Over the past week questions have been building about the series of events that began with a routine traffic stop, on July 10th, and ended with the death of the driver. Sandra Bland, a young black woman from Illinois, had been preparing to start a new job at her own alma mater, Prairie View A&M, when she was pulled over by DPS Trooper Brian Encinia after failing to signal before changing lanes. During the course of the encounter, she was arrested on charges of assaulting a public servant, thus taken into custody at the Waller County Jail. Three days later she was found in her cell, hanging by a trash bag, not breathing.
This is obviously a bizarre and troubling story. Fortunately, law enforcement and elected officials seem to be treating it as such. On July 16th the FBI and the Texas Rangers announced that they would work together to investigate Bland’s death. DPS, for its part, issued a statement saying that on preliminary review, Encinia had violated department policy during the stop, and that he had been put on administrative leave pending further investigation. Yesterday the Waller County DA announced that although Bland’s death was initially ruled a suicide, they would now treat it like a murder investigation after hearing, from a number of people close to Bland, that she had not said anything to indicate suicidal intent. And earlier today, DPS released dashcam footage from Encinia’s car, which documents the entire encounter, although only from the perspective of the dashboard.
Having watched the video, I agree with state senator Royce West, who was among the officials who met in Prairie View for today’s roundtable, which was followed by a press conference: Bland did not deserve to be put in custody. At the beginning of the encounter, Bland was clearly annoyed, and I guess discourteous. But people sometimes do get irritated when they get nabbed for an inconsequential traffic violation. State troopers, one would think, are philosophical about that, and yet it was Encinia who escalated the situation. He requested that she put out her cigarette, and she declined, at which point he ordered her to get out of the car; after she objected and asked why, he opened the car door and reached inside, saying that he would “yank” her out. That’s the first point at which the supposed assault on a public servant could have occurred, and although the dashcam footage doesn’t show what happened inside her car, any physical contact would have been the result of Encinia encroaching on Bland, not the other way around.
I also agree with state representative Helen Giddings: “This young woman should be alive today.” Why isn’t she? That’s a question that the dashcam footage doesn’t clarify, and really couldn’t. We already knew that Bland ended up in the Waller County Jail as a result of a traffic stop. We should continue to examine what role her race played in the clearly disproportionate escalation of the traffic stop. It’s safe to posit that if not for her detention, she probably wouldn’t be dead. But her death, one would hope, wasn’t an inevitable outcome of the situation. And so I agree with Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, too: Bland’s family and loved ones deserve answers; since it may take some time to provide them, the search should be handled as transparently as possible, wherever it may lead.