“We Deserve Good Policing”

When I first heard about the arrest and subsequent death of Sandra Bland in Texas after he apparently tried to get out of the way of a police vehicle and failed to signal a lane change, I immediate thought of the University of South Carolina law professor (and ex-cop) Seth Stoughton’s distinction between the “warrior” and “guardian” models of policing, as explained here at TMS a while back.

So I was pleased to see that TPM recruited Stoughton to watch the daschcam video of the encounter between Texas trooper Brian Encinia and Bland and offer his commentary.

He concludes that Encinio did nothing illegal–but also avoided several opportunities to de-escalate the situation, pretty clearly because he thought it was important to have Bland acknowledge his authority. And so an encounter that might have been brief and harmless–it seems Encinio intended to give Bland a mere warning until she started acting uppity–turned confrontational, violent, and eventually, for Bland, lethal.

Concludes Stoughton:

When Encinia ordered Bland to exit her vehicle, she refused. “I don’t have to step out of my car.” Rather than handling the remainder of the stop with her sitting in the car, or explaining why he wanted her to step out of the car, or attempting to obtain her cooperation, or calmly explaining the law, Encinia simply invoked his legal authority, shouting at one point, “I gave you a lawful order.” He was right. It was lawful. And when Bland did not obey, she was refusing a lawful order, a crime under Texas law. Her arrest, like the confrontations that led up to it, may have been lawful, but it was entirely avoidable had Encinia chosen a different approach.

We all deserve more than legal policing. We deserve good policing.

Now it’s entirely possible Encinio was strictly following his training, which, as Stoughton has noted in the past, is often based on the “warrior model” notion that every citizen is a potential cop-killer and every encounter a potential shoot-out, making it incumbent on the officer to “stay in charge” from the first moment. But if this isn’t a situation where bad policing can be blamed on a “bad cop,” it’s all the more reason to examine our policies to make sure certain Americans don’t have to assume–as Sandra Bland seemed to fear, accurately–that minor traffic offenses can turn deadly.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.