“More than 20 million Americans are stopped each year for traffic violations, making this one of the most common ways in which the public interacts with the police.” (Emma Pierson, 2020)
Some of the most shocking deaths of African Americans at the hands of police have occurred during traffic stops, encouraged by the war on drugs. I have mentioned Philando Castille’s death several times. In a routine traffic stop in 2017, Officer Jeronimo Yanez shot Castille multiple times, killing him, while he was complying with instructions. In defense of his actions, Yanez claimed, “that the smell of marijuana led him to fear for his life.” (Ingraham, 2017)
In this graphic cell phone video from April 2015, Walter Scott can be seen running away from an incident that was triggered by a traffic stop. https://nyti.ms/3hz2WjS Like the August 2020 shooting of Jacob Blake, Scott was shot in the back. (Michael S. Schmidt, 2015) The 33-year old police officer, rather than chase down the unarmed 50-year old Scott, fired his weapon eight times. Unfortunately, Walter Scott did not survive his wounds.
WASHINGTON — A white police officer in North Charleston, S.C., was charged with murder on Tuesday after a video surfaced showing him shooting in the back and killing an apparently unarmed black man while the man ran away.
The officer, Michael T. Slager, 33, said he had feared for his life because the man had taken his stun gun in a scuffle after a traffic stop on Saturday. A video, however, shows the officer firing eight times as the man, Walter L. Scott, 50, fled. The North Charleston mayor announced the state charges at a news conference Tuesday evening. (Video Shows Fatal Police Shooting, 2015)
The police officer, Michael Slager, was later found guilty of murder and sentenced to twenty years in prison. (Meridith Edwards, 2017)
The events of Sandra Bland’s high-profile death were initiated by a trivial traffic stop that the officer escalated into a much larger conflict. She was involved in a “pretextual or investigatory stop.” (Blanks, 2016)
Pretextual stop example Video: https://rebrand.ly/PretextualStop
This type of stop “is a common police tactic to investigate potential criminal activity—particularly drug possession and trafficking—in situations where there is no legal reason to suspect a crime is occurring.” (Mark H. Moore, 1989)
“Pretext stops allow officers to stop people for one violation with the intent of trying to uncover a separate violation. Pretext stops occur when officers pull drivers for minor traffic violations with the aim of searching their cars for drugs…
Designating certain geographical areas as “hotspot” zones for drug activity is another tactic that increases citizen-police encounters by granting officers broad authority to stop anyone passing through the targeted area.” (Harris, 2020)
Here’s an extensive outline in Sandra Bland’s case from the traffic stop, through her arrest, death in jail, and the investigation that followed.
What happened during the traffic stop?
“The trooper, Brian T. Encinia, approached Ms. Bland’s car, took her information and returned to his vehicle to write out a citation. The newly surfaced video begins when the trooper walks back to her car with the ticket.
Trooper Encinia asked if Ms. Bland was O.K. and told her she seemed ‘very irritated.’ She said she was, because she was being written up simply for moving out of the trooper’s way.
The trooper then asked her to put out the cigarette she was holding, and she refused. The encounter quickly escalated from there.
What happened in jail?
Ms. Bland was booked and placed in a housing area for women in the one-story Waller County Jail. Three days later, on July 13, a guard making rounds found her hanging in her 15-by-20-foot cell.
Waller County officials said she was found in a ‘semi-standing position,’ with a plastic trash-can liner roped around her neck and affixed to a U-shaped metal hook overhead. Ms. Bland was pronounced dead at 9:16 a.m. The authorities ruled her death a suicide.
Two of her jailers left the Waller County sheriff’s office shortly afterward.
What happened to the state trooper?
Trooper Encinia was indicted on a charge of perjury, the only criminal charge arising from the case. Grand jurors accused him of making a false statement when he claimed that his purpose in ordering Ms. Bland out of her car was to more safely conduct a traffic investigation.
That charge was dismissed at the request of prosecutors, in exchange for the trooper’s promise that he would never again work in law enforcement.
Chip Lewis, a Houston lawyer who represented Mr. Encinia in the investigation, said his client has a new career. ‘He’s working in the private sector, supporting his wife and family and living a quiet life,’ Mr. Lewis said.
