Friday, July 24, 2015

Sandra Bland

I saw the name "Sandra Bland" for a week before I knew anything about her. I admit, I avoided reading anything about her because I suspected I'd be depressed and angered by the story of another black person who died after getting mixed up with the police.

Larry Wilmore ran the dashcam video of Bland's initial encounter with Texas state trooper Brian Encinia. I was right. I'm depressed and angry.

Like Jamelle Boule in Slate, I blame the police for what happened. Specifically, I blame Encinia, and whoever failed to train him to do, and/or should have been checking that he was properly doing, his job, because Sandra Bland should never have been in police custody.

I respect cops. They go into situations I won't. I'm grateful for that. When one has stopped me on the road, I've tried to remember that he doesn't know what he's walking into; that for all he knows, I could be a hitherto unknown serial killer. I try not to make his job harder.

But if I did make his job harder by complaining when he stopped me, I would expect him to deal with it. Arguing is not an arrestable offense.

Yet that's how Encinia treated Bland's initial complaint. Encinia acted like he was a king whose dictates could not be defied without consequences. It's altogether too easy to imagine he wanted to put an "uppity" black woman in her place.

Racism? Sexism? An unhealthy affection for power? All of the above? We'll probably never know. Any way I look at it, though, he didn't exercise self-control and he didn't act like a trained law-enforcement officer. He acted like a bully.

His apologists say that anyone, irrespective of skin color or gender, should comply completely and without hesitation with any police order.

That is a dangerously supine attitude. It fosters an unhealthy arrogance among police, especially among those drawn to the job because it feeds their need to lord it over others.

I'm not saying we should defy cops willy-nilly. They have a dangerous but necessary job to do and we owe it to them not to make that job harder than it already is. But in the average traffic stop, the cop is in an unquestionably superior position, physically and psychologically. We become nervous and instinctively go on the defensive, even if we don't know what we've done wrong. Moreover, society deliberately gives him certain advantages over civilians. He's armed; we're not. This is an ordinary part of his day; this is an entirely unexpected and unwelcome disruption of ours. Most of all, he has been trained for this; we haven't.

Pulling me over for a traffic violation is a cop's right. But along with that right goes the responsibility of comporting himself with a minimum level of professionalism. That may include taking a certain amount of harmless verbal flak and letting it roll off his back.

I repeat: arguing is not an arrestable offense. At least, it shouldn't be.

It's possible Encinia is a good cop who was having a (horrendously) bad day. If you believe that, though, you also have to accept the possibility that Bland was a good person who was having a bad day when Encinia stopped her (for what seemed to her no good reason).

Any way you look at it, Encinia escalated what should have been a trivial traffic stop into ... whatever you call this tragedy.

The responsibility for this episode spinning out of control rests largely with Encinia. He should never have let his temper (or arrogance) get the better of him. He should never have let this traffic stop turn into an arrest.

I don't know what happened after the arrest. Maybe other officers, actively or passively, contributed to Sandra Bland's death. But she wouldn't have been in police custody at all if Encinia had done his job professionally. No, I'm not a cop, but you don't need to be a cop to interpret that dashcam video. He let that encounter get completely out of hand.

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