“I will light you up,” Texas State Trooper Brian Encinia says, taser drawn as he orders Sandra Bland out of her car. Up until just a few seconds before that searing moment this traffic stop on a quiet Texas road seemed to be proceeding by the book. How did it spiral so completely out of control so quickly?
Many who watched the dashboard camera recording of Encinia’s encounter with Bland, released on July 21 by the Texas Department of Public Safety, quickly concluded that the trooper had little cause, not only to arrest Bland, who would be discovered deceased in her jail cell three days later, but to have pulled her over in the first place. Some saw evidence of racial profiling in the trooper’s decision to turn his cruiser around in pursuit of Bland’s car. Others were shocked at how Encinia himself seems to sharply escalate the confrontation after Bland’s laconic refusal to extinguish a cigarette, wondering if racism may have super-charged the spiraling conflict.
The trooper had been issuing a warning for an improper lane change; Bland explained that she only swerved, without indicating, to get out of his way as he accelerated toward her car. The confrontation ended in her arrest after an out-of-view scuffle and take-down. A traffic warning for improper lane-changing had transformed in seconds into a felony assault charge, a turn of events Bland herself marveled at in a voicemail left for a friend the next day as she struggled to put $5,000 together for bail.
"I'm still just at a loss for words, honestly, at this whole process," Bland said. "How did switching lanes with no signal turn into all of this; I don't even know."
Bland was unable to raise the bail and three days after her arrest was discovered lifeless in her jail cell. Texas authorities have reported that Bland committed suicide, twisting a plastic garbage bag around her own neck, but her family and friends have told national media that they have trouble understanding why this 28-year-old Chicago woman, who had just traveled to Texas to successfully conclude a job interview, would take her own life.
Whatever the investigation of her death concludes, the court of public opinion has already issued its own finding: the video of Bland’s takedown and arrest seems to many to depict an overreaction to a non-offense. This latest death at the hands of police or while under police custody, and the confrontation which led to it, has only contributed to a sense among many of police authority running amok, especially within the nation’s African-American communities where #BlackLivesMatter has become a rallying cry on social media. (Ed. note: currently seeking comment from a #BLM representative.) But how much is perception and how much a reflection of a real problem of out-of-control police enforcement on America’s streets?
A Good Stop?
Maria Haberfeld is the chair of the Department of Law, Police Science and Criminal Justice Administration at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. She acknowledges right off the bat that she is most likely to give police the benefit of the doubt in situations such as the one Encinia found himself struggling to contain.
Video evidence can be misleading, Haberfeld argues. “We are seeing a fraction, even if it’s a large fraction,” of what is taking place, she says. “Sometimes it is not so much what we are seeing, but what we are not seeing that makes a difference” in the legitimacy of a police action. Haberfeld explains that Encinia might have seen something out of camera range that made him apprehensive about his interaction with Bland.
She sees little to be concerned about in his decision to pull Bland over. “This is his job,” she says, “This is what he does; he drives in a car and patrols the highways….It is hard to read much into this.” She does not believe Encinia had a clear view of the person, much less the race of the person, driving the car he detoured to stop.
She adds that traffic stops can be the most dangerous interactions in a police officer’s career—a reason police may seem unreasonably tense during such encounters. (Just hours after Haberfeld made this observation an officer in Hayward, Calif., was gunned down in cold blood during a traffic stop.)
Haberfeld also was not put off by the officer’s insistence that Bland extinguish her cigarette. According to Haberfeld, police have been burned by cigarette butts during arrests; she highlighted one case in particular where an officer had a cigarette stubbed into his eye. “Police have been attacked with anything, really, a coke bottle, a cigarette, all kinds of things.”
She does allow that she found what transpired after Encinia, still seemingly composed, asks for Bland to put out her cigarette, troubling.
“I don’t understand it,” she says. Though different departments have different patrol guides, “threatening a person with a taser because of a traffic violation is inappropriate,” she says. “In an ideal world, I think it could have been de-escalated.
