How many American cities are as steeped in misogyny and racism as Prairie View, Texas? It seems obvious beyond question that Sandra Bland was executed for being an Uppity Negro and a Mouthy Broad. But aside from the blatant racism and sexism, there are nuances and layers, and a couple more major factors.
But first let’s consider an odd angle. An online commenter suggests that it’s not fair to assume pure woman-hating, right from the start. Possibly, when Trooper Encinia first noticed the car going the opposite way, a fleeting glimpse of a tall, dark-skinned, short-haired driver might have made him think “male.”
Maybe he was spoiling for a fight, and a black guy would be the ideal person to have it with. Maybe he was surprised to discover that he had stopped a woman, and dialed back his hostility for a minute, but then figured what the hell, and let it flare up. We hear about how a law enforcement officer’s job is so difficult because s/he never knows what to expect. But maybe that wariness toward the unexpected, and toward the risks the unexpected event brings, is the mark of a good cop, even though it makes the job hard.
The cops we need to be concerned about are the ones who have an unhealthy dependence on novelty. Addiction to risk is for sure the mark of a bad cop. The constant urge to get out there and tangle with somebody is not a sign of bravery, but a symptom of mental disease.
Snarky shop talk
In a job where anything might happen, a lot of happenings will make good stories. Recounting these scenarios is a built-in perk that helps to make some jobs bearable. Retail clerks, hairdressers, mechanics, everybody loves to report on how they told a disagreeable client where to get off. Whether an employee is behind the counter at a dry-cleaner or welcoming the public into an upscale restaurant, there are always difficult customers, and always a natural desire to embroider the story. Everyone looks forward to the ritual of sharing snarky shop talk.
Cops are no different, especially if a crude comedy routine can be built around how they ruined some poor bastard’s life. For many public servants, spreading gratuitous aggro constitutes the most rewarding part of their jobs. A lot of people wake up anxious to get out there and cluster-bomb someone’s day, week, month, or possibly even year. And uniformed goons enjoy name-dropping as much as anybody. If a celebrity is involved, that’s shop-talk gold. No doubt the local lummoxes who busted Willie Nelson for weed are still dining out on the story.
Cops are like everybody else, only more so. They love to brag to colleagues about how they handled some moke that needed a scare thrown into him. Think up a new way to violate a suspect’s rights, without doing anything the brass could write you up for, and you can be one of the popular kids. On-the-job exploits are, and always have been, a type of social currency. In the cop business, you collect these stories by fucking with people.
How to fuck with a citizen
Let’s assume that initially, Trooper Encinia wanted nothing more than a back-slapping yarn to spin for his buddies. His first visit to Sandra’s car was on the passenger side, when he asked for her paperwork and a few minutes to go and process it. Also, he asks, “Where you headed to now?”
Someone took the trouble to look up Chapter 4, Section 04.02.01 of the Texas Highway Patrol Manual, and many thanks to that person for putting it online. According to the Violator Interview script, the trooper should do seven things, in the prescribed order:
1. Greeting and identification of the agency
2. Statement of violation committed
3. Identification of driver and check of conditions of violator and vehicle
4. Statement of action to be taken
5. Take action stated
6. Explain what violator must do
Nowhere does it say the trooper should ask how long the driver has been in the state, or where she is headed.
Next, after looking up Sandra Bland on his computer, Encinia returned, this time to the driver’s side. The appropriate thing now would be to follow steps 4 through 7 of the script: tell the motorist she’s getting a warning, have her sign for it, tell her not to do it again, and go on his way.
Instead, he opens with “Okay, ma’am. You okay?” According to some critics, this is where he jumped the shark.
Sandra Bland: I’m waiting on you. This is your job. I’m waiting on you. When are you going to let me go?
Encinia: I don’t know, you seem very irritated.
What is this, the Dr. Phil show? What’s up with this state of mind query? He’s not her sorority sister or her psychologist. And it becomes clear that this isn’t a guy trying to have polite conversation. This is a nosey motherfucker who figures that every additional minute he can keep this woman talking, is a minute in which something might happen that can lead to an arrest and some juicy fines.
