Sandra Bland Was Murdered

Suicide or not, police are responsible for Sandra Bland's death

Sandra Bland was found dead at the Waller County Jail in Hempstead, Texas, on July 17. Credit: Jay Janner/AP

So news broke yesterday that authorities in Waller County, Texas, have "full faith" that Sandra Bland committed suicide. They said there was "no evidence of a struggle" on the body of the 28-year-old African-American woman who was ludicrously jailed last week after an alleged lane change violation.

In related news, the Texas Department of Safety ruled that Brian Encina, the officer who arrested Bland, pulled her from her car, and threatened her with a Taser, had merely violated the state's "courtesy policy." The state said there was "no evidence" yet of criminal behavior on Encina's part.

So barring something unexpected, we know now how this is going to play out in the media.

Many news outlets are going to engage in an indirect version of the usual blame-the-victim game by emphasizing the autopsy finding of suicide, questioning Bland's mental health history, and by highlighting the reports of marijuana found in her system.

Beyond that, we can expect a slew of chin-scratching "legal analyses" concluding that while there may have been some minor impropriety on officer Encina's part, the law governing police-motorist encounters is too "complicated" to make this anything more than a tragic accident.

Media scandals are like criminal trials. They're about assigning blame. Because Bland may have technically taken her own life, the blame is now mostly going to fall on a woman with a history of depression and drugs, instead of on a criminal justice system that morally, if not legally, surely murdered Sandra Bland.

Backing up: It's been interesting following conservative news outlets after the Bland case. They've been conspicuously quiet this week, holstering the usual gloating backlash of the "He'd be alive today, if he'd just obeyed the law" variety.

After the Garner, Brown and Freddie Gray cases, of course, law-and-order commentators flocked to the blogosphere to explain the secret to preventing police brutality.

It was simple, they explained. There's no police corruption problem. The real issue is that there are too many people who don't know how to behave during a car stop. Don't want to get murdered by police? Be polite!

A writer named John Hawkins took on the subject for in a piece last year carrying the not at all joking headline "How to not get shot by police." After revealing that his only real experience in this area involved speeding tickets, Hawkins lectured readers that "the first key to not getting shot" is to not think of the police as a threat:

"They're really not going to randomly beat you, arrest you or shoot you for no reason whatsoever. It's like a bee. Don't start swatting at it and chances are, it's not going to sting you.

"In fact, when a cop pulls you over, you should have your license and registration ready, you put your hands on the steering wheel so he can see them when he arrives, and you say 'yes, sir' and 'no, sir.'"

It's hard to wrap one's head around the absurdity of someone like Hawkins imagining to himself that black America has not already tried using the word "sir" as a strategy to avoid beatings and killings. But over and over again, we heard stuff like this from the Fox/Real Clear crowd, which as time passed flailed around with increasing desperation in search of a non-racial explanation for all of these violent episodes.

After Eric Garner was killed, for instance, a New York Post columnist named Bob McManus argued that we should only blame – the word "only" was actually used – the "man who tragically decided to resist." Michigan's even dumber Ann Coulter wannabe, Debbie Schlussel, countered that Garner would still be alive if his parents had raised him better, and if he wasn't a "morbidly obese asthmatic."

After Ferguson, it was the same thing. Editorials insisted that the solution to the brutality problem lay in "less criminality within the black community." The officer who shot Michael Brown, Darren Wilson – the same guy who called Brown a "demon" – insisted that Brown would still be alive "if he'd just followed orders."

But nobody yet has dared to say Sandra Bland would still be alive today, if only she'd used her blinker. That's a bridge too far even for types.

Suddenly even hardcore law-and-order enthusiasts are realizing the criminal code is so broad and littered with so many tiny technical prohibitions that a determined enough police officer can stop and/or arrest pretty much anybody at any time.

Bland was on her way to a new job at Prairie A&M university when she was pulled over for failing to signal when changing lanes, something roughly 100 percent of American drivers do on a regular basis. Irritated at being stopped, she was curt with Encina when he wrote her up. He didn't like her attitude and decided to flex his muscles a little, asking her to put out her cigarette.