“I would [have liked] him to step back and call for back up and not engage the way he engaged. After all it was a minor traffic violation.”
What David Hurley saw in the stop was evidence of an inexperienced officer—Encinia has only been on the job for a little over a year—getting in over his head. Hurley is an Assistant Professor of Sociology & Criminal Justice at the Texas A&M University in Commerce, Texas. Hurley, who has a military background and worked as a police officer himself before his life in academia, found himself “extremely uncomfortable” about what he was seeing on Trooper Encinia’s dash-cam video.
Hurley believes Encinia’s encounter with Bland represents a “pretext stop.” He explains that is a more or less unofficial policy of finding a reason to pull a car over so that the patrol officer can check a person status in the system. “It’s a stop that they won’t get a ticket for but will allow you to check out someone’s status in the system.” That could explain Encinia’s decision to issue Bland a warning, not a ticket for a moving violation, before the encounter went south.
“The majority of [arrest] warrants are served through traffic stops,” Hurley says. “If I can pull someone over, I can find out more about them. It’s one of the unofficial ways of reducing crime rates.” To some that approach may come dangerously close to racial profiling. What after all first brought Bland to Encinia’s attention and so soon after he had just concluded a traffic stop?
“I would like to know why he did the U turn so quickly and went after someone else,” Hurley agrees. But just as you find there “are some lazy journalists and some active journalists,” he says, “you’ll find there are some officers that tend to be more active than others.”
Hurley classifies himself as an “active” during his prior life on the force. “It made my time go fast.”
What he finds indisputably troubling about the video confrontation “is how fast this could escalate,” Hurley says. “You pulled her over; you’re giving her a warning. Why do you care if she’s smoking in her car? That’s what I don’t understand.” He worries rookie mistakes may have contributed to an escalation that in turn leads to Bland’s arrest and what became her fatal incarceration.
“She’s not following the script, that ‘I am in charge and you will do what I say,’ and unfortunately for the officer, he did not have a Plan B. When she doesn’t recognize his authority, he doesn’t know what else to do except escalate.”
The Texas Department of Public Safety seems to agree with Hurley’s assessment. In the notice announcing the trooper’s temporary reassignment to administrative duties and the beginning of an investigation into his conduct during the traffic stop, it said: “The Department of Public Safety values and strives to demonstrate our commitment to protecting the public through our actions based on fairness, respect and courteously serving those we contact.
“In the preliminary review of the traffic stop that occurred in Prairie View on July 10, 2015, involving Sandra Bland, we have identified violations of the department’s procedures regarding traffic stops and the department’s courtesy policy.”
Interpretations of the traffic stop and arrest of Bland are following patterns of previously widely publicized police incidents involving use of force against African Americans, with many whites seeking to rationalize police actions and African Americans perceiving conflicts with police as evidence of entrenched racism within police culture.
Filip Wiecko, Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at Texas A&M University-Commerce can see the divide in his classes, which are attended by many men and women who are pursuing careers in law enforcement. “Many of my white students are quick to dismiss this type of law enforcement behavior as just a bad apple in the bunch or they often try to justify the actions. Many of my black students seem to wonder why the other students don't understand what they have always known and talked about.”
He adds, “Remember the incident at the pool here in Mckinney? After that video surfaced there was a dividing line between those who sided with the cops and those who sided with the kids or civil liberties in general.
“The people who like [the police] the most are the people who need them the least, and the ones who need them tend to distrust them (often with good reason) and act accordingly. It is no surprise then that people will either burn out or adjust their coping to deal with their job. This is what police culture is built on.”
