This is a tale of two stories, the official version and the one we can see with our own eyes. They’re both on the record, captured on videotape. And the difference is damning.
A lot has been written about the roughly eight minutes of police dashboard-camera video in which Sandra Bland was pulled over and arrested. Hardly anything has been written about the 10 minutes further on in which the arresting officer tells his story over the radio to his supervisor. This is a shame, because it is in those 10 minutes that we witness the reality of institutional power get recontextualized into a narrative of institutional blamelessness.
On July 10, Bland, a 28-year-old Illinois native, was in Waller County, Texas, visiting her alma mater, Prairie View A&M University, where she had recently been hired in a student outreach position. Texas state trooper Brian Encinia charged her with a traffic violation. An altercation ensued; Bland was forcibly removed from her car, handcuffed, and taken to the Waller County Jail, where she was charged with assault on a police officer and held on a $5,000 bond.
Bland was active in the Black Lives Matter movement and had a deeply felt interest in effecting change; during her arrest, she was vocal about taking her case to court. She was about to start a good job. During her three days in jail, she left a calm and collected voicemail for a friend.
Yet on July 13, hours before her sister was to arrive with $500 bail, Bland was found dead in her cell of asphyxiation, a garbage can cord tied around her neck. Police issued a statement saying she had hanged herself and, according to a county autopsy report released Thursday, her injuries were consistent with suicide.
The 52-minute police car dashboard-cam video released by the Texas Department of Public Safety on July 21 provides no answers. But it does lay bare the sickeningly stark dissonance between what actually happened during her arrest and what Trooper Encinia says happened.
The video is a one-shot masterpiece of found cinema. The unmoving, unjudging frame, filmed from behind the windshield of the trooper’s car, offers moments of banality and terror in equal measure — if you’re in a pointy-headed turn of mind, you know that Warhol would have approved. But this video doesn’t put you in a pointy-headed turn of mind.
It begins with the final moments of a previous incident, Trooper Encinia issuing a warning to a young woman, apparently for speeding. Nor does she apparently have an insurance card. But he’s paternal and chatty, laughing as he reminds her to e-mail her dad for the insurance information. Is she white? We don’t know. The girl drives off and turns left, passing Bland, who turns right and passes the police car. The trooper pulls a U-turn and follows her. He has his next violation. It feels a little like stalking.
Watch the video:
At 2:52 on the tape, he has her pulled over and takes her license, telling her she failed to signal a lane change; she claims she only moved into the right lane to let him by. At 8:34, after running her information, he returns to Bland’s car to give her a warning.
This is when the power games begin. Encinia will later be heard telling his sergeant on the radio that “she wouldn’t even look at me, she was looking straight ahead. Just . . . mad.” He seems to decide to goad her a bit, maybe bristling at her lack of proper respect. “OK?” he asks. “I’m waiting on you, this is your job,” she replies tersely. “You seem irritated,” he responds, which is not the best thing to say to someone who’s irritated. Bland admits she is, in fact, irritated.
Maybe she was having a bad day, or maybe she was having a good day that had just turned bad. Maybe she forgot what our parents told us and what we tell our children, which is to “yes sir, no sir” our way through any encounter with the police, especially if we’re from out of town. Maybe she just didn’t care anymore. Maybe she had just had enough. None of which asks for or excuses what happened next: a textbook example of an insecure and inexperienced cop who will brook no questioning — not even a scintilla — of his power. That the questioning came from a black woman in a county with a notably sorry racial history, in and out of the police department, may have nothing at all to do with it. And the Red Sox may win the World Series this year.
At 9:21, rather oddly, Encinia demands Bland extinguish her cigarette. He asks “politely,” with a “please,” but this is the fulcrum, right here. The specifics of the request don’t matter — he could be asking her to stand on her head and rub her belly — but her absolute obedience to his will does. It’s a test, and she fails it. “I’m in my car. Why do I have to put out my cigarette?” Bland asks. She’s technically and legally correct, but that’s all the trooper needs to hear. His voice turns sharp as he pulls close to the car door and says, “Well, you can step on out now.”
She refuses. It escalates, and quickly, with Encinia’s tone growing more and more threatening.
9:37: “Step out, or I will remove you. I am giving you a lawful order.”
9:59: “I am going to yank you out of here!”
10:25: “Why am I being apprehended?” Bland demands to know. She gets no answer.
10:30: Encinia waves his Taser at her and bellows “GET OUT OF THE CAR — I WILL LIGHT YOU UP!” Bland’s response: “Wow. You’re doing all of this for a failure to signal? . . . Let’s take this to court.” More insubordination. Unforgivable.
He gets her out of the car, but Bland has passed the point of no return and so has Encinia — since he has the power, it’s a losing game for her. She berates him and asks over and over why she’s being arrested and still she gets no answer; eventually he will tell her she’s being arrested for resisting arrest, a response that is worthy of Kafka. She is dragged off camera and handcuffed, and we hear her angry taunts turn to screams and whimpers of pain.
13:20: “You’re breaking my wrists!”
13:50: “I’ve got epilepsy, [expletive]!” Encinia’s response: “Good.”
But this is only the first half of the tale. The second comes several minutes later, the camera continuing to record as Bland’s car is searched, and Encinia, sitting in his vehicle, can be heard discussing the incident with his sergeant. Here is where we hear the trooper revise the narrative of what has just occurred, unconsciously or not, so that he can come out the level-headed good guy.
At 23:35 on the tape, he says “I tried to de-escalate her and I wasn’t getting anywhere at all. . . . I tried talking to her, calming her down, and that was not working. I’m trying to get her detained, trying to get her to calm down, just calm her down, stop throwing your arms around. She never swung at me, just flailing, stomping around, and I said, all right, that’s enough, and that’s when I detained her.”
This is in flagrant contradiction of everything we’ve just witnessed; it is, quite simply, a lie. At no time did Trooper Encinia attempt to “de-escalate” the situation with Bland. On the contrary, he pushed it forward until it exploded — until he exploded.
Still talking with his supervisor, Encinia is heard reading the definitions of “assault” and “resisting arrest,” trying to decide which charge would best fit. 27:00: “I kinda lean toward assault rather than resist. I mean, technically, she’s under arrest when the traffic stop is initiated. You’re not free to go. I didn’t say ‘you’re under arrest,’ ‘stop, hands up.’ That did not occur. There was just the assault part.”
Welcome to American roadside justice, where you’re arrested the moment you’re pulled over and they figure out what for later. 33:58: Encinia is laughing by now. The sergeant apparently asks if he was hurt in the incident. “I got some cuts on my hand,” he replies. “I guess it is an injury. I don’t need medical attention. I got three little circles from I guess the handcuffs when she was twisting away from me.” This will later morph into further proof that Bland assaulted Encinia. Again the trooper insists, “I only took enough force as seemed necessary — I even de-escalated once we were on the pavement.”
He seems to believe it by now. It sounds good, true, strong. He has convinced himself he’s a decent guy. That he did the right thing.
Bland is nowhere in sight. In three days, she’ll be dead in mysterious circumstances, the FBI and Texas Rangers will intervene, and the officer will be placed on administrative leave pending an investigation. The system — of which the dash-cam is now a part — would seem to be working, but only the naive would think the system doesn’t also work to protect its own.
At 34:26 on the tape, having successfully relieved himself of any culpability, Trooper Brian Encinia takes a moment to ponder what just happened and why. “Y’know, over a simple traffic stop,” he tells his sergeant. “I don’t get it. I really don’t.”
No, sir, you don’t. You don’t get it at all. That is precisely the point. And it’s the very least we can say about this appalling and outrageous tragedy of power and race.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.