What Will Lawmakers and DPS Learn From Sandra Bland's Arrest?

Update 2:30 p.m.: Sandra Bland's family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Trooper Brian Encinia and other officials in federal court. According to the Associated Press, the family says the suit was a last resort after officials failed to provide enough information about Bland's death in the Waller County jail on July 13. You can read the entire lawsuit here

(Original story)

Last summer we saw Eric Garner strangled to death before our eyes. Thanks to video footage of Garner’s fatal encounter with police, the public heard those final words that would become a rallying cry against unwarranted police violence: “I can’t breathe.”

The footage of Garner’s death is just one in a string of videos that have surfaced over the past year to help drive the national conversation on policing. In April, a white South Carolina cop was charged with murder only after video surfaced showing him shoot and kill Walker Scott as he ran away from the officer. Last week authorities in Ohio released body-cam footage of a Cincinnati officer shooting Samuel DuBose point blank in the head during a traffic stop.

Last week, Texas lawmakers convened to discuss another video that shocked the national conscience, that of the July 10 arrest of Sandra Bland in Waller County. When Bland questioned why she should have to put out her cigarette, Trooper Brian Encinia pointed a Taser at her, ordered her out of the car, put her in handcuffs, and ultimately threw her to the ground.

At the House County Affairs Committee hearing, Rep. Garnet Coleman (D-Houston) upbraided Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw for his trooper’s behavior. “Tell him don’t ever throw a black woman to the ground again,” Coleman said sternly. McCraw, who answered few questions, would only concede that Encinia was “rude” and “escalated” the situation. 

Perhaps the most powerful moment of last week's hearing came when Coleman explained why many in the public find the video of Bland’s arrest so troubling. Coleman spoke of walking into a DPS office with Confederate flag wallpaper. Coleman, who, like Bland, had recently been stopped for a minor traffic violation, spoke of how the officer, in his words, “treated me like a boy.” 

“I get afraid when there’s a law enforcement officer around,” Coleman said. “I don’t see them as people who are trying to protect me.” 

It was a moment of brutal honesty, a widely respected black state lawmaker telling the state police director he’s afraid of law enforcement encounters. Yet in the days after authorities released the dash-cam footage of Bland’s arrest, daily newspapers across the state assured us the lesson here was to “obey police instruction.” One Houston Chronicle headline read, “experts say comply first, complain later.”

Looking at Bland’s arrest, however, it’s hard to determine what “comply first” even means anymore. Encinia had pulled Bland over on a violation so common I saw no less than ten cars do it on my way into the office this morning: a lane change without signaling. Evidently sensing Bland was irritated, trooper Encinia asked Bland what was wrong. So she told him. 

Instead of letting Bland vent, telling her to use her signal next time and letting her off with a warning (which Encinia claims was his plan all along), the trooper gave Bland a dismissive “Are you done?” before asking her, “Would you mind putting out your cigarette?” Encinia ordered Bland out of the car when she asked why she had to. He lunged at her and pointed a Taser at her when she said she was going to call a lawyer. 

We've long been told that being quiet, submissive and compliant is the best way to handle a police encounter – even when the police are wrong. But the case of Robbie Tolan illustrates how being compliant with police is simply a survival tactic. 

On New Year’s Eve 2008, Bellaire police came to Tolan’s home and ordered him to the ground at gunpoint, insisting, because of their own clerical error, that his car was stolen. Tolan says he protested when an officer slammed his mother into a garage door so hard she fell to the ground. The officer turned around and shot Tolan in the chest from 15 feet away, later claiming he feared for his life. 

At last week’s House committee hearing, Coleman demanded to know what DPS Director McCraw would do to improve police training. Tolan’s case is just one of many in recent years in which Albert Rodriguez, the man who, up until 2009, ran the state police training academy, has testified to justify alarming police behavior. As we reported in this week’s feature, Rodriguez, while he was still DPS training director, was castigated by a federal judge who wrote that Rodriguez’s analysis in an excessive force case “contravenes well settled legal theories” and promotes “lawlessness.” 

What makes Rodriguez’s deposition testimony in Tolan’s case, which is set to finally go to trial next month, so stunning is his opinion that it simply doesn’t matter if an officer’s telling of events doesn’t match up with what actually happened — that is, even if Tolan didn’t stand up and charge at a cop with his hands at his waistband, as the officer claimed (and, according to one police expert who's reviewed the evidence, the bullet traveled through Tolan’s body at an angle that points to him being on the ground when shot), in Rodriguez’s words, “it equates to the same.” 

This startling 2013 Houston Chronicle investigation shows how rare it is for an officer to be held accountable in criminal court for too quickly using deadly force on an unarmed suspect. In federal civil court challenges, the legal standard is so indefinite that a case like Tolan’s had to go all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court for him to even win the right to a trial; the unanimous ruling in Tolan's favor shocked many in the very small community of lawyers that are even willing to handle these kinds of cases. 

And what happened to the Hobart family is a stark reminder of how such cases often fare when and if they even make it to trial. Among other claims, Pam and Steve Hobart argued that former Stafford police officer Jesus Estrada violated their son Aaron's constitutional rights when he responded to a mental health call and unloaded half a clip into the unarmed teenager. Although they made it to trial, the case ultimately proved unwinnable. The City of Stafford, at a judge's urging, offered the Hobarts a settlement that, after legal costs, probably won't even cover their dead son's hospital bills.

Steve Hobart, for one, is quick to point out that critical lessons can be learned from cases like theirs, even if they fizzle out in the courts. Steve and his wife have become vocal advocates pressing for police departments to better train officers in how to handle and respond to people in the throes of psychiatric crisis. Across the country cases like Aaron's have managed to trigger some departmental reforms, if not legal victories, significant settlements or criminal charges. Officer Estrada even underwent such training months after he shot and killed Aaron Hobart.

Still, it's unclear what, if anything, decision-makers will learn from the Robbie Tolan shooting, or from the deaths of unarmed suspects like Eric Garner, Samuel DuBose or Houston's own Jordan Baker.

Last week, state lawmakers questioning state police director Steve McCraw were uniformly outraged by how a state trooper escalated what should have been a routine traffic stop with an irritated motorist. What McCraw or the heads of police agencies across the state ultimately take away from that now-infamous police encounter remains to be seen. 

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