Why has this case resonated for years?
Ms. Bland was a vocal civil rights advocate. Two months before her death, she posted a video on Facebook in which she discussed police brutality. ‘Black lives matter,’ Ms. Bland said to the camera. ‘They matter.’
‘In the news that we’ve seen as of late, you could stand there, surrender to the cops, and still be killed,’ she continued…
Social media users adopted the hashtags #SandraBland and #SayHerName in the days after her death and created an online petition calling for the Justice Department to investigate. The case was considered a turning point in the Black Lives Matter movement, intensifying outrage over incidents of mistreatment of black people by white officers.
The case also led Texas to enact a law in 2017 called the Sandra Bland Act, which requires all police officers to undergo training in de-escalation techniques; establishes protections for people in custody who have mental health or substance abuse issues; and requires that all jail deaths be investigated by independent law enforcement agencies.” (Hassan, 2019)
Sandra Bland’s death was also marred by the admission by the guards that they falsified "jail monitoring logs”:
“DALLAS (AP) – Less than two months after the death of Sandra Bland, a black woman who was jailed in Texas after a routine traffic stop, two of her jailers quietly moved to other jobs.
Rafael Zuniga and Michael Serges left the Waller County sheriff’s office in September 2015 for the Waller Police Department, a smaller agency with less responsibility, according to state records obtained by The Associated Press. They started work on the same day.
They have kept those jobs even after admitting under oath their roles in falsifying a jail monitoring log that indicated guards checked on Bland an hour before she was found hanging in her cell in July 2015, according to an attorney for the Bland family, which has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the county and several employees, including the two former jailers. Local authorities ruled Bland’s death a suicide.
Attorney Tom Rhodes told the AP this week that Zuniga acknowledged in a deposition that the log was filled out in advance with times that he supposedly conducted cell checks. Serges acknowledged that he signed the bottom of the log sheet at the beginning of the shift before any actual checks, according to Rhodes, who described the depositions but did not provide transcripts to the AP.
Sidney Johnson, the first black councilman in Waller, said he’s suspicious about the jailers’ move to the municipal payroll so soon after Bland’s death, but that his requests for more information have been ignored. He added that had he known about the men’s involvement in the Bland case, ‘we wouldn’t have hired them.’
Jail records show Bland had said at booking she previously tried to commit suicide, which means she should have been checked at least every 30 minutes by jail standards. State guidelines say all inmates are to be checked hourly.
Instead, two hours elapsed before jailers noticed Bland was unconscious, which isn’t reflected in the jail log, Rhodes told the AP. The sheriff’s office has acknowledged the documented 8 a.m. in-person check was done by intercom.
The Texas Commission on Jail Standards cited the jail after Bland’s death for not observing inmates in person and failing to provide documentation that its staff had been trained on how to deal with potentially suicidal inmates.
‘There’s a lot more going on here than there’s reflected in the documents,’ Rhodes said. ‘Because the documents in many cases are just flat-out wrong.’” (Fusaro, 2016)
Sandra Bland video: https://nyti.ms/3ba6l6b
Video from Bland’s phone:
I just tried to rewatch the video of Sandra Bland’s traffic stop and arrest. I couldn’t finish. I got too emotional. It’s a familiar pattern. The officer uses a condescending tone, escalates the conflict, ignores police procedure, and lies to his superiors afterward about what really happened. In the video, he provokes her for being irritated at a petty stop. He then tells her to tell him why she’s irritated, and as she explains, says, “are you done now?”
