The unfolding #SandraBland case pulls together so many of the racial and law enforcement problems in contemporary America that it makes one’s head spin. In this long post I pull together the many elements that her unreasonable incarceration and tragic death already illuminate: white repression of African Americans; racial profiling and for-profit-policing; the warrior cop; and the blue wall of silence.
Waller County, TX
To begin, let’s consider the history of Waller County, Texas. It is a microcosm of the history of white racial hegemony in the US, and Ms Bland is but the latest in a long line of activists who have challenged white authority in Waller County.
In 2010 Waller, which is west of Houston, had a population of ~43,000, 45% of whom identify as white, 29% Hispanic, and 24% African American. But a static snapshot tells us little compared with a consideration of how it got there from the vantage of the 1850s.
The Texas State Handbook of History has a useful entry
for learning about Waller County. Cotton dominated the county economy during the 19th and early 20th centuries. “By 1845 the east bank of the Brazos had become a prosperous, cotton-exporting plantation area; about 200 whites owned more than 1,000 slaves.” As happened throughout the country, following the Civil War white folks turned to violence
to prevent freed slaves from joining them as political, economic and social equals.
Though according to some reports the white citizens of Hempstead established a good relationship with the occupying soldiers, the city’s peace was disturbed by a race riot in 1868. The area’s majority black population became active in local politics during Reconstruction, and a number of blacks were elected to county and state offices. After Waller County was established in 1873, a majority of the county’s voters supported the Republican candidates in every presidential election from 1872 to 1896.
That is, white folks drove African Americans from Hempstead, but the large population of freed slaves were able to flex electoral muscles for the final quarter of the 19th Century.
White folks in Waller County thus set to the task of stripping their black neighbors of the right to vote, re-establishing their hegemony by 1912.
The county’s black majority population regularly delivered Republican victories in local, state, and national elections during much of the late nineteenth century, but in the 1880s a White Man’s Party was organized to reduce black political participation, and some elections were marked by violence. As a result, the county’s Republican vote dropped by 50 percent between 1896 and 1900; although 1,493 Republican votes were cast in the Presidential election of 1896, in 1900 the Republican ticket received only 760 votes. The 1903 state white primary law all but eliminated blacks as a political power in the county, and in the Presidential election of 1912, only 144 Republican ballots were cast.
“This is all ancient history,” a critic might object. But, the critic is mistaken:
There has been a history of controversies regarding the reluctance of county officials to allow students attending historically-black Prairie View A&M University to vote in Waller County.
Ms Bland has been described as a civil rights activist, active in the #BlackLivesMatter movement. When she stopped by a Texas State Trooper she was returning to her alma mater, Prairie View A&M, from Illinois to begin a new job. Here, again, is the official Texas history of Waller:
The town of Prairie View experienced particularly rapid growth as Prairie View A&M’s enrollment expanded, and by 1990 it was the largest population center in the county. The school’s growth has also shaped the social and political development of the county. In the 1960s Prairie View students boycotted Hempstead businesses to force integration. Black voters became a more potent political force in 1976, after students at Prairie View A&M successfully challenged obstacles to their local voting registration.
In 2008 judges ordered Waller County to assist Prairie View students to register (see here and here). Ancient history, right?
Ms Bland was 29 when she died in the county Sheriff’s jail in Hempstead. In 2008 she was 22. It is hardly a leap to suspect that a civil rights activist would be familiar with the history of voter suppression that targeted not only members of her race, but her fellow students in particular.
Driving While Black & For Profit Policing
“THP-New Badge” by Hartmann352 – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Texas Highway Patrol State Trooper Brian Encinia “pulled over Bland for allegedly failing to use her signal while changing lanes.” On the dashcam video released by the state we can hear Ms Bland explain:
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 moved over and you stopped me.
This is pretty clearly a case of driving while black (DWB)—watch from 1:45 to 2:13 of the full video to see the pullover—and quite likely an example of for-profit-policing. DWB has been a widely acknowledged problem for decades, and dates back to the pre-civil rights era of Jim Crow in the South and Sundown Towns throughout the rest of the country. While this harassment used to portend a severe risk of violence, today it is much more tempered, though still fraught with the potential for abusive violence. Indeed, it has shifted from an exclusive practice of intimidation to a revenue generating practice with a side serving of intimidation.
The national attention that Michael Brown’s killing brought to the city of Ferguson, MO’s use of traffic tickets to help fund local government played a major role in bringing this problem to light. In addition to the revenue generated by fines, these stops can also generate windfalls to the police via the stop and seize programs that former Attorney General Eric Holder put some limitations on a few months back.