She balked, and that's when things went sideways. Encina demanded that she get out of the car, reached for his Taser, said, "I'll light you up," and eventually threw her in jail. 

Many editorialists following this narrative case suddenly noticed, as if for the first time, how much mischief can arise from the fact that a person may be arrested at any time for "failing to obey a lawful order," which in the heat of the moment can mean just about anything.

But this same kind of logic has underpinned modern community policing in big cities all over America for decades now. Under Broken Windows and other "zero tolerance"-type enforcement strategies, police move into (typically nonwhite) neighborhoods in big numbers, tell people to move off corners, and then circle back and arrest them for "loitering" or "failing to obey a lawful order" if they don't.

Some cities have tried to put a fig leaf of legal justification on such practices by creating "drug-free" or "anti-loitering" zones, which give police automatic justification for arrest even if a person is guilty of nothing more than standing on the street. Failing to produce ID – even in the halls of your own building, in some cases – or being seen in or around a "known drug location" can similarly be grounds for search or detention.

A related phenomenon is the policy governing "consent searches." Police stop people on the highways, in airports, on buses, really anywhere at all, and ask for their consent to search their property or their persons. Sometimes they do the asking with a drug-sniffing dog standing beside them.

Studies have consistently shown that black and Hispanic people are pulled over at a far higher rate than white people, usually more than double, even though white people are statistically more likely to have illegal drugs on them.

Add to this the whole galaxy of stop-and-frisk type behaviors, also known as "Terry stops," in which any police officer with an "articulable suspicion" that a crime of violence might be committed can pat down and question any person.

The end of New York's infamous program notwithstanding, there are millions of such stops every year. In Chicago, for instance, recent data showed a rate of about a million stops per year, with roughly 72 percent involving black people – and this in a city that's only 32 percent black.

You add all this up, and we're talking about millions upon millions of stops, searches and misdemeanor arrests and summonses that clearly target black people at a far higher rate than the rest of the population.

And if you're continually handcuffing people, sitting on them, putting knees in their backs and dragging them to jail in cases when you could have just handed over a summons, a certain percentage of these encounters are going to end in fights, struggles, medical accidents and other disasters. Like the Bland case.

We'd call it murder if a kidnapping victim died of fright during the job. Of course it's not legally the same thing, but a woman dying of depression during an illegal detention should be the same kind of crime. It's especially true given our long and sordid history of overpolicing misdemeanors.

In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander described how white America re-seized control after slavery by instituting a series of repressive "vagrancy laws," under which nonwhite Americans could be arrested for such absurdities as "mischief" and "insulting gestures."

In an eerie precursor to the modern loitering laws, many states even had stringent rules against "idleness." There were even states where any black male over 18 could be thrown in jail for not carrying around written proof that he had a job.

What exactly is the difference between being arrested for "idleness" and being arrested for "loitering in a designated drug-free zone"? What's the difference between an arrest for "mischief" and an arrest for "disorderly conduct" or "refusing to obey a lawful order"? If it's anything more than a semantic distinction, it's not much more of one.

Law-and-order types like to lecture black America about how it can avoid getting killed by "respecting authority" and treating arresting cops like dangerous dogs or bees.

But while playing things cool might prevent killings in some instances, it won't stop police from stopping people without reason, putting their hands on suspects or jailing people like Bland for infractions that at most would earn a white guy in a suit a desk ticket. That's not just happening in a few well-publicized cases a year, but routinely, in hundreds of thousands or even millions of incidents we never hear of.

That's why the issue isn't how Sandra Bland died, but why she was stopped and detained in the first place. It's profiling, sure, but it's even worse than that. It's a systematic campaign to harass people, using misdemeanors and violations as battering ram – a campaign that's been going on forever, and against which there's little defense. When the law can be stretched to mean almost anything, obeying it is no magic bullet.