The big news this week is the arrest and subsequent death of Sandra Bland. An activist soon to start a job at Prairie View A&M, she was arrested after being pulled over for failing to signal a turn, then found dead in her cell. Her death was ruled a suicide but is now being investigated as a murder
Yesterday, dash cam footage was released. In it, Bland is told to put out her cigarette by the officer. When she refuses, the situation escalates almost immediately as the officer orders out of the car, threatens her with a taser and arrests her. There is then a confrontation off camera where the officer says she assaulted him, which was the reason she went to jail (although she was arrested before the assault).
A lot of things to unpack here.
First, was the officer within his power to order her out of the car? Jacob Sullum goes over the legal issues and the answer is “maybe”.
Based on their comments in the video, Encinia and Bland clearly agreed that the escalation from warning to arrest was ridiculous, but they had diametrically opposed views of who was to blame. If only Bland had been more respectful and cooperative, Encinia thought, she could have been on her way. If only Encinia had not been so determined to assert his authority for its own sake, Bland thought, he never would have forced her out of the car, let alone handcuffed her and knocked her down.
Second, I keep thinking of what Radley Balko often says about police shootings: even if the shooting itself was justified, there were often errors and bad decisions leading up to that point. Even if arresting Bland for assaulting an officer was justified, the decisions leading up to that are questionable at best. I think that pulling Bland out of her car, threatening her with a taser and arresting her was a bit of an over-reaction to someone for talking back (mildly at first, but becoming more confrontational as the arrest proceeds as she yells at him and calls him “a pussy”).
Finally, there is the big issue of the circumstances of Bland’s death. All indications are that Bland was not the kind to kill herself and I think a full and thorough investigation is warranted. We’ve had a few of these incidents, including at least two incidents were a person who had been searched, handcuffed and placed in the back of a police car supposedly found a gun and shot himself to death.
That having been said … we should be prepared if it turns out that she did indeed kill herself. Suicides tend to be impulsive and Bland’s family wouldn’t be the first to be shocked by a unexpected suicide. Last year, we were told over and over again that there was no way Michael Brown would attack a police officer and then charge into gunfire. The argument convinced me to be skeptical of the officer’s version of events. But it turned out to be the truth. Sometimes people do stupid, irrational and tragic things.
So, yes, let’s investigate the death. And let’s also ask questions about why a routine traffic stop ended in an arrest. And let’s accept the answers, whatever they are.