But why would police target African Americans (and other people of color) in particular? One reason is racial profiling with respect to crime. But that isn’t a story about generating revenue. To understand that we need to recognize the income (and wealth) differences across racial and ethnic groups in the US. Any cop with experience wants to avoid writing traffic tickets to people who might “lawyer up”. The primary determinant of that likelihood is income.
Why not focus on older, beat up cars to meet one’s quota? I am confident studies of traffic stops would reveal that they do. But that ignores the incentive of the asset forfeiture programs. Ignoring mid level to high priced vehicles would allow potential assets to go unclaimed. When we add racial profiling to the mix, we get the DWB phenomenon where drivers like Ms Bland are pulled over for failing to observe a traffic law that most drivers routinely violate.
But what might make us believe that fines play a non-trivial role in the Waller County budget? This is the US, and we have the Internet, so I decided to look. You can read the Waller County Adopted Budget FY 2015 yourself (PDF).
In both 2012 and 2013 80% of the county revenues came from ad valorem (property and sales) taxes. The official state history of the county informs us that
In the 1980s the county had only ten manufacturing firms, generally specializing in metal fabrication and drilling equipment and supplies, and three banks. Most nonagricultural workers were employed in oil and gas extraction, service industries, and construction. In 1982 about 81 percent of the land was in farms and ranches.
The only manufacturer of consequence there today is Igloo, the plastic cooler company. The ad valorem tax base is not what one would consider robust.
Of the remaining 20% of revenues, what do you suspect is the largest contributor? That’s right: criminal and civil fines and fees, accounting for 4.1% in 2012 and 3.8% in 2013. If it waddles like a duck, and quacks like a duck, we are prudent to consider it a duck.
The Warrior Cop / Aggressive Police Tactics
To be sure, police work is dangerous. Today Hayward, CA Police Sergeant Scott Lunger was shot and killed during a traffic stop. One of the many reasons I did not seek a career in law enforcement was due to uncertainty about my ability to exercise appropriate discretion. But risk to bodily harm and life does not justify the aggressive tactics currently in use throughout so many police agencies in the US today.
As retired police officer Seth Stoughton put it recently, “modern policing has developed a “warrior” problem.”
In this worldview, officers are warriors combating unknown and unpredictable—but highly lethal—enemies. They learn to be afraid. Officers don’t use that word, of course. Vigilant, attentive, cautious, alert, or observant are the terms that appear most often in police publications. But officers learn to be vigilant, attentive, cautious, alert, and observant because they are afraid, and they afraid because they’re taught to be.
As a result, officers learn to treat every individual they interact with as an armed threat and every situation as a deadly force encounter in the making. Every individual, every situation — no exceptions.
If you have watched the video of Mr Encinia escalate his interaction with Ms Bland “in response to” what a police press statement describe as her becoming “argumentative and uncooperative” you know that Mr Encinia’s interaction with her fits this description. Stoughton explains:
Counterintuitively, the warrior mentality also makes policing less safe for both officers and civilians. Officers learn to both verbally and physically control the space they operate in. They learn that it is essential to set the proper tone for an encounter, and the tone that best preserves officer safety is widely thought to be one of “unquestioned command.” Even actingfriendly, officers are told, can make them a target. But like the use of physical force, the assertive manner in which officers set the tone of encounter can also set the stage for a negative response or a violent interaction—one that was, from the start, avoidable. From the warrior perspective, the solution is simple: the people with whom officers interact must accede, respecting officers’ authority by doing what they are told. The failure to comply is confirmation that the individual is an enemy for the warrior to vanquish, physically if necessary.
That passage is chilling in its prophecy. At the start of the video Mr Encinia is professional but curt, adopting a physical and vocal demeanor that indicates that he expects Ms Bland to show deference to his authority. He is setting the tone of the encounter. When Ms Bland does not play according to his expectation, he escalates vocally. That begins when Ms Bland declines to put out her cigarette.
Mr Encinia: “Step out of the car.” He then opens the car door.
Ms Bland: “You do not have the right.”
Mr Encinia interrupts – “I do have the right, step out of the car or I will remove you.”
M. Bland: “I refuse to talk to you other than to identify myself.”
Mr Encinia: “Step out or I will remove you.”
They go back and forth like that and Encinia asserts that he is giving her “a lawful order” and then reaches into the car and starts to pull her out. Ms Bland resists–it is unclear what their physical interaction is, but she may have slapped his arm and he jumps back and then plunges back in, almost shouting at her to “Get out of the car.” She objects, saying “Don’t touch me. I am not under arrest.” and appears to be moving her arms to prevent him from getting a grip on her. Mr Encinia asserts that she is under arrest, prompting Ms Bland to demand “What for?” Mr Encinia then calls for backup and continues to try to wrest Ms Bland from her driver’s seat, demanding that she “Get out of the car.”
