blown completely out of proportion.”

McKinney Police Chief Greg Conley told reporters Sunday that several callers described fighting at the pool. At least 12 officers responded. Someone shot a YouTube video of what happened after they arrived, including the officer who has been placed on administrative leave, running after teenagers and conducting himself in a way that Conley said “raised concerns.”

“I may or may not agree with everything that the police officer did, but I do believe he was trying to establish order. I am thankful to God that nobody got hurt,” Embry said, adding that it made him feel uncomfortable to see an officer kneel on a teenager in a bikini and wave his gun at other teens.

A mother who was at the party gave a similar account. She spoke with her back to CNN’s camera and didn’t want to be identified.

“Nobody said anything about race,” she said. “It was not a problem.”

But a group of activists standing outside the McKinney Police Department on Monday told a different story.

“We’re here today because of the unethical misconduct and racial misconduct of a police officer here in the city of McKinney,” said the Rev. Ronald Wright of Justice Seekers Texas, who told reporters he heard over the weekend from the young man who filmed the YouTube video of the incident.

“The first thing that came out of his mouth was, ‘This was about race,’” Wright said.

The officer involved should be disciplined and the Justice Department should investigate, the activists said.

Jahi Adisa Bakari said some of the police officers who responded to the situation handled it appropriately. But not the officer shown in the video, who he accused of hitting his 13-year-old daughter as she went to help her friend.

“I’m not indicting the entire Police Department, because I saw some people doing the right thing. I saw the officers actually trying to keep the matter right,” he said. “This guy was just out of control. He should be drug tested, then fired. He shouldn’t keep his job.”

Bakari said he gives the officer credit for just one thing. Even though he had his gun out, he never opened fire.

“I don’t know how he pulled it together at that moment. I thought it was over at that point. . … Had he done that, McKinney would have been another Ferguson 100 times over,” he said.

Jordan Gray, an African-American 16-year-old who was at the pool when the police arrived Friday, said comparing McKinney to Ferguson, Missouri — where protests erupted after the shooting death of unarmed teen Michael Brown last summer — just isn’t right.

“It’s just separate events happening,” he said.

The situation spun out of control because of improper police practices, he said, but he said the situation had nothing to do with race.

“It was just a young girl put on the ground against her will and that’s all it was. It was not racism. It wasn’t none of that. It seemed like racism because he put down all the black people and all the white people were walking around freely. … The officer was so out of control that he didn’t know what he was doing seemed like racism,” Gray said.

CNN law enforcement analyst and former FBI Assistant Director Tom Fuentes criticized the officer’s treatment of the girl.

The officer appeared to be “running around escalating” a situation that should have quickly calmed, he said. There was “no justification” he could discern from the video for the way she was treated.

Georgia criminal defense attorney and former police officer Phil Holloway said on CNN Monday that he felt the officer was escalating the situation.

“In addition to being unprofessional, I cannot conceive of why he would pull his weapon out under those circumstances,” Holloway said.

Harry Houck, a retired New York Police detective, agreed with Holloway. “That officer was totally out of control.”

Two McKinney police officers are investigating the police interaction with the teenagers.

The department had not identified the officer.

CNN law enforcement analyst Cedric Alexander cautioned that one video doesn’t tell an entire story. He said officers were likely dealing with a lot of teenagers running around and not obeying basic orders to disperse.

“I thought the kids were not compliant whatsoever,” said Alexander, who is the public safety director of DeKalb County, Georgia and president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives.

“That in itself is a problem. Those kids attempted to overtalk the police.”

Alexander said he would not “demonize” or second-guess the McKinney officers based on the video.

However, he said, the officer who wrestled the girl to the ground could have controlled his temper.

“They are teenagers and we are the professionals,” he said. “You can’t allow emotions to get in the way.”

CNN legal analyst and attorney Paul Callan said more must be learned about exactly what police were told in calls.

“The nature of the police response should be proportionate and appropriate to the perceived threat,” he said.

But the officer taking out his gun might be justified, Callan said, because he could have reasonably assumed the young men who approached him to be a real threat.

But when the teenagers scattered and ran, the police went to an “inappropriate Texas roundup of all fleeing juveniles,” Callan said.

He said the teens’ panic appears to be a result of overreaction because of the officer’s aggressive demeanor.

And the girl’s treatment, he said, appears to be punishment for her attitude rather than any particular crime.

CNN’s Nick Valencia reported from McKinney, Texas. CNN’s Ashley Fantz and Catherine E. Shoichet reported from Atlanta. CNN’s Faith Karimi, Jason Morris, Devon Sayers and Chandler Friedman contributed to this report.