Sandra Bland: I am. I really am. I feel like it’s crap what I’m getting a ticket for. I was getting out of your way. You were speeding up, tailing me, so I move over and you stop me. So yeah, I am a little irritated, but that doesn’t stop you from giving me a ticket, so what’s the ticket for?
Fortunately, it is not yet against the law to seem irritated. But now he’s got her pegged as a sassy one, who needs a little humility lesson.
Encinia: Are you done?
Many smug law’n’order types insist that Sandra did the “escalating.” But no. The escalation was all on the trooper’s side, and that snippy “Are you done?” line is the real beginning of it.
Sandra Bland: You asked me what was wrong, and I told you.
Sandra Bland: So now I’m done, yeah.
That should have been a wrap. Deliver the warning, have the citizen sign the paper; remind her not to do it again; run along and bother somebody else. Instead, he goes into full-tilt provocation and instigation. It’s like when a couple of children are riding in the back seat, and big sister keeps nudging the little sister until the little sister nudges back and then the big sister goes “Mom! She stuck her elbow in my ribs and it really hurts! Make her ride in the trunk!”
As we have seen, if Trooper Encinia had told Sandra Bland to put out her cigarette, that apparently would have been a lawful order. But he didn’t. What he said was, “Would you mind putting out your cigarette please… If you don’t mind?” It was phrased as a request, not an order, and supposedly she could lawfully decline to grant the officer’s request. Using a species of entrapment, he tricked her into questioning and allegedly disobeying his utterance, that was not even recognizable as a legitimate order. CNN Legal Analyst Danny Cevallos wrote,
The traffic stop ENDED with the issuing of the warning,
…… you can’t argue that he could legally order her out of the car for the lane-changing thing since that business had already been concluded with the issuing of the warning.
… then you must also concede that the request to put out the cigarette (it was not a clearly-stated order) as well as the order to come out of the car were both illegal, since both of these occurred after the traffic stop was over.
How to fuck with a woman
Attorney John Hamasaki wrote:
His right to detain her ended the minute he was done with his traffic investigation and written the ticket or warning. At that point, the detention became unlawful. At that point, he is no longer acting in his capacity as a police officer, rather he is just a man in uniform harassing a woman stopped alone in her car by the side of the road.
As a teenager, I knew guys who would do things like this: roll up on a girl and ask innocently, “What color are your eyes?” and when she answered “blue,” he’d say “I asked what color they are, not what you did to get them.” And then his buddies would crack up, because the girl said a word that sounded just like “blew.”
This is what passed for humor in those times, and the fact that it didn’t even make sense was perhaps even more offensive than the puerile quest to trick a girl into saying a dirty word. Oh, the cleverness. Nothing has changed, and nonsense like this is a major component of a certain brand of pseudo-masculinity. (Guys don’t just do it to girls, of course, but to other guys, too. When a dude takes a certain stance and belligerently demands, “What are you looking at?” there is no correct answer.)
Agreement seems almost universal that Trooper Encinia had no reason to ask Sandra Bland to leave her car. Even if it is technically legal – and let’s face it, these days just about anything a cop wants to do is legal – there was no logical defensible reason. Doctoring has its famous basic principle, “First, do no harm.” Similarly, Rule #1 of policing should be, “Just because a thing can be done, does not mean it ought to be done.”
In his affidavit, Encinia stated his reason for removing Sandra from her car — “to further conduct a safe traffic investigation.” According to the special prosecutor, the grand jury found that statement to be false, which resulted in the only charge that was eventually filed against Encinia. That makes it pretty important. The grand jury did only one thing: it perceived that the trooper’s excuse was bullshit.
Without that bullshit excuse, none of the rest of it would have happened, and Sandra Bland would be among us.
Toxic bro culture is alive, and thrives
Take a man who hasn’t exactly scored famously with females, put him in a uniform and give him a gun. Now, he can compel women to pay him attention all day long. They have to hang around and look at his face and listen to his bullshit just exactly as long as he decides. And he can do just about anything to them and get away with it.
