by Derek Scarlino/Love and Rage
The case of Sandra Bland, the 28-year-old Chicago-area activist who was found dead in a Texas jail cell on July 13th, has opened up many questions in the past two weeks. The stated cause of death was ruled asphyxiation via autopsy by the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences. The same instution classified her death as a suicide.
That a woman like Bland, who had just accepted a job at Prairie View A&M University, her alma mater, would commit suicide led to immediate questions raised by family and friends. Nobody has stated, on record, that she was a depressive person, though in one of her many videos posted to YouTube, where she regularly discussed topics of police brutality, there is an instance of her stating that she was depressed. Still, many accounts instead point to her excitement over starting a new job with the school and the family’s attorney, Cannon Lambert, stated that the video, posted in March, provides no indication of her mindset at the time of the arrest. That being the case, foul play has been suggested by friends, family, activists and advocacy groups alike.
It may surprise many to learn that jailhouse suicide is common. And it is common enough to have warranted studies over the years which produce very consistent results, especially in correlation to minor offenses (usually related to driving under the influence). While Sandra Bland did not fit the demographic most associated with jailhouse suicides (19 to 25-year-old males) the US Department of Justice’s own study warns that demographic indicators are not always useful in prevention.
Jailhouse suicide is attributed to several factors tied to the stresses and anxieties faced by first-time arrestees; the chaotic environment, damage to reputation, effects on employment, effects on family. It may very well be that Sandra Bland did commit suicide, though it is tough to say that any official inquiry into the case, which is now being investigated as a murder, will ever satisfy those who suspect direct police invovlement, and there are reasons for this.
Waller County has a long, egregious history when it comes to race. One of the first settlements in the area was a slave plantation, and while the area was actually a refuge for freed slaves when it was still part of Mexico, it would become the county home to the most lynchings in Texas from 1877 to 1950. More recently, in 2004 and 2008, students at Prairie A&M (which is historically black) first gained the right to cast voting ballots in Waller County and then had to defend that right against a court ruling.
Added to the county’s historic race problems is the history of Waller County Sheriff Glenn Smith being reprimanded at a former job for allegations of racism along with four other officers in 2007. However, in Waller County, there are no outstanding gaps between races when it comes to traffic stops.
With the current of racial issues breaking into full blown waves of protest at several periods in the last year alone, it will be difficult to separate all of the factors surrounding Sandra Bland’s death from the search for the truth. Again, in just the last year, protests, marches and riots over the police killings, or deaths while in police custody, of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Freddie Grey (to name some) have certainly raised the profile of police brutality in the United States and, in specific, the racial disparities in police killings. Racial disparities that Sandra Bland was fully aware of.
The incident has not escaped this larger national narrative as #BlackLivesMatter activists have seized on the latest chapter of an all too real issue around deadly police encounters involving blacks. While the FBI has been called to Texas to also investigate what transpired, there will be no shortage of arguments over this. Some will see it as an unnecessary appropriation of authority by the cop to even initiate the arrest. Others will lend their voice to the counter-narrative and see an “angry black woman” who got what was coming to her. But is the latter fair?
The arresting officer, Trooper Brian T. Encinia, has been placed on administrative leave by the Texas Department of Public Safety for violating procedures and the agency’s courtesy policy. During the traffic stop which turned into an arrest, Trooper Encinia can be seen and heard on the police dashcam video reaching into the car to remove Bland from her vehicle, which leaves any officer vulnerable. Also as Bland is being handcuffed, she protests at her head being slammed on the ground by informing Encinia that she has epilepsy to which he replies, “Good!”
According to the Supreme Court ruling in Rodriguez v. The United States, decided in April of this year, police cannot extend the duration of a traffic stop save for two conditions: reasonable suspicion that the driver committed another crime or safety concerns.
In Justice Ruth-Bader Ginsberg’s explanation of the court’s opinion she states: “[t]he tolerable duration of police inquiries in the traffic-stop context is determined by the seizure’s ‘mission’ — to address the traffic violation that warranted the stop, and attend to related safety concerns.”
Further: A police stop “may ‘last no longer than is necessary to effectuate th[at] purpose.’ Authority for the seizure thus ends when tasks tied to the traffic infraction are — or reasonably should have been — completed.”
So if the purpose of the traffic stop was to issue a warning to Bland for failure to signal a lane change, which is plainly viewed in the dashcam recording, the resulting argument which escalates over a lit cigarette in Bland’s hand has to be construed as a threat to the officer in order for him to legally continue the stop. However, in Encinia’s police report, he makes no note of asking Bland to extinguish her cigarette.
When Bland refused to put her cigarette out, there was a quick escalation of events — escalation tactics being one of the most bemoaned policies among activists pressuring for reform. Many advocacy and civil rights groups feel that it’s best not to give an officer a reason to escalate any police encounter as being confrontational increases the chances not only for a physical police response, but also searches, the increased possibility of more charges and even arrest. But even on that last point, it’s not illegal to argue with an officer. It’s not illegal to have an attitude. So either Trooper Encinia identified Bland’s cigarette as a threat, or he was moved to an unprofessional response over Bland’s insubordinate and indignant tone. The latter is referred to as “contempt of cop” in a pejorative reference to power trips on the part of police officers whose authority is questioned and it is not a crime.
As seen in the video, Encinia orders Bland to step out of her vehicle when she argues with him over the cigarette. While he can legally order her to do this, if he did so solely based on her defiance over the cigarette, then he had deliberately placed his ego before duty. Again, the fact that he didn’t make any mention of the cigarette in his report would make this highly likely.
The argument between Encinia and Bland that followed lead to what many may consider a forgone conclusion as Encinia had lost control of the situation and reverted to force, even arming himself with his taser and threatening Bland with it in the process. The situation escalates, insults ensue and Bland is arrested. Three days later, she would be found dead. The questions swirling over racism and murder now include whether or not the arrest was warranted in the first place.