Disclaimer: The videos linked in this post contain graphic language
Police brutality is, unfortunately, a familiar fabric in American society that often finds itself unequally distributed between White-Americans and Minority-Americans. The Rodney King riots in 1992 and the Watts riots in 1965 demonstrate a disconnect and mistrust between Black-Americans and law-enforcement officials that are still manifest today in the shooting-death of unarmed Trayvon Martin and the subsequent acquittal of the gunman, the shooting-death of unarmed Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson and the subsequent failure of indictment by the grand jury, the death of Eric Garner by means of an illegal chokehold while being arrested for selling untaxed cigarettes and the subsequent failure of a grand jury indictment (the transcripts of which have yet to be made available to the public), and the death of Freddy Gray who was deemed to be falsely arrested and was denied medical treatment while in police custody despite requesting it multiple times. These events sparked riots and protests across the nation including demonstrations by celebrities and professional athletes.
With the indictment of the six Baltimore police officers directly involved in the death of Freddy Gray, it seemed the United States was taking a pivotal step forward in holding its law-enforcement officers accountable for their actions. While it is one thing to indict and another to convict, the message was clear; police officers, those charged with protecting and serving, are not above the law.
However briefly, it seemed possible that America was on the verge of officers conducting themselves more calmly under pressure like the case of this Maine law-enforcement official:
Enter Sandra Bland, a Black-American woman found dead in her jail cell in Waller County, Texas on July 13.
As the video indicates, Bland moved from the left lane of traffic to the right lane of traffic without using her signal and was subsequently pulled over. After taking Bland’s license and other documents, Trooper Encinia returns to the car with a ticket in hand for Bland to sign. At 8:47, Encinia can be heard asking Bland if she is okay and states that she seems “very irritated.” Bland proceeds with an exasperating explanation on why she is irritated. “I am,” she states, ” I really am. I feel like it’s crap what I’m getting a ticket for. I was getting out of your way. You were speeding up, tailing me, so I move over and you stop me. So, yea, I am a little irritated, but that doesn’t stop you from giving me a ticket…”
At 9:18, Trooper Encinia asks Bland, “You mind putting out your cigarette, please? If you don’t mind.”
Bland minded. “I’m in my car. Why do I have to put out my cigarette,” she asked.
It was at this point where Trooper Encinia escalated, and, as the Huffington Post notes, unconstitutionally extends, the traffic stop. In Rodriguez v. United States, the Supreme Court ruled that the police may not “extend the duration of a traffic stop without reasonable suspicion, even for just a ‘de minimis‘ amount of time, for reasons unrelated to vehicle and driver safety.” It’s evident that Trooper Encinia now decided to prolong this routine traffic stop because his ego felt bruised.
Encinia asks Bland to step out of the car at which point she refuses, stating she does not have to step out of her own car. At 9:31, Encinia opens the driver-side door of Bland’s car and aggressively demands she step out of the car. After Bland informs Encinia he does “not have the right to do this,” Encinia physically grabs Bland in an effort to pull her out of the confines of her private vehicle – without a warrant. Bland asks if she is being removed for failing to signal. At 10:07, Bland can be heard saying “Don’t touch me! I am not under arrest!” to which Encinia responds, “You are under arrest!”
The confrontation quickly spirals out of control with Bland exiting her vehicle only after Trooper Encinia pulls out his taser gun and threatens to “light [her] up.” Encinia yells at her for moving after ordering her to move and becomes violent with her (conveniently enough for him) off camera. At 13:54, Bland informs the trooper she has epilepsy, to which he response “Good! Good!” Trooper Encinia thinks it is good that Sandra Bland had epilepsy.
Eye-witness video shows Bland on the ground with Encinia’s knee pressed into the back of her neck.
Bland repeatedly asks Encinia why she is under arrest and he initially refuses to answer her, seemingly cuffing her for simply challenging and questioning the way Encinia was treating her. In fact, Bland asks Encinia no less than 15 times in one way or another why she is being detained before he tells her “You are not complying.”
Section 78-7 of the Waller County Municipal Code of Texas states that “No person shall willfully fail or refuse to comply with any lawful order or direction of a police officer or fire department official given to direct or control traffic as authorized (Code 1976, § 15-7).“Yet, Encinia gave no lawful order to direct or control traffic. He requested Bland put out her cigarette. Again, as the video shows at 9:18, Encinia asks “You mind putting out your cigarette, please? If you don’t mind.” This is not an order but a request. Furthermore, smoking a cigarette in the privacy of one’s car is entirely unrelated to directing and controlling traffic. Encinia had zero right to ask Bland to step out of her vehicle.
