Crossing the Line
The hard truth behind police misconduct in Prairie View and McKinney.
The national scandal over police misconduct that began a little more than a year ago in Ferguson, Missouri, and moved through New York, Baltimore, Cleveland, and Cincinnati came to Texas this summer, most recently to Waller County, outside Houston. On July 10, Sandra Bland was driving through Prairie View—where she planned to soon start a new job with her alma mater, Prairie View A&M—when she was pulled over by state trooper Brian T. Encinia. Bland, a black woman, was stopped for changing lanes without signaling—the kind of minor traffic violation that black people are disproportionately accused of. Whatever inspired Encinia to flip on his lights, the stop should have ended in a warning or, at worst, a ticket. Instead, it resulted in Bland’s arrest. And three days later, she was dead.
At the time of her death, she was in custody at the Waller County jail, and officials later declared that she had hanged herself. The circumstances surrounding her death—the subject of much speculation on social media—remain unclear as of this writing. What’s plainly evident, though, is that she never should have been there.
Bland’s arrest became a major news story, which prompted the Department of Public Safety to release video of her encounter with Encinia, recorded by the dashboard camera in the officer’s vehicle. In the footage, Encinia seems irritated when Bland expresses frustration about the reason for the traffic stop. He becomes enraged when she refuses to extinguish her cigarette in her own car, a command she wasn’t obligated to obey. He opens her door, puts his hands on her, and tries to drag her out. When that fails, he threatens her by saying, “I will light you up,” and points his Taser at her.
After Bland gets out of her car, much of the encounter takes place on the sidewalk, outside the camera’s range, but the audio captures Bland’s cries of “You’re about to break my wrist,” “I’ve got epilepsy,” and “He slammed my head into the ground,” as Encinia shouts at her. There’s another video of Bland’s arrest, captured on a cellphone and posted on YouTube, that shows parts of the encounter that the dash cam missed: in that footage, we can see another officer (who arrived at the scene several minutes after Bland was stopped) on top of Bland, with a knee in her back, as she lies facedown on the ground, screaming in pain and terror.
The image—of a Texas law enforcement officer pinning down an unarmed black woman—is one we’d seen already this year. A month before Bland’s arrest, in the North Texas suburb of McKinney, a white officer named Eric Casebolt arrived at a pool party in the affluent Craig Ranch North community. The party was hosted by a nineteen-year-old African American girl who lived in the neighborhood. Her mostly white neighbors had responded by calling the police. Casebolt was captured on video as the picture of an out-of-control cop: yelling at black teenagers, swearing, and throwing a fifteen-year-old black girl to the ground face-first and sitting on top of her, then pulling his gun and brandishing it at teens in bathing suits. Most telling of all, the footage was captured by a white kid who wandered around the scene unmolested.
The incidents were chillingly similar: an angry white cop escalating an innocent encounter and physically oppressing an unarmed black person. In McKinney, it resulted in only bruises and humiliation. In Waller County, it resulted in an arrest that may have contributed to Bland’s death. But both of them fit into a national narrative that’s been building for months—and years—as the litany of names of unarmed black people killed by police grows: Oscar Grant III, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Larry Jackson Jr., Tanisha Anderson, Yvette Smith, Natasha McKenna, Rekia Boyd, and on and on.
These incidents have too seldom resulted in serious consequences for the offending officers. With few exceptions, police are almost never prosecuted. Discipline tends to range from suspension to firing. Even when officers lose their jobs or resign, as Casebolt did, they can quickly catch on with another department. In 2013 two Jasper officers were fired after they were captured on video grabbing a black woman in their custody by the hair, slamming her head into a counter, and dragging her around the room by the leg. By 2014 one of the officers, Ryan Cunningham, had found work in the Jasper County Sheriff’s Office.
In a few instances, officers have tried to escape responsibility by lying about or inflating what happened. In Waller County, Encinia at the very least seemed to exaggerate in his report, claiming that he arrested Bland for assaulting an officer, when the video shows him telling her while she’s still in the car that she’s under arrest. (No footage of Bland obviously assaulting Encinia appears in the recording.)
For state senator Rodney Ellis, trust in law enforcement, especially in the African American community, is deteriorating. Ellis, a black Democrat from Houston, has long worked to reform the criminal justice system in Texas. He warns of dire consequences when a community feels disconnected from, and suspicious of, the police. “For law enforcement to work in this country, you have to have a relationship between law enforcement and the community that they’re there to protect. If not, this will have to turn into a police state, or we’ll have total anarchy,” he says. “We’re not going to spend the resources it would take to turn this into a police state, nor would the people accept it.”
