The death of Sandra Bland took on a whole new narrative once the dash-cam footage of her July 10 traffic stop-turned-roadside arrest became public. Before officials released the footage of Texas Department of Public Safety Trooper Brian Encinia pulling Bland over outside Prairie View A&M, the case gained national media attention primarily because Bland was yet another person of color to unexpectedly die in police custody (the kind of story, it seems, mainstream media are finally starting to cover with some degree of regularity).
Most of those who were appalled by the footage of Bland’s arrest were also deeply troubled that something so routine (a traffic stop for changing lanes without a signal) could tailspin into something so tragic. When Bland asked why she should have to put out her cigarette, Encinia ordered her out of her car, his Taser drawn, shouting, “I will light you up!” before handcuffing Bland’s hands behind her back. It’s unclear how she ended up facedown on the ground, with Encinia on top of her as she yelled, “I got epilepsy, you motherfucker” (the officer responded, "good”), or what could have possibly justified her being charged with assault of a public servant. Bland hanged herself in her jail cell three days later after she failed to make bail (jailers took no special precautions even though Bland told them she’d attempted suicide months prior).
The ACLU of Texas doubts that the traffic stop that led to Bland’s arrest — an avoidable confrontation triggered by police escalation — is an isolated incident. This week, through a series of promoted Facebook posts, the civil liberties group began a new project to collect stories of everyday police encounters in Houston and across Texas.
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“Like Sandra Bland, the way most people interact with police is through a traffic stop,” says ACLU of Texas staff attorney Satinder Singh. “Chances are if you drive in Houston, you’ll be stopped by HPD for something at some point, and what that action looks like is important.”
Closely examining such routine police encounters, Singh says, can help advocates better understand why some cases devolve into instances of alleged police brutality. “We think that as police officers and police departments are more focused on how we teach officers to de-escalate situations, looking at these basic, routine stories is important.”
As of now, the organization doesn’t know exactly what it will do with these stories. “We just don’t even know what a lot of these situations look like,” Singh says. He stressed that the ACLU has just as much to learn from positive everyday police encounters as it does instances of troubling police behavior. Reforms, Singh says, generally take root once you’ve not only identified a problem but found solutions.
In the meantime, ACLU staffers are just waiting to see what kind of stories they get. If you think you’ve got one worth telling, you can leave it here at the ACLU’s website. Hell, while you’re at it, send it our way, too.