Sandra Bland’s Death Will Not Be Vindicated
Jan. 8, 2016 (Mimesis Law) — There was an undeniable sense that something terribly wrong caused the death of Sandra Bland in a jail cell in Waller County, Texas, and yet the failure of a grand jury to indict was hardly unexpected. Indict whom? Indict for what? The outcome, a woman inexplicably dead of apparent suicide, seemed to demand some recourse, but the absence of evidence of what happened and who did it couldn’t be overcome.
A crime may well have occurred, but without evidence of it, we, too, were left hanging.
When the grand jury reached an indictment of the trooper, Brian Encinia, who arrested Sandra Bland, the smell of vindication was in the air. Someone would be prosecuted for the chain of events that ended in her death. Finally, there would be “justice.”
The charge against Trooper Encinia, a Class A misdemeanor, was announced at the end of a day of grand jury deliberations. It carries a possible penalty of one year in jail and a $4,000 fine, prosecutors said.
The charge stemmed from a one-page affidavit that Trooper Encinia filed with jail officials justifying the arrest of Ms. Bland, who was pulled over July 10 in a routine traffic stop in Prairie View, northwest of Houston, for failing to use her turn signal.
The video of the arrest revealed a trooper who lost control during a stop for a petty violation. Bland’s refusal to be compliant with his arbitrary demands “lit him up,” as he threatened to do the same to her with his Taser.
The charge, a misdemeanor, may not be serious. Indeed, it appears to be as banal a complaint of Encinia’s conduct as could be.
The trooper wrote that he removed Ms. Bland from her car to more safely conduct a traffic investigation, but “the grand jury found that statement to be false,” a special prosecutor, Shawn McDonald, said.
The phrase at issue, “conduct a safe traffic investigation,” is part of the police lexicon that has been developed to take advantage of the latitude the law gives police officers to command a person to do whatever he says. On the surface, it would appear that it’s about some conduct that would appear threatening to the officer, but that’s not what it’s really about at all.
It’s about command presence, that the person has succumbed to the police officer’s authority by following commands, regardless of whether there is a reason for them or not. To a cop, compliance is its own virtue. It doesn’t matter if he directs a person to stay in a car or get out, to put their hands up or down, to get rid of a cigarette or smoke twice as hard. It’s about compliance. It’s about doing as ordered.
Immediately preceding his order to step out of her car, Trooper Encinia directed Bland to put out her cigarette. Whether we would characterize it now as a request or order is a semantic difference that ignores the point: she refused to comply. To Encinia, that is all that’s needed to justify his assertion in his report that he removed her from the car for safety reasons.
Crazy, right? Watch the video over and over, try to see what happened that could possibly give rise to any legitimate safety concern by the trooper. There’s nothing there. At least, nothing in the eyes of a reasonable person, for whom a threat would require some sort of action that suggests more than a refusal by an ordinary to comply with an arbitrary demand. Was Sandra Bland about to become outraged, stick her finger in the trooper’s eye and blind him?
But that’s only how it looks to the outsider, the eyes untrained in the mysteries of the First Rule of Policing. The mere refusal to do as commanded, even if the order comes in the form of a request, is a huge red flag to an officer, who fears anyone and anything over which he cannot assert absolute control. When Bland refused to put out her cigarette, alarms went off in Encinia’s head. What else might this irate and noncompliant person do to harm me?
Bullshit, you say. But of course it’s bullshit. It’s a line of reasoning that only makes sense if you’re a cop. And it forms the basis of what a cop can subsequently claim to be necessary to conduct a safe traffic investigation. And when he gets done explaining why his commanding Bland to step out of the car was critical to his protection, there will be at least sufficient doubt to overcome a conviction for perjury. Hell, there may be sufficient evidence to give him a medal for bravery.
Trooper Brian Encinia will be acquitted of perjury. He will exploit the vagaries of cop jargon without breaking a sweat. And the slim hope that someone will be convicted for what happened to Sandra Bland will be dashed. But we can take comfort in the fact that no police officer was harmed, even if a woman who refused to put out her cigarette is dead. That’s the price we pay to keep our police safe from harm.