Updated on July 23 at 10:30 a.m.
The release of a video of Sandra Bland’s arrest doesn’t explain how the 28-year-old ended up dead in a Texas jail cell, but it makes a convincing case that she never should have been jailed in the first place.
The traffic stop, in which she was pulled over for failing to use a blinker (after an officer got into the lane behind her, no less) is a good case study in everything a stop shouldn’t be. Did Trooper Brian Encinia really need to pull her over? Once he had, did he need to escalate the encounter? During the exchange, Bland is curt, but not initially combative—and in any case, failing to be polite to a police officer, while perhaps unwise, is not a crime.
The video is tough to watch in places. This is a quick cut; the full version is here.
There are some questions about apparent edits in the video, which the Texas Department of Public Safety says are technical glitches. DPS also says it will release a new, fixed version soon. But there’s plenty that’s clear from the original version.
Encinia pulls Bland over, asks her for her license and registration, asks how long she’s been in Texas, and then heads back to his car. It’s when he returns that the trouble starts.
“Okay, ma’am. You okay?” he asks. She replies, testily: “I’m waiting on you. This is your job. I’m waiting on, whatever you ...” Encinia says, “I don’t know. You seem very, very irritated.”
Bland explains that she’s upset because she felt like he was tailing her so she got over to get out of his way, and now she’s been pulled over for not signaling. Like many African Americans, she may have seen the stop as a result of “driving while black”—being racially profiled, and then pulled over on some minor pretext. (Friends have noted that she was upset about police brutality in recent months.) As a graduate of Prairie View A&M, she was also probably familiar with the history of tension between African Americans and law enforcement in the area.
Encinia, just as testily, says: “Are you done?”
“You asked me what was wrong, and I told you, so now I’m done, yeah,” Bland replies. He then asks her, politely, to put out her cigarette. She says she doesn’t want to, and she’s in her own car.
That’s where things really go deeply wrong. Encinia says, “You can step on out of the car,” and she declines. He then orders her to step out of the car. He clarifies a few moments later that this is a “lawful order,” a legal term for a demand with which she is required to comply. But why did he issue the order? She seems understandably baffled, and asks him to explain. Encinia never offers a good reason for why he’s ordering her out of the car, and it’s tough to see anything in the order except spite and anger at being questioned by a citizen acting within her rights.
Encinia threatens to tase Bland—“I will light you up!”—and drags her out of the car. He also calls for back up. He tells her he was only going to give her a warning, but now she’s going to to be arrested. She demands, as is her right, to know why she’s being arrested. He doesn’t answer immediately, though later he says she’s “not compliant.” He accuses her of resisting arrest, and she says he’s jerking her around. This is a common pattern in disputed arrests: Police charge suspects for resisting arrest in cases where advocates say the people are not resisting, or in which they are being physically moved by officers who cite the movement as evidence of resistance. The video doesn’t offer any compelling evidence that she is resisting arrest, despite her obvious anger at the officer and a growing string of obscenities. (At one point, she says, “South Carolina has y’all’s bitch asses scared.”)
Later, after another officer arrives, she’s tackled to the ground and protests, “I have epilepsy!” Encinia answers: “Good.” Encinia also tells a bystander—whose clip of part of the encounter was previously released—to stop filming, though he appears to be within his rights in recording the encounter. (Bland shouts, “Thank you for recording!”)
One of the most painful moments in the video is when Bland tells Encinia, “I cannot wait until we go to court.” In hindsight, every viewer knows her day in court will never come. But it’s also possible that everything Encinia did would have passed muster in court, especially since juries, prosecutors, and judges tend to defer to police in close cases. The video does, however, make Encinia’s response to Bland seem outrageous, disproportionate, and inappropriate.
Late Wednesday, KTRK, a Houston TV station, released a recording of a voicemail that Bland left for a friend from the jail on July 11, the day after she was arrested.
Bland’s arrest fits into the category of police overreacting to perceived challenges to their authority, even provocations as minor as an individual asking why he or she is being arrested. A prosecutor charges that Freddie Gray was given a “rough ride” in a police van as punishment for running away from police and making a scene when he was arrested (an arrest that the prosecutor further charges was unlawful). If Bland had not died—authorities called it a suicide, though they’re now also investigating it as a murder—it’s unlikely that the video would have seen the light of day. It certainly would not have received widespread-media attention.
As my colleague Rebecca Rosen notes, one of the biggest revelations in the Justice Department’s report on policing in Ferguson after Michael Brown’s death was how many egregious examples of police misconduct went essentially unremarked upon and unpunished, simply because they didn’t end with anyone dead. Yet each of those incidents did have a cost: a loss of dignity, dehumanization, a gulf between police and citizens, and often a violation of civil rights. How many cases like Sandra Bland’s are there? It shouldn’t take a tragedy for police to be called to account for abusing their authority.