Wiecko wanted to be clear that his opinions were his own only and not meant to represent Texas A&M-Commerce—an especially touchy point since Bland was on her way to Texas to accept a job offering at Prairie View A&M University, where she graduated in 2009. He sees a self-fulfilling prophecy at work in the rising tension between police and the nation’s African American communities because of these accumulating incidents of excessive or apparently excessive use of force. “The general mantra” among police, he says, “is that ‘only police understand the police.’ This is part of police culture.”
John DeCarlo, a colleague of Haberfeld’s at New York’s John Jay, is the former chief of police of Branford, Ct. But DeCarlo also put in 30 years on the job as a patrol officer and understands the job from both sides of the desk.
DeCarlo says, as in any profession, among the 765,000 police on the job in the United States, about 10 to 20 percent are doing exemplary work, the vast middle are doing an OK job, and at the other end there are perhaps 10 percent of police “who just don’t get it and don’t do the job well” who “maybe shouldn’t be cops” in the first place.
Because of the proliferation of both official recording devices in police cruisers and hand-held cell-phone cameras, America is often getting an unprecedented look at how that 10 percent malperforms on the job. Macho culture—women police are more likely to find ways to de-escalate tension during stressful encounters before force becomes inevitable—poor training and poor pre-screening contribute to how badly those officers look on camera, he explains. Compassion fatigue—a kind of secondary stress syndrome because of the incidents, tension and violence police are exposed to—can also be a contributor to violent interactions with the public.
DeCarlo is not willing to say if Encinia lands within that bottom 10 percent of police. “I don’t know his record,” he explains. Encinia may have “just lost it” or “had a bad day,” says DeCarlo. But whatever the state of Encinia’s mind when he met up with Bland or what his prior performance as a trooper had been, DeCarlo adds that he certainly understands why many people have come to believe the worst about the overall state of policing in America.
The last 18 months or so have been a rough time for the reputation of U.S. police, as the public in varying degrees of outrage or complacency has tracked the Eric Garner chokehold death in New York, the shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, the death while under police custody of Freddie Gray in Baltimore and many more.
“I am not going to be an apologist for bad policing,” DeCarlo says. “We need to do the job better.”
A recent Amnesty International report concludes the same. Amnesty researchers say U.S. police departments have use-of-force standards far below the norms of other advanced states, protocols that offer far too much discretion to officers on the streets: “The use of lethal force by [U.S.] law enforcement officers raises serious human rights concerns,” the report concludes, “including in regard to the right to life, the right to security of the person, the right to freedom from discrimination and the right to equal protection of the law.”
The A.I. report alleges, despite poor record keeping, the “limited information available…suggests that African American men are disproportionately impacted by police use of lethal force.”
It adds, “Police officers are responsible for upholding the law, as well as respecting and protecting the lives of all members of society. Their jobs are difficult and often dangerous. However, the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and countless others across the United States has highlighted a widespread pattern of racially discriminatory treatment by law enforcement officers and an alarming use of lethal force nationwide.”
There is a genuine lack of clarity about the level of police violence, justified or otherwise, taking place in the United States. Better statistics-keeping should allow the general assumption—that police are hardest in terms of violence on African-Americans—to be demonstrated or denied, but there are no dependable national stats kept about the number of people who die at police hands, even at the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The Washington Post explains:
Officials with the Justice Department keep no comprehensive database or record of police shootings, instead allowing the nation’s more than 17,000 law enforcement agencies to self-report officer-involved shootings as part of the FBI’s annual data on ‘justifiable homicides’ by law enforcement.
That number – which only includes self-reported information from about 750 law enforcement agencies – hovers around 400 “justifiable homicides” by police officers each year. The DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Statistics also tracks “arrest-related deaths.” But the department stopped releasing those numbers after 2009, because, like the FBI data, they were widely regarded as unreliable.
But some evidence of the legitimacy of Amnesty’s concerns can be found in a database tracking deaths by police now being maintained by the Washington Post. It reports that over the last 30 days (on July 24) 87 people have been shot to death by police nationally—79 in July so far—and 542 have been shot to death so far this year altogether. These are figures that surpass by multiple factors the numbers of people who die at the hands of police in other advanced Western states. The Post numbers do not include people who die of other reasons while in police custody—for example by taser. Amnesty International found that more than 540 people have been killed by police with tasers between 2001 and 2012.