Let’s digress for a minute into how regrettable it is that some women use sexy theatrics to escape being ticketed, etc. To wield that kind of power is a huge temptation, but it makes things worse for all the other women who don’t want to buy their freedom by doing some kind of monkey dance, whether it’s giving the cop a blowjob or merely a nice big smile and a glimpse of cleavage. Just because something can be done, doesn’t mean it should be done.
Nothing’s wrong about having a great shape and a pleasing manner. But using them to get out of a bad situation should be a last resort, not the initial, go-to move. Using feminine wiles to placate cops hurts all your sisters. It enables the cops and encourages them to create scenarios like the one that ended up killing Sandra Bland.
It might have gone another way. The cop might have even enjoyed telling the boys about how he let this female motorist off with a warning, just because the sight of her bootyliciousness brightened up his day. Maybe all he wanted was a story for the locker room, about his encounter with a sassy brownskin beauty.
However, Sandra Bland was no meek college freshman, but a grown-ass woman whose previous law enforcement contacts were unpleasant. Encounters with police, if they are to end well, must be as stylized as Kabuki theater. Sandra, and this is one of the reasons why people love her, did a thing that rarely succeeds under these circumstances. She took him literally. He asked if she was upset, and why. She told him. Which made him feel challenged and, no doubt, inadequate.
Of course like all men, male cops are always hoping to get lucky, and there are still enough rapist-cop stories in circulation to conclude that they sometimes do. With cameras and all, it might be more difficult to perform actual sexual assault than in the past. But they make up for it in other ways. Remember Trooper Encinia’s threat when pointing his stun gun – “I’ll light you up!” It’s very, very tempting to be a complete bitch, and declare that he could never light a woman up in any other way.
The ogling factor
Why did Encinia so urgently want Sandra Bland out of her car? The answer is what feminist academics call “the male gaze,” and what used to be called “ogling.” He wanted to exercise the masculine prerogative, claimed by almost every man, of judging the body of any woman who crossed his path. How did she rate on the 1 to 10 scale? The other guys are sure to ask. But how could he possibly evaluate her ass, if she stayed in the damn car sitting on it!
If only she had been sassy-cute, rather than a mature woman aware of her rights. If only she had been willing to show him the goods – in a nice way, with a mischievous smile, it might have all been different.
Even if the encounter had ended with the delivery of a warning instead of arrest, it’s all too easy to imagine the talk in the break room or local dive bar or wherever these cretins hang out. “That heifer had some size on her,” he might have said. “In the old days, she’d have been out in the back forty, pulling a plow.”
Sandra was a statuesque woman, described by a friend as “a soldier” – 6 feet tall and 175 pounds, according to the booking sheet. In fact, she appears to have been taller than the officer – a grave offense, and perhaps there is even a pun concealed in this sentence. For a woman to be taller than a man is unnatural, don’t you know? It was one more black mark against her, and now there seem to be two puns.
Ogling is a perk of the job, and God knows, a civilian worth eyeballing doesn’t fall into a cop’s net every day. And he needs to get her out in the open, so he can check her out. Even more important, he needs to report back to the boys, “You shoulda seen it. Boo-tay for days!” and collect a congratulatory high-five.
But no. Bitch starts whining about her – what’s that? Rights?
“That’s a mighty big word for a little southern gal,” I can imagine him saying. (She’s southern by default, because that’s where all black people rightfully belonged, before they committed thievery against their owners by running away. And besides…) “I don’t know how they do things up there in Illinois, but you’re in the great state of Texas now.” (…this script just writes itself…)
The fuckery continues
As if pointing a taser weren’t enough, here’s another example of manipulation under color of law, eloquently described by CNN Legal Analyst Danny Cevallos:
But the exit order actually conceals a more nuanced constitutional problem. Notice that as she’s being arrested, the officer tells Bland that he was originally just going to give her a warning. But if you go back to the moment he returned to the car with a warning, it seems he never told her that. So only the trooper knew that Bland was going to be released with a warning. Bland believed she was still being detained for a ticket, or worse.