Ellis points out that the distrust isn’t just among African Americans, though he says it’s more extreme now than he’s ever seen it. “It’s in the Anglo community as well,” he says.
That’s an important point. We’re a law-and-order state, but we’re also a state full of people who are committed to the ideal of the freedom-loving, iconoclastic, rugged individualist. We respect the badge, but we’re also a state that recently passed a law allowing the open carrying of handguns, over the explicit objections of police departments. The open carry measure was backed by several prominent libertarian activists who engage in “cop watch” patrols, in which they record police activity and upload videos to YouTube of people quoting the Constitution at officers. Many activists have professed that police abuse, government overreach, and infringement on civil liberties are threats to freedom. When white people have had their guns unjustly confiscated, these same activists have raged on social media.
Yet with few exceptions, libertarians in Texas have largely been silent on the Bland and McKinney cases. (One exception was Representative Jonathan Stickland, a Republican from Tarrant County, who noted at a recent legislative hearing on Bland that “liberties were stomped on” in her arrest.) When I went to the Waller County jail in late July, I saw a group of demonstrators sitting outside the building holding “What Happened to Sandra Bland?” signs. Most of them were black; a few were white. I asked them why they thought libertarians weren’t out there with them. Most of the people I asked didn’t want to answer. One demonstrator, a white woman named Hannah Bonner, who serves as a Methodist pastor at St. John’s Church in downtown Houston, finally did.
“I think that people have difficulty translating their beliefs to situations they don’t easily identify with,” she said. “So they don’t easily identify with Sandra Bland. They have trouble seeing that they’re being inconsistent in their belief system if they’re not speaking of her. That might be rooted in insular thinking, or it might be rooted in racism.”
Indeed, Waller County has a sad history of racism. The county suffered the third most lynchings in Texas between 1877 and 1950. County sheriff Glenn Smith previously served as the chief of police in Hempstead, the county seat, until he was fired amid allegations of racism and police misconduct. The City of McKinney, meanwhile, settled a 2008 lawsuit that accused it of “illegal racial steering” to keep low-income housing from being developed on the west side of the city, which is 86 percent white. But, then, there are scarcely any regions of Texas—or the rest of the U.S., for that matter—that don’t have their own history of racial oppression.
In recent years, it’s been tempting to ignore this history or to think we’d somehow advanced beyond its reach. After we elected the first black president, in 2008, quite a few commentators wondered if the U.S. was evolving into a post-racial society. The people who were paying attention, particularly in black communities, knew such statements were premature. They talked about the disproportionate number of African Americans sent to prison on minor drug offenses, and how black drivers were being unfairly targeted by police. These were issues many white Americans hadn’t thought much about—until they started seeing the videos.
In that sense, videos like the ones from McKinney and Waller County are valuable in part because they show white people what black people have known for years: that racism, both individual and institutional, is alive and well. When I talked to a young black activist named Rhys Caraway outside the Waller County Sheriff’s Office, he said his uncle was a Texas Ranger, which, to him, meant simply that he’d gotten better advice on how to deal with the racism he would encounter. “I grew up around police officers, and I had to be taught how to act when I went into certain neighborhoods so I wouldn’t be targeted or profiled or pulled over for no reason,” Caraway told me. “They know the truth: even though they’re police, at the end of the day, they’re still black. When they’re not in the uniform, they’re just as black as I am.”
If Texans fail to grasp the significance of Sandra Bland’s traffic stop and the treatment of the teens in McKinney, we not only risk perpetuating injustice, but we jeopardize some of our great Texas ideals. We like law and order when that means other people are punished for actions we disapprove of, and we like freedom and individual rights when people we identify with stand up for themselves. But what about Bland, who exercised her First Amendment right to be unfriendly to a police officer and ended up dead? What is it about her that keeps many of the voices of freedom and individual rights from identifying her as part of their cause?
Perhaps it’s because many Texans like the frontier mentality of standing on your own, but they like that idea best when it applies to someone who doesn’t look like Bland. Some Texans still want to believe that if the kids in McKinney had just done what the officer said—if Bland had smiled and said she was sorry for not using her turn signal—then all this trouble could have been avoided. In other words, some Texans like the frontier myth for only certain people. It’s time to acknowledge the hard truth behind these incidents: that our contradictory Texas ideals—our love of law and order and our frontier mythology—are ideals that have applied mostly to white people. Perhaps, after seeing these videos, Texans can begin to change that.