Sandra Bland's traffic stop became part of a national dialogue on race and police use of force

Editor's note: A Waller County Texas grand jury met for about 11 hours on Dec. 21 before announcing that no felony indictments would be issued against officials in the county sheriff's office or jailers in the treatment of Sandra Bland, who died on July 13 in the Waller County Jail in Hempstead, Texas. Her death has been ruled a suicide. At the time of her arrest, Ms. Bland was celebrating a new start in Texas with a new job. Three days later she was alone in a jail cell and facing the prospect of a felony conviction. The role of race and the possible abuse of police authority will continue to be a subject of public debate and further investigation by state authorities. That review should include a closer look at "pretext stops," the traffic equivalent of "stop and frisk" policies that have been abandoned as inherently discriminatory and unconstitutional.

“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?

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Many who watched the dashboard camera recording of Mr. Encinia’s encounter with Ms. Bland, released by the Texas Department of Public Safety a week after the July 10 stop, quickly concluded that the trooper had little cause, not only to arrest Ms. Bland, 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 Ms. Bland’s car. Others were shocked at how the trooper himself seems to sharply escalate the confrontation after Ms. Bland’s laconic refusal to extinguish a cigarette.

A traffic warning for improper lane-changing had transformed in seconds into a felony assault charge, a turn of events Sandra 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," she said. "How did switching lanes with no signal turn into all of this; I don't even know." 

Ms. Bland, a Chicago native in Texas for a job interview, was unable to raise the bail and three days after her arrest was discovered lifeless in her jail cell. 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. 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 says given the difficult snap decisions they have to make on the job she is willing to give police the benefit of the doubt in situations such as the one Mr. Encinia found himself struggling to contain.

Video evidence can be misleading, Ms. 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.

While many may be surprised by the demeanor of police caught on camera during traffic stops, Ms. Haberfeld explains these encounters can be the most dangerous interactions in a police officer’s career. Just hours after she made this observation, in fact, an officer in Hayward, Calif., was gunned down in cold blood during a traffic stop.

Ms. Haberfeld also was not put off by the officer’s insistence that Ms. Bland extinguish her cigarette. “Police have been attacked with anything, really, a coke bottle, a cigarette, all kinds of things,” she says.

She does allow that she found what transpired after Trooper Encinia asks for Ms. Bland to put out her cigarette troubling.

“I don’t understand it,” she says. “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.”

What David Hurley saw in the stop was evidence of an inexperienced officer—Mr. Encinia has only been on the job for a little over a year—getting in over his head. Mr. Hurley is an Assistant Professor of Sociology & Criminal Justice at the Texas A&M University in Commerce, Texas. Mr. Hurley, who has a military background and worked as a police officer before his life in academia, described himself as “extremely uncomfortable” with what he saw on Trooper Encinia’s dash-cam video.

Mr. Hurley believes Mr. Encinia’s encounter with Ms. 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’s status in the system. That could explain the trooper’s decision to issue Ms. 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,” he 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 Ms. Bland to the trooper’s attention?

“I would like to know why he did the U turn so quickly and went after someone else,” Mr. Hurley agrees.

What he finds indisputably troubling about the video is the rapid escalation of the confrontation. “You pulled her over; you’re giving her a warning,” Mr. Hurley says. “Why do you care if she’s smoking in her car?” He worries rookie mistakes led 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.”

 

Ferguson Revisited
Just shy of a month after Ms. Bland’s death, demonstrators in Ferguson, Mo., commemorated the shooting last year on Aug. 9 of Michael Brown that reignited smoldering concerns about race and policing across the country. A week of protests included some tense standoffs between police and demonstrators and an exchange of gunfire that left one teenager wounded and facing felony charges.

But even as this unhappy anniversary was observed a new police killing of an unarmed African American teen, this time in Arlington, Tex., on Aug. 7, suggested that the issue of the police use of force, particularly in African American communities, will continue to be a source of tension. These incidents, which have shocked the nation out of a kind of post-racial complacency, compelled Belleville, Ill., Bishop Edward Braxton to issue a pastoral letter on race a few months after the conflict in Ferguson erupted after Mr. Brown, 18 at the time of his death, was killed.

Bishop Braxton says he tries to approach such incidents, which he describes in an e-mail as “sad and tragic events…that are intensifying the racial divide,” as analytically as possible. There are, he says, “more than enough emotions about these events.”

Like millions of others, he watched the video of Sandra Bland’s arrest with increasing unease. 

“The people who say they were shocked by the video of her arrest obviously have not seen and heard what I have seen and heard since I went to the wake in Chicago of 14 year old Emmett Till, who was murdered in Mississippi in 1955,” he writes in an e-mail.

“I can only say that I am grateful that a video of the encounter exists. We may never know what exacerbated what should have been a minor incident into such an intense verbal confrontation. Some have concluded it was Ms. Bland’s refusal to extinguish her cigarette. The aggressive, angry, crude language of [Mr. Encinia] was certainly completely unprofessional.

“She did not have a weapon,” Bishop Braxton points out, “she was not threatening the trooper.” One nagging question remains, he adds: “Is there a connection between the manner in which she was treated, her possibly fragile emotional state and her presumed suicide?”

