Sandra Bland was pulled over in Texas for a traffic violation, arrested for allegedly assaulting a state trooper, and three days later, found dead in her jail cell. An autopsy ruled her death a suicide, but her friends and family don’t believe that, and there have been too many mysterious deaths of black people at the hands of police for this not to look suspicious. And now that Texas officials have released the dashcam video of Bland’s arrest, absolutely nothing is settled.
Texas officials released police dashcam video Tuesday, showing Sandra Bland’s traffic stop and arrest on July 10. While it doesn’t offer the least bit of insight into how she ended up dead in a Waller County Jail cell three days later, it raises all sorts of Internet-scorching WTF questions about how Bland ended up in that jail cell in the first place.
It’s a pretty depressing clusterfuck that could have been de-escalated at several points in the encounter, but just got worse and worse. We’ll let The Guardian do the play-by-play on the video’s contents:
In the supplied video, trooper Brian Encinia’s police car, pulling away from an earlier traffic stop, does a U-turn and follows Bland’s car for about 30 seconds, stopping her after her car changes lanes to the right without signalling.
After telling Bland why she has been stopped, asking some questions and then walking away, apparently to complete paperwork or make inquiries, the officer returns.
And yes, some of those questions seem somewhat intrusive for a lane change without signaling — how long have you been in Texas? Where are you headed from here? — but not all that out of the ordinary for a traffic stop.
Things start to go completely to crap when Encinia returns to Bland’s car. Once he established that Bland’s ID and insurance were in order and that she had no warrants for overdue library books, he could have brightened her day and avoided having his name in the national media by saying, “Ma’am, I’m going to give you a warning for changing lanes without signaling, and you have a nice day now.” And maybe someday Sandra Bland would have gotten her name in a local paper when she was promoted to a prestigious position at Prairie View A&M University, the end.
But that’s not what happened. In the video, yes, Sandra Bland was fuming, and already had An Attitude, which is never a good strategy when Officer Not Very Friendly comes up to your driver’s side window. We’re absolutely not saying that Bland had no reason to be angry, or that what transpired during her arrest somehow justifies her death, if it turns out not to have been, as police say, a suicide. It certainly does NOT. Fuming at a cop is not a crime punishable by death, as far we are aware.
Things got worse from there:
“You seem very irritated,” he says at one point after returning.
“I am, I really am,” she replies, “because I feel like it’s crap is what I’m getting a ticket for, I was getting out of your way, you were speeding up, tailing me so I moved over and you stopped me so yeah, I am a little irritated but that doesn’t stop you from giving me a ticket, so.”
The stop escalates into an aggressive confrontation when Encinia asks her: “You mind putting out your cigarette please, if you don’t mind.” She replies: “I’m in my car, why do I have to put out my cigarette?” The officer tells her: “Well, you can step on out now.”
And here’s where Officer Encinia has to go straight into Full Asshole Respect My Authoriteh mode — starting with his snotty “Are you done?” — because now Bland is resisting, and all hope of communication is gone. It’s about power now, and the mouthy black lady has to be put in her place for disobeying a lawful (if petty) order. Yes, cops can in fact tell you to put out your cigarette in your own car during a traffic stop, because they don’t want to be facing an angry person with a burning-hot object in their hands. But they don’t have to, especially if they’re planning on giving you a warning and sending you on your way. Even here, if Encinia had simply let Bland’s questioning of his order slide and given her that warning, everything would have been over. He had a choice, and he made a crappy one: He instantly lost his shit and ordered Bland to get out of her car.
And yep, that’s legal too. According to Supreme Court decisions in 1977 and 1997, police can indeed order you out of your car during a traffic stop, even if they have no reason to think you’ve committed a crime. So Encinia is technically, assholishly correct as he keeps yelling that he gave Bland a lawful order. Once he pulls his taser and threatens, “I will light you up,” she complies.
And sure, Bland could have put out her cigarette and said, “Sir, yessir.” But as Nick Wing at HuffPo points out, Encinia, the person with the badge and the gun, is the professional who needed to behave professionally here:
[To] place the responsibility on Bland is to treat Encinia like an undisciplined tinder box, programmed to explode when a spark sets him off. This was an unusual and distressing encounter for Bland, as interactions with police tend to be for many individuals. Encinia could tell that Bland was irritated, and says as much in a later conversation with his supervisor that can be heard on the video. Prior to the cigarette confrontation, Bland tells the trooper she feels she was pulled over unfairly, and says she only switched lanes to get out of his way as he sped up behind her.
For Encinia, dealing with people like Bland is his job — a difficult one at that, in which citizens can be rude and unappreciative. And part of that job is to de-escalate tension.
Encinia completely failed there, and even the Texas Department of Public Safety (tentatively and bureaucratically) could see that, as the Chicago Tribune reports. Encinia has been put on leave for “violating unspecified police procedures and the Department of Public Safety’s courtesy policy,” and while the DPS didn’t answer reporters’ questions about whether pulling the stun gun or dragging Bland out of the car were justified, DPS director Steven McCraw said:
Regardless of the situation — it doesn’t matter where it happens — a DPS state trooper has got an obligation to exhibit professionalism and be courteous … and that wasn’t the case in this situation[.]
As we say, this video doesn’t tell us a single thing about whether Sandra Bland committed suicide or was murdered. And Encinia was the one who had the responsibility to not escalate into Bastard Cop Mode. Civilians have the right to be pissed about getting pulled over by a cop, especially when they think they did nothing wrong, though the sad reality is that it’s probably best to smile and nod and save the yelling for later. And no, that’s not fair or just, but it’s better than giving a cop an excuse to bust you for resisting. We are reminded of the sad — and completely unjust, god dammit, yet seemingly necessary — advice New York Mayor Bill de Blasio gave his son on how to survive a police stop when you’re a black human being in post-racial America:
“What parents have done for decades who have children of color, especially young men of color, is train them to be very careful when they have …an encounter with a police officer,” de Blasio said on ABC’s “This Week.” […]
“With Dante, very early on, we said, ‘Look, if a police officer stops you, do everything he tells you to do. Don’t move suddenly. Don’t reach for your cellphone,’” said deBlasio. “Because we knew, sadly, there’s a greater chance it might be misinterpreted if it was a young man of color.”
No one should have to fear cops, and maybe they wouldn’t, if cops stopped giving them a reason to be afraid they might get beaten up or shot or somehow end up dead in police custody, as happens to African-Americans ALL THE TIME. Sandra Bland refused to be afraid, though, as this video clearly shows. And maybe that’s why she was really arrested.
Finally, there’s the question about the bizarre video glitches in the aftermath of the arrest. As Encinia talks to his supervisor, there’s this white car that keeps driving into the frame and then vanishing, or turning left, only to reappear once more, over and over, as the audio continues uninterrupted.
The Internet has decided that this is deceptive editing, though what on earth it would be covering up we can’t imagine, as Bland had already been taken into custody at that point. Texas officials say it’s a glitch resulting from the uploading of the video, and that they will re-upload the video without errors and make DVDs available to the press — all of which ignores the perfectly reasonable likelihood that the white car is actually a TARDIS. Or just a momentary red herring in a story where the real investigation needs to focus on what happened to Sandra Bland in that jail cell.