By Marc H. Morial
“Many people see this situation escalating, and I think it shows the frustration that many minority communities feel when they feel that, you know, maybe it wouldn’t have escalated in a different community. I hope that that can bring this situation to light as well, so that people understand the frustration that many minority members feel when they’re stopped by the police.” – United States Attorney General Loretta Lynch, July 2015
For many of us, it was with a sickening sense of familiarity that we watched the video recording of the violation of the welfare and rights of yet another person of color at the hands of law enforcement. Unfolding right before our very eyes, we witnessed as another routine traffic stop would come to a tragic and fatal end.
Two days before authorities would discover Sandra Bland’s lifeless body in her Texas jail cell, the 28-year-old called a friend after her first court appearance and left a 22-second voicemail asking, “How did switching lanes with no signal turn into all of this? I don’t even know.” The details of her arrest and her untimely death have left her family, friends, and those concerned about the treatment of people of color in our nation’s criminal justice system, wondering the same: how could a traffic stop could “turn into all of this?”
On Friday, July 10, Bland was pulled over by State Trooper Brian Encinia for the minor traffic violation. As seen on the officer’s dashboard camera video, Encinia ordered Bland to step out of her car after she refused his order to put out her cigarette. The confrontation between the two continued to escalate as Encinia attempted to pull Bland out of her car and then threatened to use his Taser gun on her. The remainder of the confrontation, and her eventual arrest, is not caught on camera, but we can hear her screaming during the arrest that the trooper is about to break her wrist and that he has slammed her head into the ground. She was taken to the Waller County Jail on a charge of assaulting a public servant during a traffic stop.
Three days later, on Monday, July 13, Bland was discovered dead in her jail cell after allegedly hanging herself with a garbage bag. A medical examiner has ruled the death suicide by hanging, but her family and protestors are disputing the autopsy results. Bland’s relatives have ordered a private autopsy and Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis has opened up a probe into Bland’s death and has said that his office will treat her case like a murder investigation.
We don’t yet know how Sandra Bland died in her jail cell, but the video of her arrest is cause enough for grave concern. And for those committed to reforming our nation’s broken criminal justice system, it is an urgent call for action. As the litany of names of unarmed Black and Brown men and women brutalized and killed by law enforcement multiplies, so does the skepticism and distrust so many feel for a system that has proven time and again to be stacked against them and their communities at every level of justice.
Encinia’s behavior at the traffic stop was incendiary, unjustified and beyond unprofessional. The Texas Department of Public Safety must not tolerate this disrespectful and provocative method of policing from Encinia – or any officer. Officers are supposed to be trained to de-escalate tense situations, not escalate them.
We cannot limit our concern and anger to motionless outrage. While we mourn the loss of countless victims of police violence and injustice, we must be loud and engaged advocates for the sort of change that will save lives and rebuild that much-needed trust between law enforcement and all communities entrusted to their care and protection. Attorney General Loretta Lynch has expressed her hope that the tragic loss of Sandra Bland will galvanize more law enforcement departments to institute de-escalation training. This is the kind of training that could have saved Bland’s life.
We reiterate our call – as we have in the wake of far too many incidents of police violence – for the comprehensive retraining of all police officers, the review and strengthening of police hiring standards and the widespread use of body and dashboard cameras. We will continue to hold law enforcement accountable when it fails to treat all citizens fairly and with dignity. We will work to bridge the widespread and dangerous distrust between law enforcement and too many communities of color. And we will dedicate ourselves to this mission for our nation’s sake, for Bland and for the innumerable others taken by police violence that are no longer here to fight for us or with us.
Marc H. Morial, former mayor of New Orleans, is president and CEO of the National Urban League.