Since the events this past summer in Ferguson, Missouri, involving Michael Brown, or the more recent events involving Eric Garner on Staten Island, New York, much has been written and discussed about overly-zealous police officers. The failure by two grand juries to indict police officers involved in these two cases has led to violence and large-scale protests, both in the United States and abroad, a situation encouraged by President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder. As another recent example of excessive police tactics, Jacob Herrera, an eighth-grade student at Sam Houston Middle School in Amarillo, Texas, was arrested and detained overnight in late October. Prior to his detention, he was reportedly slammed face-first in the ground by a police officer during a school football game. What was the young man’s crime? He refused to remove his rosary beads from his neck.
Now one might wonder why Jacob’s rosary was so troubling to police officers. According to the Amarillo Police Department, rosary beads are symbols for association with gang violence, and students in the Amarillo Independent School District are not permitted to wear them on school property. However, Jacob’s rosary was given to him by his now-deceased brother, and it held great religious and sentimental value to him. As a result, Jacob had prior approval from the school’s principal that allowed him to wear rosary beads underneath his clothing while in school or at school events. But at the football game in October, Jacob was challenged by a police officer who told him to remove his rosary. Reportedly, Jacob did not want to remove the rosary, and tried to explain to the officer that he had permission from school officials to wear his rosary. But when Jacob refused to remove the rosary beads, police told Jacob to put his hands behind his back, which he then refused to do. As a result, Jacob was arrested, and required medical attention at a local hospital from injuries inflicted by the police officer.
Jacob’s mother, Lori Martinez, told a local television station the following:
My son passed away two years ago, 2012, and he was teaching Jacob, you know about God and how you know, he should wear the rosary to protect him. So Jacob believes that that rosary protects him and it is his remembrance to his brother.
Coming to Jacob’s aid, The Rutherford Institute, a Christian civil liberties law group, sent a demand letter to the Amarillo Independent School District on December 4, 2014, demanding that the district rescind its dress code policy that states that students may not wear anything deemed as “gang apparel” by local law enforcement. The letter also asked the school district to encourage law enforcement to drop its criminal prosecution of Jacob. Further, the lawyer letter asked the school district to issue a statement condemning the police department’s use of excessive force on young students. The Rutherford Institute founder John Whitehead said in a recent interview with The Christian Post:
I think it was excessive force. The school should not be allowing this to happen. He is just an eighth grader. I understand that this [could be seen as] a gang symbol, but you can’t repress the symbol. It is a matter of religious freedom and is a First Amendment right. I think that they are overreacting to the gang issues, and if you have somebody wearing it legitimately, yes, they should be allowed to wear it. I think it is an important issue or we wouldn’t be involved.
The Rutherford Institute has given the Amarillo School District until December 12th to respond, but no lawsuit has been filed at this time. I will continue to follow this story, but I do not think that most police are bad or racist, or that they are targeting black or Hispanic young men. But I learned long ago, growing up in a major Midwestern city, not to argue with a police officer if you don’t want to get hurt. I hope that Jacob will as well.