A Racist System?
But even with better numbers, teasing out racism inherent in the system will still prove difficult. For one thing, there is no such thing as a national police system. There are more than 18,000 law enforcement entities across the nation, A&M’s Hurley points out. Each has its own “patrol guide,” the standard operating procedures which govern the justifiability of officers actions in the field.
Circling back to the video, Hurley points out how difficult it now seems to rationalize the felony assault charge that brought Bland to her deadly isolation in a Texas jail. He suggests that one way to uncover whatever racism may lurk within police procedures may be research into how many other such “felony assaults” can similarly be said to be the result of overcharging by police perhaps attempting to cloudy their own poor behavior on the job.
“If you want to see racism in the criminal-justice this might be where it shows up. Why is this woman charged with a felony,” Hurley asks. “This is almost a police-created felony.”
Those urging criminal justice reforms may believe they already have all the research they need to conclude that something has got to change: with more than 2.2 million people behind bars, the United States has the highest documented rate of incarceration in the world, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies. Home to 4.4 percent of the world’s population, the United States hosts more than 22 percent of its prisoners. While African Americans and Latinos make up 30 percent of the U.S. population, they represent 60 percent the nation’s inmates. The nation’s bail system, which in practice leads to huge numbers of low-income people remaining in jail while awaiting trial on even trivial offenses, is likewise in dire need of reform many now believe. That reform, if it comes at all, will come too late of course to have prevented Sandra Bland from languishing in a Texas jail cell.
Wiecko thinks training for police is generally good from a national overview—though some jurisdictions are much better than others; he wonders, however, if departments could do a better job pre-screening for the best candidates for the job.
“Removing them before they get in is best,” he said via e-mail. “Training is key, but we do plenty of it. Just like in [corrections] or the military it pays to front-load rather than clean up afterwards.”
And the secondary concern of training, according to Wiecko, “needs to be a constant process.” Why is the continuing ed for police so important? “If you have a bad day, you may not be as productive at your job, but a cop who has a bad day is in a very different position. They are armed; they are public figures; they are scrutinized, and so on.
“Keep in mind that the officer knew he was being recorded as is often the case in many of the [incidents] that have come up. So I doubt he was acting with real malice, but he might have been a bit of a hothead.” In other words, per Wiecko's prescription for reform, an officer who perhaps should never have been allowed into the uniform or one who needed better professional development to do his job right.
The nation’s police departments are facing a crisis of legitimacy, says John Jay’s DeCarlo. Bland’s death has only contributed to it. “But,” he asks, “how do we get it right in such a fragmented system?” When there’s 18,000 police departments in 50 states “you can’t have national standards.”
DeCarlo is a strong supporter of the criminal justice reforms recently proposed by President Obama, which include sentencing reforms—reducing the use of mandatory minimum policies and returning sentencing discretion to judges—and investments in community and education aimed at building up opportunity and preventing young people from heading down a criminal path.
At a more pedestrian level DeCarlo is also an advocate for body cameras for all law enforcement officers. “They’re not a panacea; they’re not going to fix everything,” DeCarlo says, “but they will go along way to holding people accountable.”
Restoring transparency and legitimacy are crucial, he says, to restoring public esteem. “The police can’t do the job unless the public perceives them as legitimate.” That is a key component of the effectiveness of policing in an open society when so few are on patrol on any given day to serve and protect so many, whether at the micro level on a country road in Texas or at the macro in attempting to continue the nation’s recent success in reducing violent crime.
“We police with the consent of the people,” DeCarlo says. “This is not some authoritarian state….The police are the public and the public are the police. In theory the community are responsible for their own policing.”