Interpretations of encounters between law enforcement and members of the African American community that end so badly can be starkly different along racial lines. Bishop Braxton says a gulf in experience and the absence of relationship are at the heart of that difference in perception.

He explains many white Catholics in America belong to parishes with few to no African American members; many live out family and friendships, lives and sacraments in complete isolation from the everyday realities of African Americans. “For the most part, many African-Americans and many European-Americans have completely different world views.”

Bishop Braxton, a Chicago native, has long lived on the sharp edge of those different world views. His parents had converted to Catholicism, and growing up as one of the few Catholic African American families offered sometimes isolating and painful experiences. As a seminarian he was dealt his share of petty humiliations because of his race. Many contemporary Catholics, he says, would be astonished by the overt systemically racist practices within the church in its recent past.

Bishop Braxton says he cannot say if the numbers of deadly encounters between white police and African American citizens has significantly increased or not. But “what has increased is the speed with which the word is spread far and wide and the speed with which opinions are formed, positions are hardened, rage is ignited,” he says. That is owing to the bane or blessing of today’s social media. That phenomenon may be distorting social truths, he says, or it could be that it is shining a bright light “on terrible social realities that have been long denied or kept in the shadows.”

 

Performance Curve
John DeCarlo, a colleague of Haberfeld’s at New York’s John Jay, is the former chief of police of Branford, Ct. But Mr. DeCarlo also put in 30 years on the job as a patrol officer and understands the job from both sides of the desk.

He 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.

Mr. 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 proved 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, Mr. Brown’s death in Fergusen, Mo., the shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore and many more.

“I am not going to be an apologist for bad policing,” Mr. 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 Western 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.

According to A.I., the “limited information available…suggests that African American men are disproportionately impacted by police use of lethal force.”

There is a genuine lack of clarity about the level of police lethal use of force, justified or otherwise, taking place in the United States. There are no dependable national tabulations of the number of people who die at police hands, and the most recent F.B.I. statistic, 414 in 2012, is now considered a vast undercount.

In a February speech this year at Georgetown University, F.B.I. Director James Comey acknowledged the problem: “Not long after riots broke out in Ferguson late last summer, I asked my staff to tell me how many people shot by police were African-American in this country. I wanted to see trends. I wanted to see information. They couldn’t give it to me, and it wasn’t their fault.

“Demographic data regarding officer-involved shootings is not consistently reported to us through our Uniform Crime Reporting Program,” he said. “Because reporting is voluntary, our data is incomplete and therefore, in the aggregate, unreliable.”

But several independent studies have raised cause for concern about racial bias in lethal use of force by police. Researchers from ProPublica, an investigative journalism and public policy outlet, in October 2014 focused exclusively on the use of force against teenagers. It found that young black males are 21 times more likely to be shot by police than their white counterparts. ProPublica reports: “The 1,217 deadly police shootings from 2010 to 2012 captured in the federal data show that blacks, age 15 to 19, were killed at a rate of 31.17 per million, while just 1.47 per million white males in that age range died at the hands of police.”

 

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, Mr. Hurley points out how difficult it now seems to rationalize the felony assault charge that brought Ms. 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,” Mr. 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 fatally languishing in a Texas jail cell.

Bishop Braxton stresses his esteem for the majority of police officers who are doing their jobs well under difficult circumstances, but he suggests more must be done to deal with misuse of authority and force. In his pastoral letter, he notes, “There is credible evidence that bias and prejudice influence the attitudes and actions of some police officers, no matter what their race or nationality may be.

“It is a fact that some white police officers use excessive force and display racial prejudice when they interact with Black men suspected of crimes,” he writes, adding that fact is not justification for demonizing all white police officers, just as the fact that some African American youth may be involved in criminal activity is no reason for treating all as suspect.

According to Bishop Braxton, the slogan “#BlackLivesMatter has galvanized many but put off others who have pushed back with a different hashtag campaign—#AllLivesMatter. Bishop Braxton says he agrees, of course, that all lives matter, but he sees value in maintaining a focus on the status of young African American people now. Too often and for too long, he argues, African American young people have been treated by the criminal justice system as if their lives did not matter as much as whites peers.

Catholic people, Bishop Braxton says, like other Americans, have reacted in a variety of ways to the deaths or mistreatment of African-Americans in altercations with white law enforcement agents. For some, these troubling events are simply another fleeting news item that has no direct impact. “The participants are not their friends or family members. It is not their neighborhood,” Bishop Braxton says.

Some express “anger and frustration about the cries of ‘white racism,’ the criticism of the police, the attack on the judicial system, the disruption of normal life by protesters and the destruction of property by vandals.” These white Catholics have told the bishop slavery and racism “are things of the past,” that “protesters should stop complaining, obey the law, follow the orders of the police, pull up their pants, get a job and get on with their lives.”

“But,” he says, “there are still other Catholics who are profoundly distressed. They feel that they were naïve in thinking the era of racial conflict was behind us. They are upset by the attitudes and comments of some of their Catholic neighbors.” These are the people, who “concluding that there is systemic racial prejudice in American society that is morally wrong,” he expects to see joined in peaceful protest making the simple claim that #BlackLivesMatter.

The nation’s police departments are facing a crisis of legitimacy, says John Jay’s DeCarlo. Ms. 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.”

Mr. 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 Mr. 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,” he 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,” Mr. 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.”

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