Sandra Bland and the Problem with Law Enforcement Interactions
By now most of you have heard of the death of a 28 year old woman, Sandra Bland. Perhaps you have even viewed the dashcam footage. I am intentionally eliminating references to race, because quite frankly, in this matter it is irrelevant. It does not matter what race, gender, sexual orientation, or national origin Sandra Bland has, the manner in which Texas State Police Officer Brian Encinia interacted with her is at best unprofessional, and at worst dereliction of duty and should be cause for his immediate dismissal and investigation for excessive use of force. However, the purpose of this article is not to bash Officer Encinia, this incident aligns with a much larger and problematic issue. The lack of trust between the population and law enforcement.
I will caveat this article with the following. Poor conduct by police officers at any level are not the norm, rather they are a fraction of a percentage of police interactions with the public they serve. It is also not a systemic, institutionalized problem, I heard a person of German heritage say it reminded her of the stories from her parents of what it was like under the Nazi regime, which it is not. Under the Nazi regime, every policeman, every agent of the security service targeted anyone that was different and, at least in the beginning, would look for an infraction, no matter how minor, to interrogate. Later they even dropped this ruse. Third caveat is the responsibility of the national media in enabling the current environment of friction and confrontation between the population, especially minority populations, and the law enforcement community. National news outlets, be it print, web or television, are private organizations and require sponsors, advertisements, and content to derive its funding. They have to “sell” air-time. They have to get subscribers, and to do that they must pander to the macabre. Using the vernacular of the news marketing industry, “If it bleeds, it leads.” In today’s world of instant news, real time reporting, and ultracompetitive market, news organizations must use any way possible to get out in front or a story. If this means reporting and speculating before the facts are known, over sensationalizing, or outright fabrication of information, they will do it to sell. I do not condone this, I am only bringing it up because it is what it is and it influences how individuals and groups formulate perspectives.
The issue, as I have stated is the lack of trust between the population and the law enforcement agency. When a law enforcement officer gets out of line, and it is made public, people extrapolate that conduct to their local police department using whatever experiences with which they can identify. In some areas this could mean being singled out due to race, gender, national origin; in others it could be for being affiliated with a particular organization (in many locales where there is a major military presence, those whose vehicles, license plates, or appearance indicate they are military are singled out by law enforcement); and in some circumstances where the interaction is face to face such as foot patrols, perception of the officer of the sexual orientation of the citizen. The society in which we live now is digital, most everyone has a camera, it may be the person with whom the officer is interacting, but more likely it is a person nearby who is recording the interaction. This film, if graphic enough, or if violent enough, or flagrantly offensive enough, gets posted to an online site such as youtube, vimeo, liveleaks, Instagram, twitter, etc. It is this posting, generally without any context, which the news media picks up and uses with whatever level of due diligence with which they are comfortable.
But regardless of the location, situation, or specific circumstances it is an interaction between two individuals. Both of whom are acting and reacting as a result of their life experiences and learning, both formal and informal. It is in this area I believe we have the best chance to significantly reduce or even eliminate these types of inflaming interactions. It takes leadership, focused, determined, positive leadership to fix the current environment.
On the part of law enforcement, and I will be especially direct here as this was my profession for over 20 years, you have to clean up your own pig sty. This will require the close cooperation between the leadership of the agencies, the unions, and the nonunion support organizations. Officers who have demonstrated unprofessional behavior to the extent of bringing discredit upon the department must be summarily terminated. The law enforcement community can prevent this from happening by taking a proactive approach to unacceptable behavior by having every officer check, scold, and counsel their superiors, peers and subordinates. These unacceptable behaviors are not spontaneous. The behaviors may be bullying in nature, an over dependence on the power to control, or the failure to accept the differences in people such as race, gender, or sexual orientation. They are an indication of a rooted behavioral pattern which has been observed by fellow officers and nothing was said or done to address it. As we said in the Army, when a leader walks past a problem and does not fix it they have established a new, and lower, standard. In this industry you are quick to support each other in time of crisis, that crisis is upon you now and to support yourselves and the good officers in your department you may have to convince some that a different line of work is best suited for them. It is time you started reinforcing the “protect and serve” part of your industry.
On the part of the citizenry, the social ills which influence bad behavior are many and powerful. Economic challenges, educational challenges, peer pressure all play a part in a parent’s ability or inability to positively influence their children and the friends of their children. However, citizens must understand the rule of law and all laws are equal. Robbery is against the law to the same extent speeding is. Watch, understand, and interact with your local law enforcement on both organizational and personal levels. If you attend church, I will venture to say there is one of two officers who also attend. If you are part of a non-profit, rest assured they are represented there as well. If your local department has a citizen’s academy, participate in it and understand the stress these officers go through on a “routine” traffic stop. There is no such thing as a routine traffic stop until the stop is complete. Until the driver pulls out the officer is a risk of injury or death. Hold your local department to their stated standard. Be part of the department’s citizen panel (if they have one). If you have an officer who does not meet the standards, make the department address the issue. Hold the media accountable make them report not only the infractions you see, but also the positive things those individual officers do in your community every single day. But under no circumstances should you allow, enable, or advocate violent uprisings such as we observed in Los Angeles after the Rodney King verdict, in Ferguson after the Michael Brown killing, or in Baltimore and elsewhere after the death of Freddie Gray.
The media has taken on a life unto itself. You have departed from the basics and have not improved because of it. Whether it be Fox, MSNBC, ABC, NBC, CBS or any of the print and radio shows you are now in the business of making the news, not reporting the news. You have got to return to your roots, you have got to return to reporting things of local importance in the local news and leave the national news to national events. These do not include local run-ins between law enforcement and citizens. You only serve to distort the facts and inflame emotions which serves no purpose. If you want to be a vehicle for social justice and change, you must approach it from a calming and mentoring manner. Otherwise you are nothing more than another agitator in the peanut gallery. Above all, only report the facts, never speculate, never surmise, and never inject bias into the report. See the note below about not know what else might be going on of which you have no clue.
For everyone, take a breath. Respond, do not react. Are your words necessary? Are your actions consistent with the high standards you set for yourself? There are people out there who are dealing with challenges you do not know about. That police officer may have just been served divorce papers, be grieving over the death of a colleague, or other issues. That citizen who failed to stop at the stop sing may be rushing to the school to pick up a sick child, trying to get to a job interview so she can afford to keep the lights on and water running. Realize there will be injustices in this world. We will never have complete utopia, we will never have perfect conduct in every law enforcement agency. Every citizen will not be having a good day and a traffic stop which is going to make them late for work will only increase their anxiety Work with them. Take every opportunity to deescalate the situation.
To close on a positive note, there are thousands of law enforcement officers out there who would not allow themselves to act like Officer Encinia, it would go against everything they stand for. Equally, there are millions of citizens who would never think of assaulting a police officer, and would go out of their way to help an officer in trouble. But because all we see, hear, and read in the national media is the dark side of police interactions with citizens, we have a distorted opinion of all law enforcement and all people of particular backgrounds and socioeconomic categories.
Rise above it, remember, when we boil it all down to the basics, someone has to act like an adult.