Shortly thereafter Encinia infamously grabbed his taser and points it at Ms Bland and shouts: “I will light you up!”
Speaking broadly, this is undoubtedly how he was trained, though the Texas Department of Public Safety issued a statement that Encinia “did not follow the department’s “procedures regarding traffic stops” as well as its “courtesy policy”.” Redardless, Mr Encinia adopted the warrior perspective. Contrast the interaction with Ms Bland with the tail end of his interaction with another, compliant (and possibly white) driver who he let off with a warning for an unknown violation (see the start of the full video). Encinia pulls Ms Bland over less than 90 seconds later. He was out making traffic stops that day.
And you needn’t take Stoughton’s word about the warrior cop. This is Sunil Dutta, a 17-year-LAPD veteran, in a WaPo article titled “I’m a cop. If you don’t want to get hurt, don’t challenge me. It’s not the police, but the people they stop, who can prevent a detention from turning into a tragedy.”
Even though it might sound harsh and impolitic, here is the bottom line: if you don’t want to get shot, tased, pepper-sprayed, struck with a baton or thrown to the ground, just do what I tell you. Don’t argue with me, don’t call me names, don’t tell me that I can’t stop you, don’t say I’m a racist pig, don’t threaten that you’ll sue me and take away my badge. Don’t scream at me that you pay my salary, and don’t even think of aggressively walking towards me. Most field stops are complete in minutes. How difficult is it to cooperate for that long?
The warrior cop is a major part of law enforcement in America today, and it is one of a number of major challenges we face if we are to eliminate illegal arrests for “contempt of cop,” and the beatings and shootings that all too often are fatal.
Cameras and Filming Cops
Though I have yet to see commentary about it, Mr Encinia’s approach to video recording is disturbing.
After Mr Encinia threatened her with the taser Ms Bland reluctantly complies and exits the vehicle.
Ms Bland: “Wow. You doing all this just for a failure to signal?” as she walks toward the rear of her vehicle, holding her phone in the air. Ms Bland walks off camera onto the sidewalk, and Mr Encinia follows her.
Mr Encinia: “Get off the phone.”
Ms Bland: “I’m not on the phone. I have a right to record. We’re on public property.”
Mr Encinia: “Put your phone down!”
Ms Bland: “Sorry?”
Mr Encinia: “Put your phone down. Right now!”
She reluctantly walks to the trunk of her car and puts the phone on it, then steps back onto the sidewalk, and the two are again off camera.
Ms Bland taunts Mr Encinia, asking “Do you feel good about yourself now?” and variations on that theme. He hollers at her to “Turn around. Turn around now!” She asks him why he is arresting her, and he continues to demand that she turn around, slipping in that “I gave you a lawful order” as she keeps asking why.
Mr Encinia: “You are not being compliant.”
It is unclear whether he grabbed her and spun her around, but Ms Bland suddenly exclaims: “You’ve gotta be kidding me. This is bullshit. This is complete bullshit.” and we see her enter the frame as Mr Encinia disappears from view, and she appears to have her hands pinned behind her back.
She begins to taunt him about being scared of a female, and they disappear from view. He then begins shouting “Stop moving! Stop moving!” and she exclaims in surprise “Are you serious!?!” Encinia tells her that she was going to get a warning, “but now you are going to jail.” She calls him a “pussy” several times.
He then retrieves the paperwork and points to it. “This here is a warning.” Then points at her. “You created the problem.” It is as if LAPD officer Dutta wrote the script.
What happens next if off camera, but he repeatedly shouts at the top of his lungs “Stop!” while she complains that he is hurting her wrists, claims not to be moving, and whimpers and cries in pain. It is very stressful to listen to.
Mr Encinia: “You are yanking around. When you pull away from me, you are resisting arrest!”
Ms Bland continues to protest, saying “This is bullshit” and “For changing lanes.”
At that moment a female officer can be heard joining Encinia and Bland. We then hear Ms Bland say “I bet you feel real good now. You just knocked my head into the ground, mother fucker.” She continues to berate him.
Mr Encinia: “Good. Good.”
Slate has put together a mix of the dashcam video with a bystander’s phone video that begins shortly after the female officer arrived. It begins with Ms Bland on the ground, the female officer kneeling on her to hold her down.
Female Officer: “[inaudible] for resisting”
Mr Encinia: “I want you to wait right here.”
