One would hope that it is possible for a white policeman and a black citizen to come into contact in a routine traffic stop without it becoming a matter of race and ending badly. But maybe not.
Certainly the matter of Sandra Bland would dictate that it isn’t.
Ms. Bland’s suicide in a Texas jail cell where she shouldn’t have been has made it clear that there is little black and white in the application of even the simplest misdemeanor laws. The incident of escalation elevates so quickly that interpretation of what just happened varies widely and leaves the truth twisting slowly in the wind of public opinion.
A white Texas state patrolman who has just come off a stop in which he warned another female driver quite civilly of a violation watches a car with an Illinois tag change to the curb lane without signaling. He pulls over the car driven by a black woman, leaves his vehicle and approaches on the passenger side to avoid traffic. He asks for her license and registration and returns to his car to check for wants and warrants, a standard procedure. The process takes longer than normal because the details are out of state.
He returns to her car with his ticket book and the expressed intent of giving her a warning, he says. He asks if she is agitated about something, saying at the same time whether she “would mind” putting our her cigarette. She objects, stating indignantly it is her car and she will do as she pleases.
The patrolman then orders her to step out of her car, producing almost instantaneously an outburst of her rights not to have to do so, provoking a stern response from the officer that ultimately leads to a tussle and a threat from him to “light you up” with a Taser. Throughout the episode, Ms. Bland utters nonstop a stream of epithets, complaints and threats of legal action in a loud voice even when a black female officer shows up and tries to calm her.
At one point, the arresting officer, Brian T. Encinia, can be heard saying, in the tape that lasts nearly an hour as a he awaits a tow truck and ambulance that he was just trying to give her a warning. What the public sees in news reports of the video are merely snippets of the entire episode.
So what just happened? For African Americans, it was yet another example of white police brutality in a tradition of racism that still plagues us.
It is clear that the catalyst was his request that she stub out her cigarette, which to her was evidence of another attempt to take away her rights. For him, it was a normal request and he apparently saw her defiance as a threat to his authority. His reaction could be interpreted as premature, unnecessary and belligerent.
One can’t watch this video taken from Encinia’s patrol car without a conclusion that Ms. Bland’s emotions were out of control and probably dictated less aggressive response from the officer. But as is often the case, his emotion escalated with hers, causing a semi-violent confrontation.
Black Americans have faced a history of bad police behavior in normally routine situations, especially in southern states, making them wary of any white officer. Frequently this stems, if not because of undisguised racism, from lack of police training in handling emotionally driven resistance. At the same time, the nation’s police from the smallest venue to the largest have become justifiably paranoid in a world where every action is recorded an open for misinterpretation.
Considering that in her incarceration, authorities ignored evidence that she once had considered suicide and that what had occurred in her traffic stop was not entirely rational, they did nothing to assure her safety … even from herself. This has produced some doubts about a coroner’s verdict that it was suicide and leaves authorities vulnerable to charges of responsibility for her death and open to further investigation.
Both parties in this tragedy, which has been repeated far too many times, share the blame. Her overreaction, common among her peers for good reason, helped fuel the fire. On the other hand no one should doubt the aggravating role of the police officer in a minor instance where a cooler head should have prevailed. There was bad judgment all around and tragedy ensued.
Dan Thomasson is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service and a former vice president of Scripps Howard Newspapers. Readers may send him email at: : email@example.com .
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