"You mind putting out your cigarette, please?" That's the question Texas State Trooper Brian Encinia asks motorist Sandra Bland about nine minutes into a police car dashcam video of her arrest, released Tuesday by the Texas Department of Public Safety amid nationwide backlash following the 28-year-old woman's death in jail last week.
There's a brief, almost contemplative silence following Encinia's appeal. Bland has a choice: accommodate the officer's request, or deny it.
Bland, audibly and visibly irritated, chooses the second option, asking whether she actually has to put out her cigarette in her own vehicle.
The choice is now Encinia's: let Bland's impolite comment slide and finish giving her a warning for failing to signal a lane change, or make the encounter more painful for her.
Encinia makes his decision almost immediately.
"Well, you can step on out now," he says. Bland refuses. Encinia's commands get increasingly forceful as he opens the car door, threatens to "yank" Bland out of the car, and eventually draws his Taser and tells Bland he'll "light [her] up" if she doesn't comply.
In an instant, a traffic stop and written warning for a minor violation turned into a violent altercation, leading to Bland's arrest on charges of assaulting Encinia. Bland ended up in Waller County Jail, where authorities say she hanged herself three days later in a suicide. Her family contends she was killed by someone in the jail.
If not for the dispute over a cigarette, the story may have had a different ending.
The choices made by both Bland and Encinia in those few moments contributed to an arrest that seemingly could have been avoided. At different points in the video, both remark on how they can't believe this happened "over a simple traffic stop."
Bland could certainly have been more cordial to Encinia -- though she is under no legal obligation to do so, as being rude to a cop is protected behavior under the First Amendment. But some will likely say that if Bland had just put out her cigarette, Encinia would have sent her on her way, and that she chose to escalate the situation.
There may be some truth to that argument. But to place the responsibility on Bland is to treat Encinia like an undisciplined tinder box, programmed to explode when a spark sets him off. This was an unusual and distressing encounter for Bland, as interactions with police tend to be for many individuals. Encinia could tell that Bland was irritated, and says as much in a later conversation with his supervisor that can be heard on the video. Prior to the cigarette confrontation, Bland tells the trooper she feels she was pulled over unfairly, and says she only switched lanes to get out of his way as he sped up behind her.
For Encinia, dealing with people like Bland is his job -- a difficult one at that, in which citizens can be rude and unappreciative. And part of that job is to de-escalate tension. At the 23:30 mark on the dashcam video, Encinia tells his supervisor that he was unable to do so.
I tried "to de-escalate her and it wasn't getting anywhere at all," Encinia says. "I put the Taser away, I tried talking to her, calming her down, and that was not working,"
At that point, Encinia was trying to walk back the escalation that he had initiated when he ordered Bland out of the car -- a lawful order under a 1997 Supreme Court ruling, but an unnecessary one considering the context. In a more successful de-escalation effort, Encinia might have taken stock of Bland's frustration and made a conscious effort to avoid further conflict.
After all, what would've happened if Encinia had just let Sandra Bland smoke her cigarette? There would have been a traffic warning, but no arrest and no jail. Encinia wouldn't have gotten kicked by Bland, an attack that he says in the video amounted to assault. And Bland might have driven away thinking that all cops aren't looking to turn petty offenses into something that can ruin a person's life.
Read more on Sandra Bland at the links below: