aNewDomain — On July 10 Sandra Bland was pulled over by a policeman in Prairie View, Texas.
Three days later, she was found dead, hanging in her jail cell.
A police dashcam video of her arrest has sparked national debate, with many people, including me, questioning whether this intelligent, strong 28-year-old woman was targeted and killed for Driving While Black.
Critics of the police – correctly so – are focusing on the largest issues surrounding the case, such as lousy police training. Rather than attempt to de-escalate the situation by explaining the reason for the stop, the officer editorializes and goads Bland into responding.
He picks a fight with her over her cigarette, tries to drag her out of her car and then threatens to Tase her. It’s all on the video.
Still others are asking about the alleged suicide.
Why were reporters and other police officers allowed to visit the prison cell where Bland was found dead – wasn’t it an active crime scene?
If she really committed suicide by hanging herself with a huge garbage bag, why is there a similar bag clearly visible in her cell?
If, as police claim, Bland told cops that she was suicidal, why didn’t they put her on, you know, suicide watch?
And how the hell did she hang herself? According to her jailers, her feet were touching the ground when they found her dead. That’s not unprecedented, true. But it is weird, and a detailed explanation is required.
As far as I’m concerned, even if she did take her own life, the police murdered her. It doesn’t matter if she killed herself or if cops faked her suicide. Either way, they arrested her for no reason whatsoever. They kept her on ice for three days in jail – a gross violation of her habeas corpus right to quickly see a judge and be released or indicted. And she died in their care.
Because the initial traffic stop and her arrest were unjustified, anything that happened subsequently is the police department’s responsibility, even if she turns out to have been a terribly sensitive, psychologically fragile person.
But what I’d like to focus on is why she got pulled over in the first place.
Day after day, police act in such a way as to entice law-breaking, for which they then issue sanctions in the form of tickets, fines and arrests.
Like a doctor running over pedestrians with his own car, their behavior is self-serving. It gins up business and generates revenue for local municipalities.
When Texas State Trooper Brian Encinia first talks to Sandra Bland, here’s what he says: “Hello ma’am. We’re the Texas Highway Patrol and the reason for your stop is because you failed to signal the lane change.”
Shortly afterward, Encinia notes: “You seem very really irritated.”
“I am. I really am,” Bland replies. “I feel like it’s crap what I’m getting a ticket for. I was getting out of your way. You were speeding up, tailing me, so I move over and you stop me.”
There is no way to know if this is exactly what happened, but it’s interesting that Encinia, who is almost immediately beligerent, didn’t argue with her about what she claimed was the reason for the stop. I’d bet 100-to-1 that he did speed up behind her. When she scooted to the right to let him pass, he then stopped her for failing to use her right-turn signal.
Experts on Texas law say the stop was technically legally justified and a ticket issued for the offense would be, too. But in practical terms police officers would rarely act on what is an extremely trivial, routine matter.
This smells to me like an incident that began as an excessively aggressive effort to fulfill one of those notorious monthly traffic-ticket quotas the police are always denying but which have been repeatedly documented.
I know, because cops have tricked me like this three times – and I’m a boring white guy.
By any objective standard, Sandra Bland shouldn’t have been pulled over. She wasn’t speeding. No one is claiming she was breaking any laws.
If that cop, Brian Encinia, hadn’t sped up behind her, she wouldn’t have had to pull over. Thus there would have been no requirement for her to signal.
Of the three incidents I myself have experienced, one was extremely brazen. I was driving up Madison Avenue in Manhattan during the afternoon rush hour when a policeman standing in the lane directly in front of me – I was in the right lane – pointed to my right, indicating that I should turn right. There was a line of cars stopped in front of me, so I stopped.
The officer rapped on my window and wrote me a ticket for – you guessed it – an illegal right turn. And he had done the same thing to the line of cars in front of me.
As we waited for our tickets, an angry Pakistani taxi driver threatened to get his tire iron to kill the cop. I sympathized, of course. He certainly would have had it coming. But I was in a Zen mood.
“You’ll do no such thing,” I remember telling him. “You’ll take your stupid ticket, pay it, and chalk it up to just having a bad day.” Which is what I did.
Why didn’t I challenge this illegally issued ticket? Because I’ve challenged tickets in New York before, even when I was able to prove, for example, that there was no fire hydrant anywhere near the parking spot where I got a ticket for parking in front of a fire hydrant. I always lost.
You can’t fight City Hall, and you certainly can’t fight the Parking Violations Bureau.
The second such incident was the time that a police officer pulled up on my left, turned on his flashers, and pointed for me to move to the far right bus lane.
Guess what? That cop wrote me up for illegally driving in the bus lane.
“Got a problem with that?” he asked me, smirking at his partner, who was laughing.
Unlike Sandra Bland, whose sassiness I admire even though we apparently live in a country where we no longer have the constitutional right to be less than slavish to so-called law enforcement authorities, I kept my mouth shut.
Then there was the time, in a small town on Long Island, I was driving back late from a party on a deserted country road. For several miles, I noticed a car tailing me. When I went slow, he slowed down too. When I sped up, he kept up with me. But he was pretty far back.
I’m a public figure, a controversial cartoonist, and have gotten death threats. So I was getting a little worried.
In an effort to lose the guy, I hit the gas – and then flashers came on the top of what turned out to be a police cruiser.
“Why’d you speed up back there?” the officer asked me.
“Because you freaked me out,” I answered truthfully.
Far from looking surprised, he looked pleased with himself. He wrote me a speeding ticket. I hired a local lawyer, who told me this tactic was used routinely.
I don’t think these three incidents were accidents, or that they are rare at all. I think the cops know, when they are under pressure to issue more citations, they can get people to break traffic laws using the kind of sleazy tricks used by the Texas state trooper who pulled over Sandra Bland.
Given this kind of unprofessional, cynical, cash-grabbing behavior, it is amazing that anyone still has the slightest respect for law enforcement in the United States.
For aNewDomain, I’m Ted Rall.