Sandra Bland is dead because Trooper Brian Encinia had power over her body. The video of the encounter between this young black woman and a fully empowered officer demonstrated the unparalleled power of the state, the power of the bullet, and the power to influence official and public perceptions by drafting the narrative of the incident. The deck was stacked against Sandra Bland. Her life was in Encinia’s hands and he knew it. It was more about power than race.
Police officers are the arm of governmental power and have an advantage in officer-citizen encounters. Sworn officers have the badge which invests them with authority to enforce laws. Officers have guns – the ultimate source of power – that place lives in the balance based on an officer’s judgment. Officers have the power of narrative – the responsibility to memorialize the encounter in writing via an arrest affidavit. Finally, officers have the power of discretion. They are entrusted to administer collective power without prejudice. This is why they are rarely prosecuted.
In Sandra Bland’s case, Trooper Brian Encinia abused his power whether the courts – civil or criminal – will declare it so. He abused his power because he had the discretion to end a traffic stop destined for trouble from the beginning. From the moment he approached Ms. Bland’s vehicle, she questioned his authority. The rightness or wrongness of the questioning is subject to debate but the officer had the ability to complete the traffic stop. Seeing the intensity of Ms. Bland’s disposition, he could have given the ticket and ended the matter. The officer knew he held an ace – arrest.
Experienced policemen are skilled at knowing how to bait a citizen into an arrest. Trooper Encinia demanded the cigarette be extinguished to initiate a response. He demanded she exit the car. He opened the door, threatening her person to initiate the contact. Was he within his authority? Yes, an officer has control of your person until the stop is completed and can give directives. Was it necessary to confront Ms. Bland physically? The answer is no. What happened inside the car is unclear from the video but the officer claimed he was assaulted – cause for arrest. Whatever logic compelled inside the vehicle of an irate citizen placed him at high risk. That act created the opportunity for physical confrontation, submission and a retaliatory arrest. He knew he would win.
He was angered by a woman who refused to stop challenging his authority to have stopped her. Nothing in the video demonstrated she had placed herself, another citizen or the officer in danger. Her caustic verbal attack and refusals to comply demonstrated the officer’s lack of training or lack tolerance for being challenged by a black woman undaunted by his positional power. Winning and subduing her became paramount. Every act from the directive to put out the cigarette forward was holding an advantage. Trooper Encinia knew he had the ultimate trump card – arrest power.
Officers must recognize the landscape has changed. Access to case law, the litany of minority deaths at the hands of the police and a less intimidated public means they will be challenged. If you’ve never been arrested, the experience is highly traumatizing; but to be forcibly and publicly pulled from your vehicle, handcuffed, thrown to the ground and jailed is a life-changing experience. It can destabilize anyone who felt it was undeserved. Sandra Bland’s death was his fault and the fault of a state which poorly prepared him for a newly empowered public. Absolute power can kill and did so in this case.
Dr. Jeffrey Dean Swain is the Dean of Campus Ministry at Florida Memorial University, an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice, and an author.