“I Will Light You Up!”: A Lesson in Police Escalation

Sandra Bland was arrested Friday June 10. Three days later she died in a Waller County jail cell.
Sandra Bland was arrested Friday June 10. Three days later she died in a Waller County jail cell.

Is it reasonable for a cop to pull a weapon on someone accused of nothing more than verbally disagreeing with or questioning the officer?

How you answer that question will likely determine what you think of the dash-cam video authorities released yesterday of the July 10 traffic stop that ended in Sandra Bland’s arrest. Bland ultimately died in a Waller County jail cell three days later.

How and why Bland died in that cell is now the subject of state and federal investigations. Even if those investigations turn up little that challenges the official narrative of Bland’s death (that Bland hanged herself with a plastic garbage bag), the video released yesterday makes Bland’s arrest look like an avoidable confrontation triggered by police escalation.

Texas Department of Public Safety Trooper Brian Encinia pulled a U-turn to get behind Bland’s Hyundai Azera just seconds after coming off another traffic stop (a warning for speeding) the afternoon of July 10. Encinia tells Bland through the passenger side window that he pulled her over for changing lanes without a signal. Bland answers his questions in short sentences.

When Encinia returns to the car – this time standing at the passenger-side window – he can apparently see that Bland is irritated. “You okay?” Encinia says.

Bland tells Encinia she doesn’t understand why she’s getting a ticket. “I was getting out of your way,” she tells the officer. “You were speeding up, tailing me, so I moved over and you stopped me.” The way Bland sees it, she tried to get out of a cop’s way, and for that she’s been pulled over. “So yeah, I am a little irritated, but that doesn’t stop you from giving me a ticket."

“Are you done?” Encinia tells Bland. The tone is dismissive. “You asked me what was wrong and I told you. So now I’m done.”

Here’s the question we should ask at this point: Why not just write the ticket or warning and be on your way? It's unclear why Encinia would want to drag out this stop. In his affidavit submitted just after Bland’s arrest, he doesn’t say he suspected Bland of any other infraction.

Instead of giving her the ticket, Encinia asks Bland to put out her cigarette – he asks, doesn’t order. His words: “Would you mind?”

“I’m in my car,” Bland says. “Why do I have to put out my cigarette?” It’s a question. Encinia answers by saying, “Well, you can step on out now.” In less than a minute, Encinia went from asking Bland what was wrong, to asking her to put out her cigarette, to yelling “step out of the car” while he opens Bland’s door with one hand and points to his cruiser with the other. Each time he yells the order his voice gets a little louder. “Step out or I will remove you.”

Bland recites something you’d probably hear in a know-your-rights presentation: “I refuse to talk to you other than to identify myself …” – her voice gets lost as Encinia shouts over her. Right after Bland says she’s calling her lawyer, Encinia lunges into the vehicle, grabbing at Bland with his hands. Then he steps back and almost casually pulls what looks like a Taser off his belt.

“Get out of the car!” he screams. “I will light you up!”

Bland exits the car and walks back toward Encinia’s cruiser, asking incredulously, “You’re doing all this for a failure to signal? … Yeah, let’s take this to court.” Encinia orders her to put her phone down; he’s so mad by this point his voice shakes when he yells.

Bland keeps talking: “For a fucking failure to signal?…. Y’all are interesting. You feelin’ good about yourself?” She asks why she’s being arrested. She’ll ask no less than 14 times throughout her encounter with Encinia. The only answer she’ll get is “you are non-compliant,” to which Bland responds, “I’m non-compliant because you just pulled me out of my car!”

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Encinia tells Bland he was going to give her a warning for the traffic violation, saying, “You created a problem." From Bland's perspective, it's an absurd statement. "You asked me what was wrong!" she says. 

By this point, Bland’s hands are handcuffed behind her back. When Encinia goes to move her, she shrieks and says "you're about to break my wrist!” From the sound of it, this is when Bland ended up face down on the ground. She’s crying and her voice is muffled. “This make you feel real good, huh? … Slam me, knock my head into the ground. I got epilepsy you motherfucker.”

“Good,” Encinia tells her. “Good.”

Did Encinia ratchet up a benign situation? How you answer that question will probably have some bearing on whether you think a suburban Dallas cop was reasonable last month when he barrel-rolled through a pool party, pulled a gun on some unarmed "non-compliant” teenagers and slammed one bikini-clad girl to the ground.

The 2008 shooting of Robbie Tolan in Bellaire begs a similar question. While Tolan, who is black, has alleged racial profiling, Bellaire police officer John Edwards, who is white, has claimed he ran Tolan’s license plates just after 2 a.m. on New Year’s Eve because Tolan made an abrupt turn into his parents' neighborhood. Edwards, however, punched in the plate number with one letter off and his in-car computer pulled up a report of a possible stolen vehicle.

When Tolan and his cousin pulled up to his parents' house, Edwards got out of his cruiser with his gun drawn, ordering the men to the ground. At first, Tolan and his cousin brushed him off. The commotion woke Tolan’s parents, who came out of their house in pajamas. Tolan’s father scolded the young men and told them to obey the officer. "Shut the fuck up and listen to the police," the father yelled. Tolan’s mother grabbed her son’s hands and physically pulled him to the ground.

That was the scene before Bellaire police sergeant Jeffrey Cotton arrived as backup. Tolan’s parents had already calmed a tense situation. When Cotton arrived, Tolan’s parents were trying to explain to the officers that it had to be one big mistake. “This is our car,” Marian Tolan told Cotton. “There must be some kind of mistake. … we have lived here for 15 years.”

According to Edwards' own deposition testimony, instead of running the registration, calling the plates in to dispatch, or asking the Tolans any questions, Cotton got into a verbal altercation with Marian Tolan, Robbie's mother, as soon as he arrived on the scene. Cotton ordered her back toward the garage. When she didn’t move fast enough, he physically grabbed her. In Cotton’s telling, he simply grabbed her arm and pushed her toward the garage; the Tolans say Cotton shoved Marian so hard into the garage door that she fell to the ground.

Nearby, on the ground, Robbie Tolan saw all this happening and said, “Get your fucking hands off my mother.” Cotton turned, pulled his gun, and fired three times, hitting Tolan once in the chest. Cotton claims Tolan got off the ground and reached near his "waistband area," making the officer afraid for his life. Experts that have reviewed the ballistics say Tolan must have been on the ground with his torso raised when Cotton shot him, given how the bullet traveled through his body. A federal civil rights lawsuit against Cotton is set to go to trial in September.

In all these instances, the central question is whether or not police could have or should have been able to diffuse a tense situation. Do we risk being arrested, thrown to the ground or shot for talking back to a cop? In McKinney, the dispute officers were responding to was literally over a pool party. In Bellaire, Cotton arrived to a scene where suspects were already on the ground and complying; Cotton then proceeded to physically grab and shove the woman who had helped quell the situation in the first place. 

Sandra Bland wouldn't put out her cigarette.

If the purpose of policing is, at its core, to assert state authority, then there's really no other way for officers to respond in these situations. I just always thought the motto was “protect and serve.” 

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