I am struggling mightily with the death of Sandra Bland.
Struggling to understand it, struggling with the tragedy of it, and struggling especially with how utterly unnecessary and unfair it feels. And how depressing it is to watch the video of her initial encounter with police.
I am struggling with whether the nation that watches the video can see itself.CartoonMatt Davies' latest cartoon: Bill and Donald's bindersCommentSubmit your letterReader essaysGet published in Newsday
At one point, Texas state trooper Brian Encinia asked Bland to put out her cigarette, and she questioned him. That's when the yelling started, the tension ratcheted up, and Encinia threatened Bland with a stun gun: "I will light you up!" Experts say the stop was going by the book until then. But Encinia and Bland were already reading from two different books.
Many of us know one of those books well. It's the nervousness Bland must have felt when Encinia was driving behind her, so she switches lanes to let him pass, and he pulls her over instead. She's waiting for the ticket when the officer questions her.
Asks if she's okay and says, "You seem very irritated." "I am. I really am," Bland says. "Because of what I've been stopped and am getting a ticket for. I've been getting out of the way. You've been speeding up, so I move over and you stop me. So yeah, I am a little irritated. But that didn't stop you from giving me a ticket." She said that to the officer.
Because he ASKED her.
Because why? Because something about the set of her jaw didn't sit right with him? "Are you done?" Encinia then said, operating from his own book.
"You asked me what was wrong, and I told you. So now I'm done, yeah," she replied.
He could have just ticketed her and left. But that's when he asked (not even ordered) her to put out the cigarette.
That was simply about power.
Repeatedly, it's a dynamic that has shown itself to be monstrous as the cameras are rolling. The Bland arrest happened at a moment when American policing seems too often unhinged. And the ability to alter or take people's lives rests in the hands of officers who, when confronted in a job that requires a deft touch for de-escalation, seem criminally unable to get a hold of themselves.
I'm the po-lice! I can do anything I want. You're nobody deserving of a more thoughtful interaction. And there's no societal pressure or apparently internal or human code that calls me to treat you the way I'd want somebody to treat my mother or sister or daughter. Even if I'm asking you, you don't get to admit to a range of emotions, including irritation - your job is to endure, or just serve up some of that forgiveness because we can't get enough of that.
I wish Bland had put out that cigarette. Then maybe she wouldn't have sat in jail. Because these are the margins of life - everybody's life and, Lord knows, black life - when you're dealing with the police.
But I'm struggling to understand why people who seem so temperamentally unsuited for the myriad judgments of police work keep signing up (and getting hired) for the job. I asked Michael Jenkins, a University of Scranton professor and expert on community policing whom I often turn to for insight.
"It's not just temperament, it's training," he says. "To its detriment, policing has ingrained in their officers this sense of danger." And when danger is the default, even small challenges to authority often get met with a "defense of life" response.
Danger is always a possibility, as the police officer shot and killed in the Bay Area last week vividly illustrates. But it ends up being a relatively small part of what police are tasked to do every day in a democracy, Jenkins says. Most of their job requires that they treat people as individuals and not undifferentiated threats. "You can't say this," Jenkins notes, because police will cite "the few examples where an officer responded too slowly and someone turns around and kills them. There are those examples, but there are too many examples of citizens having their rights and lives taken unfairly." According to the FBI, 51 officers were killed in the line of duty in 2014. This is up from the 27 officers killed in 2013. From 1980 to 2014, an average of 64 officers were killed.
According to a Washington Post database of police shootings, police have shot and killed 544 people this year as of Saturday. Of that number, 76 people were unarmed or had a toy weapon and at least 34 of them were driving a vehicle.
Yet as a society, we're reflexively loath to question police, even when it would make them better, and all of us, including them, safer. Even when we're screaming with our questions.
In the Texas video, Encinia is not being threatened; he's just acting out.
Even Jenkins, as someone who studies police and talks about the hard realities they face, says he feels deflated. You see Bland reacting to how she's being treated, he says. And "I'm also sensing it now as a person who is tired of seeing these videos of police acting in a way that is opposite of what we'd expect of them."