Blame the Police

Sandra Bland’s arrest and death are a national scandal. The police are responsible.

Trooper Brian Encinia points a stun gun at Sandra Bland as he orders her out of her vehicle, in this still image captured from the police dashboard camera video from the traffic stop of Bland’s vehicle in Prairie View, Texas, on July 10, 2015
Trooper Brian Encinia points a stun gun at Sandra Bland as he orders her out of her vehicle in this still image captured from the police dashboard camera video from the traffic stop of Bland’s vehicle in Prairie View, Texas, on July 10, 2015.

Photo via Texas Department of Public Safety/Handout via Reuters

On July 13, three days after she was arrested following a routine traffic violation, police found Sandra Bland dead in her Waller County, Texas, jail cell. According to surveillance video, a guard saw her alive at 7 a.m. that morning, and she spoke to jail staff an hour later about making a phone call. At 9 a.m., however, guards found her in a “semi-standing position” hanging from a metal-shaped hook, with a plastic trash can liner around her neck. Authorities say it was a suicide.

Bland’s family is skeptical. While Bland had said in a Facebook post that she suffered from “a little bit of depression as well as PTSD,” relatives said they saw nothing to indicate despair or suicidal intent. At most, one of her sisters said she did not have any “medically diagnosed clinical depression” but did have “good and bad” days.

Which is all to say that—official account notwithstanding—we don’t know exactly how Bland died. But we do know how she got to jail to begin with. A minor traffic stop. And what’s clear from the evidence is that, while Bland’s ultimate death was a tragedy, her stop and arrest is a scandal, a testament to biased procedures and troubling problems in American policing. In the dashboard footage of her arrest released on Tuesday, Trooper Brian Encinia sees Bland—a black American woman from Chicago who had come to Texas to take a job at Prairie View A&M University—in her vehicle, speeds to catch up with her, and pulls her over after she fails to signal a lane change.

When he comes to her door to give her a ticket, Encinia says she seems “very irritated.” Bland says she is—“I am, I really am”—and explains herself: “I was getting out of your way … so I move over, and you stop me. So I am a little irritated, but that doesn’t stop you from giving me a ticket.” Encinia asks if “she’s done” speaking and follows up with another question. “You mind putting out your cigarette?” he asks impatiently.

“I’m in my own car. I don’t have to put out my cigarette,” she says in response. She’s right—cigarette smoking is legal, motorists aren’t obligated to obey ancillary commands, and police can’t detain you longer than it takes to process a ticket, absent reasonable suspicion of a crime—but that doesn’t stop Encinia from escalating and extending the encounter. He demands she leave the car, and when she refuses, he says he will “yank” her out of the vehicle and threatens to use a stun gun. “I will light you up,” he says.

At this point, it’s worth saying, we enter a legal gray zone. It’s true that, as my colleague Mark Joseph Stern notes, “The Supreme Court has held that during a routine traffic stop, officers may ask drivers to exit their cars for the sake of safety.” But Encinia was giving Bland a ticket to sign when he asked her about the cigarette and didn’t have any reason to suspect her of another crime or of being a threat. Still, according to Stern, “by verbally refusing to comply with Encinia’s detention, Bland resisted arrest under Texas law, thereby committing a misdemeanor.” And even if that arrest was illegal, Texas law declares that it’s no excuse. When Encinia says he is “giving a lawful order,” he’s right.

Soon after this, Bland is outside of the car, handcuffed and shouting insults at the officer. In the part of the stop that’s outside the view of the camera, the two get into a scuffle, which ends with her on the ground. “You just slammed me, knocked my head into the ground,” she says. When Bland curses and says she has epilepsy, Encinia replies, “Good.”

In his arrest report, Encinia doesn’t mention the cigarette but says that Bland was “combative and uncooperative” and placed in handcuffs for “officer safety.” That this contradicts the dashboard camera is evidence against the wide view that video surveillance will alter bad officer behavior. Mandatory cameras won’t stop officers who want to use force under the pretext of a person resisting arrest. Indeed, there’s growing evidence that many “resisting arrest” claims are a cover for bad police behavior.

Texas law enforcement officials repudiated Encinia’s behavior, stating he had violated “procedures regarding traffic stops and the department’s courtesy policy.” With that said, this encounter fits with what we know about traffic stops. Nationwide, police use two kinds of vehicle stops: traffic safety stops to deal with violations like speeding or driving under the influence, and stops to root out crime and criminal behavior. In the former, according to Pulled Over: How Police Stops Define Race and Citizenship, police target the behavior and move on, regardless of race, gender, or age.

In the latter, police use more discretion. They search for minor infractions—driving too slowly, malfunctioning lights, failure to signal—which become pretext for an intrusive search of driver and vehicle. “Virtually all of the wide racial disparity in the likelihood of being stopped,” note the book’s authors, “is concentrated in one category of stops: discretionary stops for minor violations of the law.”

Because these stops come with searches and impromptu interrogations, they are far more likely to end in arrest. It’s what happened with Walter Scott in South Carolina (pulled over for a broken tail light and subsequently shot in the back by an officer), and it seems to have happened with Sandra Bland, who changed lanes without the proper signal.

On top of all of this, there are the less dramatic—but still egregious—elements to the story. Why did Encinia omit parts of the encounter in his report and pin escalation on Bland? Likely because he could ordinarily get away with it. Why was Bland in jail for three days? Because in many jurisdictions, it is impossible to get bail on a weekend. There are also larger questions: How often does this happen? How many people are placed in jail by aggressive cops for traffic stops and “resisting arrest”? And assuming Encinia’s actions were legal, should we rethink the scope of legality for officer conduct? Is it OK that, in the face of excessive and capricious police demands, you have little recourse?

Encinia has been placed on administrative duty, and Sandra Bland’s family has asked for an independent autopsy of her death. The FBI is also investigating, as are the Texas Rangers. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas has asked the Justice Department to open an inquiry, and activists want greater oversight for the state and local investigations, citing past allegations of racism against the Waller County sheriff. A grand jury will decide whether Bland was murdered or she died of a suicide. Unfortunately, the best odds are that no one will face consequences or accountability for her arrest, jail time, and death.

Either way, the police bear moral responsibility for Bland’s death. Trooper Encinia chose to pull her over for a minor infraction. He chose to escalate the situation, and he chose to go from writing a ticket to making an arrest.

Yes, Bland could have been less irritated, and she could have obeyed the command to put out her cigarette. But it’s not illegal to be frustrated with the police, and it’s not a crime to smoke. Moreover, it’s an officer’s job to remain calm and resolve situations without additional conflict. It’s not an imposition to expect as much from men and women entrusted with the right to detain and to use lethal force.

Think of it this way: If you are inclined to blame Bland for her arrest (and by extension her death), then you’re sanctioning an America where police command total deference, where you have to obey regardless of what you’ve done or what’s the law. You might want to live in that America. I don’t.