There is so much about Sandra Bland’s death in a Texas jail cell that enrages.
Why was she arrested? Why did she spend three days in jail for what was basically a traffic violation? Why weren’t precautions in place to prevent her from committing suicide?
But here’s what makes this case so maddening: Bland didn’t do anything wrong.
Her death, whether suicide or foul play, is the result of a police officer who refused to allow his authority to be questioned and couldn’t walk away.
It’s a story that has becoming depressingly familiar. From Ferguson to North Charleston to Staten Island to McKinney, the connective thread that links all these cases is ordinary citizens guilty of “contempt of cop” and paying the price when police lose their cool.
The Bland case, however, is one of the most striking examples of this phenomenon.
In the dashcam video released by the Texas Department of Public Safety, Officer Brian Encina pulls Bland over. It looks like an ordinary, uneventful traffic stop.
But then Encina steadily instigates a conflict. He tells Bland that she “seems very irritated” and condescendingly asks “Are you done?” when she explains why she is annoyed. Then he asks her to put out her cigarette. When Bland asks why, Encina responds by demanding that she get out of the car.
This is the key moment — when Encina’s pique at having his authority questioned escalates the situation. According to Jim Bueerman, president of the Police Foundation, Encina’s proper course of action was clear: “He should have explained to her why he wanted her to do that.” He could have viewed the cigarette as a threat; it could have been bothering him. Had he explained this to her, there’s a reasonable chance that Bland would be alive today.
Instead Encina loses his composure when Bland refuses to get out of the car. He reaches in the car. He begins yelling. He pulls out his Taser and threatens to “light [her] up.” Now he’s in too deep. He’s made an issue out of Bland’s defiance and he seemingly cannot walk away until she becomes submissive.
Why not just step back? Bland hardly represented a threat. The reason, says Bueerman, is “a culture of policing that says we don’t take ‘no’ for an answer. We don’t want to be perceived as weak.”
That’s not always an unreasonable position. But the state affords police officers awesome power, including the right to take a human life. With that authority comes the responsibility not only to keep it together, but to act more responsibly than ordinary citizens. Even if Bland was surly and uncooperative, that’s her right. It’s the officer’s job to de-escalate the situation.
“Maintaining your cool is part of the job,” says Bueerman, and if you can’t do it on a regular basis, “Starbucks is hiring.”
The Sandra Bland tragedy — along with so many of the cases we’ve seen over the past year — should be a wake-up call to police departments across the country.
They need better training for handling these types of situations. Loose cannons need to be weeded out of departments. There needs to be greater accountability when mistakes are made, and more help for officers under stress.
Ultimately, this issue is not going away — and, with the ubiquity of smartphones and the growing use of body cams, there will be more outrages and less benefit of the doubt given to cops. That may not seem fair to the vast majority of cops who do their jobs conscientiously and without malice. But then again, Sandra Bland is dead — and she shouldn’t be.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.