This is some bullying bullshit right here, like a sadistic big brother would do to a little kid. Dare him to eat a dog biscuit and then say, “I was gonna take you to Mickey D’s for lunch, but now you ate that dog biscuit, I guess you don’t need a burger and fries and a milkshake. Too bad.” Just sheer juvenile dominance games that have no legitimate place in honest law enforcement.
“Pulling someone out of the car is the only way to talk to them openly,” some cop wrote in an online forum. Really? Perhaps it is just a transparent demonstration of power, as confirmed by his use of the verb “pulling.” This officer claims that for him to talk down to someone is much more uncomfortable for the stopped driver. “Outside you’re face to face and on the same level. You can look into each other’s eyes and speak as humans.”
Except, no more talking was needed in this traffic stop that was, by all legal standards, already over. Except that before you end up supposedly conversing as humans, the driver has to jump through hoops and comply with the officer’s orders. Between a LEO and a civilian, there is no such thing as an interaction on equal footing, ever.
This ugly scene was summed up by Paul Spector, a retired U.S. Army captain who became a registered nurse, emergency medical technician, and paramedic. Having worked in a California state prison, he knew of many murders disguised as suicide.
Using threats and a weapon Sandra is forced from her car. Everything that follows is for the entertainment of her abductors and has nothing to do with lawful detention whatsoever.
A few more contributing factors
Eli Hager pointed out some things about the conversation, after backup arrived and after Sandra Bland had been moved into a police vehicle, between the trooper and his supervisor.
Encinia and his boss discuss how the trooper will portray his side of what happened. At one point, he reads aloud the definitions of “assault” and “resisting arrest,” as if trying to decide which charge Bland was guilty of. Later, he laughs in response to his boss’s words, then says, “No, I mean, I got some cuts on my hand, that’s, I mean I guess it is an injury.”
What question did the sergeant ask to get that answer? Probably, “You got your ass kicked, huh?” But, comradely ball-busting aside, the good ol’ boys are working it out. His superior will give the road cop a hard time, but will stand by him.
Although she is not connected with this case, I have to mention Judge Vonda Evans, who used her position to call out the toxic police culture, along with the pathetic pretense that nobody understands them, boo hoo.
On the contrary, a large portion of the public understands all too well that the police force is a haven for racists, sadists, and just plain assholes, fist-bumping and congratulating each other on what inhuman pieces of garbage they are. What a bummer that this one will likely be in prison for less than a year. Of course he will be given special protected status inside, lest some of his former victims take the opportunity for revenge. And there is still a chance that he will escape justice entirely. It took 8 months to fire him; he pleaded not guilty to the perjury charge in March; one news source says he was convicted of it in June, but another says the trial is delayed until October.
It’s such a pity that cops don’t make as much money as they and some others think they should. Maybe cities could afford to pay them better, if the cities weren’t going broke from compensating victims of police brutality. Plus, cops have opportunities to do stuff like fake injuries and go on total disability pay, for life, while working another job – like one of the cops did who “investigated” Kendrick Johnson’s death. I don’t have tears to spare for corrupt “peace officers.” One more quote from Danny Cevallos:
The Sandra Bland car stop didn’t show legal experts and civilians anything we didn’t already know: If an officer really wants to stick it to a driver during a stop, he can find a way.
Sandra Bland clearly announced her intention to see Encinia in court – which is why some theorists say she had to be killed. They believe that all charges against her would have been dropped, and the Dept. of Public Safety would have endured bad publicity. If that was the reason for murdering her in jail, it backfired, because now the publicity is horrendous.
And then there’s the whole policing-for-profit racket. So many states get their operating funds by harassing the public, especially the financially disadvantaged public, with rinky-dink charges. If that form of officially sanctioned highway robbery had not been allowed to grow and fester, Sandra Bland would probably be alive today.