As each new piece of information is released, more speculation swirls around the death in police custody of 29-year-old Sandra Bland. Texas authorities say she indicated on intake forms that she had previously attempted suicide; her family denies any history of depression or attempts on her life. Now a local prosecutor is saying an autopsy found injuries on her body consistent with suicide, not homicide and that she had marijuana in her system. We expect many more twists before we find out exactly how and why she died — if we ever do. But one thing by now is certain: Sandra Bland should never have been in jail in the first place, and had anyone in Waller County bothered to watch the dashboard video of her arrest, she should have been let out long before her death.
The video shows officer Brian Encinia approach Ms. Bland's car after he pulled her over for failing to signal a change in lanes. Their encounter initially looks like a routine traffic stop but then quickly spins out of control as Officer Encinia's behavior becomes increasingly confrontational. Ms. Bland says she was trying to get out of Mr. Encinia's way when she changed lanes without flashing her turn signal.
Yet rather than leave it at that, the officer, who seems obsessed with asserting his authority, tells her to put out her cigarette, which she protests. Next he orders her out of her car, which she also resists, asking repeatedly why she is being arrested. Finally the officer draws what appears to be a Taser and threatens to "light you up" if she doesn't comply, then forcibly drags her from the vehicle. The video shows Mr. Encinia and Ms. Bland move out of the frame, and Ms. Bland can be heard screaming that the officer has slammed her head into the ground and injured her wrists putting her in handcuffs.
Legal experts say that under Texas law officers have the authority to order drivers out of their cars if they believe they pose a threat, and that they can also arrest someone for minor infractions such as failure to signal a turn. But it's also clear from the video that Mr. Encinia's belligerent attitude needlessly escalated an incident that posed no threat to him and violated standard guidelines for handling such situations.
Mr. Encinia was relatively new to the force, and he handled the situation poorly. Perhaps his training was lacking, and perhaps he was never cut out to be a police officer. But at the end of the day he was one person acting badly. The real question is why no one discovered that fact until it was too late. Any supervisor looking over the dashcam video ought to have realized that Ms. Bland's arrest was a deeply flawed affair and that the officer's behavior was way out of bounds. But if any of Mr. Encinia's superiors even bothered to review the tape until after Ms. Bland's death, they didn't do anything about it.
(Likewise, although jail officials say Ms. Bland indicated during intake questioning that she had attempted suicide after losing a baby, they apparently did nothing more about it than to check the appropriate boxes on forms.)
Ms. Bland's case is just the latest in a string of incidents in which white police officers have been caught on video engaged in apparent mistreatment of African American men and women, but this case is different in key respects and has important implications for how we go about trying to prevent such misconduct in the future. The video was not captured by a cellphone camera-wielding bystander but by the dashboard camera on Mr. Encinia's cruiser. He knew, or should have known, that he was being taped, yet he acted in an aggressive and inappropriate manner anyway. As the nation moves toward equipping officers with body cameras, it's a reminder that although they have reportedly cut down on misconduct complaints in jurisdictions that employ them, they are no panacea.
They are especially ineffective if no one actually watches the video. The dashcam video of Ms. Bland's traffic stop gave Texas authorities all the information they needed to realize her arrest was a botched affair that would never hold up in court. If she had gotten the opportunity to show it to a judge during a bail review hearing, we have a hard time imagining she would not have been released immediately. Instead, authorities stood by until a catastrophe occurred. Their failure should be a warning to law-enforcement agencies across the country that just having fancy new technology won't matter much if they don't develop the procedures needed to use it effectively, which obviously didn't happen in Ms. Bland's case.