Now that the conflict is sufficiently escalated, he asks her to put out her cigarette. When she refuses to put out her cigarette, he demands that she exit the vehicle. When she says that she, by right, doesn’t have to because she’s not under arrest, he now says that she is under arrest. He opens her car door to forcibly drag her out, claiming she is under arrest. As she resists getting out, he threatens to “light her up” with his stun gun.” TrooperEncinia lied to his superiors about why he made her get out of her car, but for his lie and escalation, he got to shift from being a policeman to a lawyer, and Sandra Bland is dead. This quote from the CATO organization eloquently captures the pattern of escalation at traffic stops that often leads to fatalities:
“American policing today has become increasingly aggressive and, at times, even predatory. Policies and tactics have evolved to make police contact more confrontational. In so doing, they have increased the chances of violence and fatal uses of force. This has been particularly true of efforts aimed at fighting the Drug War. Police are incentivized to initiate unnecessary contact with pedestrians and motorists, and they do so most often against ethnic and racial minorities. Such over‐policing engenders resentment among minority communities and jeopardizes public safety.” (Blanks, 2016)
The “war on drugs” has increased the number of “pre-textual” stops but the systematic way in which minorities have been targeted in these stops contributes to a conclusion of systemic racism. As was quoted before, there doesn’t have to be intentional discrimination against minorities for there to be systemic racism. There doesn’t have to be a police force or highway patrol force full of racists to have systemic racism. All that is needed is for the system to produce prejudicial results based on race. Study after study shows that America’s system of policing, even at traffic stops, regularly and predictably produces inequitable, harmful, and even deadly outcomes based on race. Here are excerpts from two studies that support and illustrate the differences in outcomes based on race.
“In a study published last April, University of North Carolina political scientist Frank Baumgartner and three colleagues show that the racial disparities seen when cops stop pedestrians are also apparent when they pull over drivers. Looking at 12 years of data from North Carolina, Baumgartner et al. find ‘dramatic disparities in the rates at which black drivers, particularly young males, are searched and arrested as compared to similarly situated whites.’ For example, ‘blacks are 200% more likely to be searched and 190% more likely to be arrested after being pulled over for a seat belt violation; 110% more likely to be searched or arrested following a stop for vehicle regulatory violations; and 60% more likely to be searched or arrested after being stopped for equipment issues.’
The racial differences were especially large for discretionary searches based on consent or probable cause, as opposed to protective pat-downs or searches conducted pursuant to a warrant or after an arrest. Discretionary searches of blacks were less likely to find drugs than discretionary searches of whites, which suggests the extra suspicion blacks encounter has no rational basis. Furthermore, the racial disparities grew over the years, while the likelihood of finding drugs did not.
These differences persist after the data are adjusted for other variables that might affect the likelihood of being searched. ‘Controlling for why and when they were stopped, which officer pulled them over, and whether or not they had contraband in the car, young men of color are much more likely to see adverse outcomes,’ Baumgartner et al. write. ‘Minorities are much more likely to be searched and arrested than similarly situated whites, controlling for every variable that the state of North Carolina mandates to be collected when traffic stops are carried out.’
The Supreme Court has facilitated searches like these by upholding pretextual stops that are ostensibly justified by a traffic violation but are actually aimed at finding evidence of criminal activity—typically illegal drugs. Given the myriad excuses cops can muster for pulling people over, that ruling lets them cast a dragnet that tends to catch a disproportionate number of dark-skinned motorists. ‘Drivers have a sense of when the stops are pretextual,’ Baumgartner et al. note, and ‘being subjected to these pretextual stops is humiliating, threatening, and unjustified.’ They add that if blacks are more likely to experience such stops, ‘it goes to the heart of the question of whether all Americans feel that they are part of a single nation rather than living in separate communities divided by color and subject to differing rights and burdens.’” (Sullum, 2016)
“A large-scale analysis of racial disparities in police stops across the United States
“We assessed racial disparities in policing in the United States by compiling and analysing a dataset detailing nearly 100 million traffic stops conducted across the country. We found that black drivers were less likely to be stopped after sunset, when a ‘veil of darkness’ masks one’s race, suggesting bias in stop decisions. Furthermore, by examining the rate at which stopped drivers were searched and the likelihood that searches turned up contraband, we found evidence that the bar for searching black and Hispanic drivers was lower than that for searching white drivers. Finally, we found that legalization of recreational marijuana reduced the number of searches of white, black and Hispanic drivers—but the bar for searching black and Hispanic drivers was still lower than that for white drivers post-legalization. Our results indicate that police stops and search decisions suffer from persistent racial bias and point to the value of policy interventions to mitigate these disparities.” (Emma Pierson, 2020)
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