At 12:18, Encinia says, “You were getting a warning… now you’re going to jail.” At 14:51, he says “You are going to jail for resisting arrest.” This begs the question… if a person is not under arrest, how is it then possible to resist arrest? Trooper Encinia already stated Bland was only getting a warning and it took him over 4 minutes from Bland’s initial inquiry into why she was being arrested for Encinia to come up with “resisting arrest.” There must be an initial crime, an initial cause for arrest in order for one to resist arrest. Encinia simply didn’t like a woman challenging him by asserting her rights. Furthermore, nowhere in the video can we hear Bland being read her Miranda rights.
Sandra Bland died three days later in her jail cell. The autopsy determined it was a suicide from what the Waller County Sheriff called “self-inflicted asphyxiation.” Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis claims Bland used a trash bag to “hang herself from a partition in the ceiling.” This is disputed by her friends and family, who claim that despite being incarcerated, Bland was in “good spirits” and looking forward to posting bond and starting her new job at Prairie View A&M.
On Thursday Afternoon, July 16th, Sheriff R. Glenn Smith received a copy of a Special Inspection Report from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. It was determined that deficiencies exist. They were as follows:
Item 1: “Country officials were unable to provide written documentation to prove that all jail staff underwent two (2) hours of training on a yearly basis by the local mental health authority for that region in accordance with their approved Mental Disabilities/Suicide Prevention Plan on file with TCJS. This training is to include the recognition, supervision, documentation and handling of inmates who are mentally disable and/or potentially suicidal.”
Item 2: “Documentation received and reviewed by the Commission revealed that Waller County is not completed visual face to face observation of all inmates at least once every 60 minutes as required by Minimum Jail Standards.”
The approximate 8:00AM contact with inmate Sandra Bland was on the intercom system and not in person, as required. While both jailers have received mental health training it has not been done in the past year by the local health authority as stated in our own policy.
At this time we have no reason to believe that either of these deficiencies had any part in the death of Ms. Bland. However, Sheriff R. Glenn Smith will not tolerate disregarding policies and/or rules of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, along with our own. As previously stated, we will be working on any improvements that can be made to see that this type of tragic incident never happens again. This will include personnel changes if needed. Specific details of Ms. Bland’s booking information cannot be released at this time [sic].
Trooper Encinia has since been placed on administrative leave for violating what the Texas Department of Public Safety calls “the department’s procedures regarding traffic stops and the department’s courtesy policy.” Not to mention this pesky thing called the Constitution.
The Texas Department of Public Safety announced an investigation into Bland’s death in conjunction with the FBI and the Texas Rangers. The District Attorney has announced he intends to convene a grand jury once the investigation is complete.
Title 5, Chapter 19, Section 19.01 of the Texas Penal Code states that “A person commits criminal homicide if he intentionally, knowingly, recklessly, or with criminal negligence causes the death of an individual.” Criminal homicide is described as “murder, capital murder, manslaughter, or criminally negligent homicide.” Section 19.05 defines criminally negligent homicide as an offense causing the death of a person by criminal negligence.
Failing to signal a lane change is not punishable by arrest. Bland’s death is a categorical result of trumped-up charges of assault on a police officer. She was in her car; how could she possibly have assaulted Trooper Encinia? As we can see from the dashcam of Encinia’s cruiser, she did not. First, he claims she is under arrest for resisting arrest and then once she is detained, she is charged with assault on a police officer? This defies all logic and doesn’t make any sense at all. It almost seems like Encinia was just winging it and making things up as he went along. Sandra Bland was unlawfully detained and illegally arrested by Trooper Encinia. That Encinia was suspended is a prima facie admission by the Texas Department of Public Safety of his negligent actions throughout the entirety of the traffic stop. This is the textbook definition of Texas Penal Code Title 5, Chapter 19, Section 19.05. Encinia was derelict in his duties which directly resulted in the death of Sandra Bland.
It would not be unprecedented for the District Attorney to bring charges against Trooper Encinia. As mentioned above, six Baltimore police officers have been indicted on charges ranging from depraved-heart murder to manslaughter to second-degree assault regarding the death of Freddy Gray. All were indicted for reckless endangerment and misconduct in office, as well. Confidence in police is at its lowest point since the Rodney King trials in 1993. This is not indicative of a venerable democracy that the United States is expected to be.
The purpose of this post is not to bash police or incite anti-police sentiment. Police officers lay their lives on the line to protect the communities they serve and dozens die in the line of duty each year. The work they do is inherently dangerous. This does not, however, grant them cart blanche to ride head-and-shoulders above the law. We can revere the work of law-enforcement officials while at the same time holding them to higher standards. These are not and must not be mutually exclusive concepts. In this case, however, the evidence is clear; Sandra Bland deserves justice.
The above is a republication from Human First, a human-rights-themed blog focusing on human rights issues across the globe.
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Dylan holds a master's in Global Affairs and Policy from Yonsei University. His expertise are in human rights, refugees, humanitarianism, and North Korea. Dylan teaches International Business and Korean Studies at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. He has previously worked in refugee resettlement both in South Korea and the United States. Dylan also runs Human First, a human-rights-themed blog which can be found at firstwearehuman.blogspot.com.