Sandra Bland's Arrest Wasn't Racism; It Was Something Even Worse

A close-up photo of police lights by night
A close-up photo of police lights by night

It's easy to assume racism when watching the video footage of Sandra Bland's arrest. Admittedly, the first question that entered this writer's mind when watching it was, "Would a white woman have been treated this way during a routine traffic stop?"

I believe the answer is "yes," if the white woman committed the cardinal sin Sandra Bland committed. It wasn't her being black that started the tragic chain of events. It was refusing to follow a police officer's orders.

At some point between ratification of the Fourth Amendment and the death of Sandra Bland, the entire principle underpinning that constitutional protection has been lost. The Fourth Amendment assumes armed agents of the state can't be trusted to issue their own orders. That's why we have warrants in the first place. They are permitted only to enforce the orders of an impartial judge, who authorizes them to apprehend suspects upon the judge's determination of probable cause.

That's not to say many or most officers aren't well-intentioned or trustworthy. But their job is to use force. That role must be separated from the issuance of orders.

Had Sandra Bland been a murder suspect and arresting officer Brian Encinia serving a warrant for her arrest, no one would have questioned Encinia's conduct in ordering her out of her car. One might even find room to excuse his order to stop smoking, if she were assumed to be someone who had already killed another human being.

But Bland wasn't a murder suspect. As she quite rationally protested, she was ordered out of her car over a "failure to signal." She had complied with the traffic stop. I seriously doubt there is a law or ordinance requiring her to stop smoking while being issued a citation for a traffic violation.

Encinia didn't even phrase his initial request as an order. His exact words were, "You mind putting out your cigarette, please, if you don't mind?" It was Bland's refusal to comply with this non-order that incited Encinia's indignation and subsequent order to exit her car.

Ultimately, we have to look at what we are asking police officers to do and how we are training them to do it. Encinia may have treated Bland differently because she was black. We can't read his mind. But it's much more likely he treated her the way he did because she didn't exhibit blind obedience to his every whim, something he was trained not to tolerate and Americans of all political persuasions seem to have acquiesced to without question.

Life and property have to be protected. When a real crime is committed, men or women with guns are often needed to bring in the suspect to answer the charges. That only occurs after an adversarial process during which a judge assumes an arrest is unjustified until the officer presents enough evidence to persuade him otherwise. Until then, police officers aren't authorized to give orders to anyone.

We need to get back to that relationship between citizen and law enforcement officer.

This wouldn't hamper police officers from protecting innocent people from violent crimes on those rare occasions when they are present while they are occurring. All individuals have a right to defend victims with force under those circumstances, whether employed by the government or not. But private individuals don't have the authority to walk around giving people orders, even if they suspect them of having broken the law.

In a free society, neither do cops.