Ms Bland: “I can’t go nowhere with a fucking knee in my back. Duh.”
As Mr Encinia walks back to his patrol car he shouts at the bystander “You need to leave” three times. The bystander asks whether he is on public property and keeps recording. Mr Encinia chooses not to further challenge the bystander.
Why was Ms Bland arrested? “on a charge of assaulting a public servant” (read the charge here). That is patently ridiculous, unless they want to argue that she “verbally assaulted” Mr Encinia.
It is, of course, perfectly legal to video record the police in public. Both Ms Bland and the bystander were aware of this, and had a sense for how to respond when Mr Encinia challenged them. Mr Encinia’s efforts to stop the recording suggest that even in the heat of the moment he was aware that he was out of bounds. After all, earlier this month a Texas police officer’s body camera vindicated him in a deadly shooting. Cops going about their job lawfully should welcome video that will corroborate their account.
Of course, as the Slate video demonstrates, Mr Encinia’s verbal account of the arrest to dispatch is not consistent with the evidence. You can read accounts that challenge the legality of his conduct here and here.
The Blue Wall of Silence
Yesterday’s news cycle brought us not one, but two stories about whistle blowing law enforcement officers who defied the blue wall of silence (BWoS), and lost their jobs because of it. The Chicago Sun Times reported about an internal affairs investigator who refused to cover up unjustified police shootings while The Miami Herald reported about a prison guard who could not stomach a cover-up of his fellow officer gouging out a mentally challenged inmate’s eye. Today 538.com reported on an NYPD officer who blew the whistle on abuses by fellow officers who were “trying to meet their quotas.” Last month a former Baltimore police officer described routine abuse and physical violence meted out by that city’s finest against people of color, and back in January a different former Baltimore cop explained how he was driven from the force for refusing to go along hiding the abuse of others on the force.
Hoary paeans to the heroism of police aside, researchers have linked the rise of the BWoS to the success of police unions during the mid-20th century, and concomitant decline of civilian authority. This phenomenon was most recently illustrated in the conflict between NYPD and Mayor Deblasio, but has been a prominent aspect of policing since the 1950s.
This problem all but ensures that if Ms Bland did not take her own life, those who did are unlikely to face justice for the murder. This fact is hard for Americans to swallow, but the BWoS is a fact, and whistle blowers like Frank Serpico and Joe Darby and those reported upon above who violate the BWoS are few and far between.
In closing, I have not touched on Ms Bland’s death in the county jail, which Sheriff Glenn Smith and the county coroner have called a suicide, and Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis is investigating as a possible murder. The Texas Department of Public Safety issued a finding (PDF) that the jail failed to observe proper suicide prevention protocol during Ms Bland’s incarceration, and Fox News is reporting that Ms Bland allegedly claimed to have considered suicide in the past.
Given my concerns about the BWoS I am primarily interested to know more about why Ms Bland was incarcerated rather then released.
Did she seek to post bond? (she did) Did she request legal representation? If not, was she seeking to draw attention to injustice be refusing to cooperate with the system, invoking the “Jail-In” tactic initiated by Florida A&M students in 1960, which Martin Luther King, Jr and the SCLC would borrow for the 1963 Birmingham campaign? I hope reporters ask, and get answers to, these questions.
It is possible that Ms Bland fell victim to a vengeful system that sought to “show her who was boss” and remind her of the importance of “respecting authority.” She certainly did on the street, next to her vehicle at the hands of Mr Encinia. But did the “authority play” abuse continue once she landed in Sheriff Smith’s Hempstead jail? Was she being held “incommunicado”?
If so, as painful as it will be to friends and family to countenance, suicide is a conceivable outcome. To be sure, it far from a likely or probable outcome: the odds are strongly against a suicide, regardless of whether one has had such thoughts in life prior to being held in isolation. But the public, law enforcement, and politicians dramatically underestimate the profound alienation and psychological trauma that confinement can induce. Indeed, the Bush administration’s enhanced interrogation program relied not just upon water boarding and other physical discomfort, but the intentional inducement of hopelessness, precisely the sort of abuse a vengeful group might heap upon one who they believe has broken the code of conduct and needs to be taught a lesson.
As such, should the District Attorney’s office rule that Ms Bland’s death was a suicide, that determination will not in any way exonerate the prison officials in Sheriff Smith’s jail. It will raise lots of questions beyond the negligence that the Texas Department of Public Safety has already declared. They are questions I worry may never be asked, much less get answered.
Correction: I was unaware she had discussed bond with Joe Booker and spoken with her sister on Fri July 10th.
Update: the original post did not include the contempt of cop” point.