Fourteen days after Sandra Bland was arrested and ten days after she was found dead in the Waller County jail, it’s starting to seem unlikely that we’ll ever know with certainty how a routine traffic stop led to her death. Citing a preliminary autopsy, a prosecutor told reporters Thursday that she died by suicide. The independent autopsy her family requested could reveal foul play, but it might not. And if there isn’t, then most likely the official story — that Bland committed suicide in her cell by hanging herself with a plastic bag — will remain the stated cause of death, and that explanation will forever be held in doubt by people who consider the Waller County authorities and the Texas Department of Public Safety that arrested Bland to have very little credibility on the matter. But the question that we’ve been asking — #whokilledSandraBland — puts the focus on the wrong issue.
At this point, anyone who expresses with any confidence that they know what happened to Sandra Bland is only demonstrating faith in their own guesses. Let’s look at the facts that we know are true based on the video released to the public:
- Sandra Bland was stopped on suspicion of a minor traffic violation that is often used as a pretext to pull over black drivers.
- She was asked to leave her car not because she was suspected of possessing anything illegal or because she presented an immediate threat to Encinia’s safety, but because she expressed her frustration at her stop — after he asked what was wrong — and she refused to put out a cigarette that she was not obligated to extinguish.
- She was taken into custody on the charge of assaulting a public servant, which — based on what we can hear on the video — does not appear to be the same situation Encinia wrote about it in his arrest report.
- The jail staff failed to observe policies and rules that are designed to keep people in jail safe.
With all of that in mind, the question of how Bland died is less pressing than the fact that, were it not for a series of failures on the part of the Department of Public Safety and the Waller County Sheriff’s Office, this almost certainly never would have happened.
Let’s say that Sandra Bland did take her own life. It’s possible — on her jail intake form, she indicated that she had previously attempted suicide after losing a baby, and the medical examiner claimed to have found over 30 cuts on her arms that were believed to be self-inflicted. But her friends and family — who are grieving, to be certain — talk about how she was “strong,” and how she had much to live for as evidence that she would be incapable of committing suicide. Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis said that his concerns about suicide were based, in part, on the fact that “she did have a lot of things going on in her life for good.”
People whose friends and family consider them strong and who appear to have good things going on in their lives do commit suicide. The reasons people commit suicide aren’t often related to “strength” or their job prospects. The focus on “was she happy” or “was she strong” is a simplified explanation that, perhaps, is more appropriate for children, but it’s not one that’s useful for adults talking about the issue.
At the Washington Post, Radley Balko wrote about jailhouse suicide, which is much more common than suicide outside of jails. Those statistics don’t prove anything about what happened to Sandra Bland, but they do make clear that framing it as a simple question of “why would someone who had good things in her life kill herself” ignores the complexity of the issue.
But ignoring nuances is appealing, because in a case this sad we want simple answers that let us sideline the larger issues at play. In this case, it means we don’t have to look at a police culture that says, “You can beat the rap, but you can’t beat the ride,” or the idea that “contempt of cop” is a valid reason to arrest someone.
The point that Sandra Bland disrespected a police officer, and thus should have expected to have been arrested, has been made a lot in the past few days. The Dallas Morning News published a column from Steve Blow that instructed citizens to, “very simply, obey police,” and declared that “Sandra Bland bears some responsibility for escalating the confrontation with a state trooper.” The Houston Chronicle ran a headline that advised people to “comply first, complain later” when dealing with officers who make dubious instructions. Quoting former Alvin Police Officer Phillip Lyons, who is currently the dean of the College of Criminal Justice at Sam Houston State University, the Chronicle wrote:
“Not knowing why the stop has been made, not knowing what the officer’s motivation is, not knowing what level of risk the officer has assessed as being associated with the stop, it’s probably safer to comply and worry about working out details later.”
Lyons added, “If the officer is attempting to do something that is illegal or immoral, then, even under those circumstances, there probably are better ways of remedying that than in getting into a conflict with the officer on the side of the road.”
The idea that we tacitly accept “contempt of cop” as an offense is bizarre. Citizens aren’t required to be polite or friendly to police. And Bland definitely wasn’t to Encinia, but, by law, she didn’t have to be. Still, Encinia decided that her actions merited him using his authority to force her to comply.
We give the police a lot of leeway in how they carry out their responsibilities. They carry formal immunity against charges that, if someone who wasn’t a police officer did them, would be crimes. Even when they aren’t formally immune, indictments for officers are rare, and our courts are very much inclined to accept even an unlikely scenario as fact when it’s presented by police.
But the only reason we grant police officers like Brian T. Encinia the authority that he used in his encounter with Sandra Bland is to keep people like Sandra Bland safe. And when that encounter ends with her in cuffs — and, then, in a coffin — its in part because he’s abused the authority that we granted him.
And that, ultimately, is the great tragedy in the death of Sandra Bland and so many others. Every time we write about an encounter that portrays the police in a negative light — the death of Bland, or the McKinney pool party, or police in Austin pepper spraying and snatching property out of citizen hands for no visible reason — we receive comments from readers who want to know why we don’t spend more time writing about the good things that the police do, or why we aren’t writing about when police are killed in the line of duty.
The reason for that is simple: Because when an officer like Brian T. Encinia, or Eric Casebolt, or any other person we entrust with a badge and a gun abuses his authority, he’s doing so in our name, on our dime. When a police encounter ends with Sandra Bland dead or teenagers abused, we all bear some culpability for it, because we paid them to do it. And as long as we talk about bad-apple police, or how refusing to comply with police orders with a smile on your faces means that you bear some responsibility for whatever the police do to you afterward, we’re endorsing that system.
The death of a police officer at the hands of a criminal is a tragedy, but it’s one that has a clear and simple villain: The person who pulled the trigger. The death of Sandra Bland is a tragedy, too, but the villain there is one it’s a lot less comfortable to identify: It’s all of us who empower a police culture that, as it’s been proven again and again in recent years, does not work for all of the citizens it was created to serve and protect.