It’s been 650 days, 92 weeks, and 15,600 hours since former DPS Trooper Brian Encinia stopped my sister Sandra Bland on University Drive, less than a mile away from her alma mater and undoubtedly changed the course of her life.
What began as a routine traffic stop due to her failure to signal a proper lane change (yes, she simply forgot to use her turn signal) resulted in a physical confrontation by Encinia, who demanded my sister get out of her car when she declined to extinguish her cigarette. With the eminent threat of being tased, my sister fearfully obliged and still ended up in handcuffs and under arrest for assault on a peace officer (a charge that later proved to be unfounded). Saddled with a bail befitting a felony, my sister was found dead in her jail cell three days later, hanged by a plastic trash bag, a scene that eerily conjures up images of lynchings.
Fast forward to present day, where headlines out of Texas laud the recent unanimous passing of Senate Bill 1849 — also referred to as the Sandra Bland Act. Initially introduced by State Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston earlier this year, the bill promised to address race, poverty, mental health and accountability in law enforcement and corrections.
As a black woman personally impacted by this tragedy and its complexities of the intersectionality of race, gender and socioeconomics, I was cautiously optimistic the legislation would deliver on issues that have pained American society for far too long. So I watched vigilantly to ensure that the family position we expressed collectively on numerous occasions regarding the importance of substantive police reform as it relates directly to accountability was included in the bill.
In the midst of last week’s all too familiar news reports — of the U.S. Department of Justice’s decision not to file civil rights charges in Alton Sterling’s case; ex-cop Michael Slayer’s guilty plea on charges that he used excessive force as he fired eight rounds into the back of an unarmed Walter Scott; and the fatal police shooting of 15-year-old high school student Jordan Edwards as he drove away from a party in Dallas — I combed through the Senate’s revision of the Sandra Bland Act clinging to a sliver of hope that the sponsor, state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, would make law enforcement accountability a priority. While the bill passed, language that contained specific law enforcement references such as consent searches, requiring identification of implicit bias as effective means of policing and prohibiting “pretext stops” — traffic stops for one offense that are used to investigate another — were all omitted. It tore open the emotional scars of this ordeal, leaving me as raw as the day I received the call that Sandy was found dead in the Waller County jail, three days after a pretext traffic stop!
The growing list of loved ones who are becoming irreversible, trending hashtags is empirical evidence of increasing, overt racial tensions in America that we repeatedly see played out in minority communities when some police officers opt for brute force over effective community policing strategies that would foster a more inclusive environment in the communities they swore to serve and protect.
Shortly after the loss of my sister, I came across a quote from Jon Stewart that so accurately encompassed my feelings then and now: “You can truly grieve for every officer whose been lost in the line of duty in this country and still be troubled by cases of police overreach. Those two ideas are not mutually exclusive. You can have great regard for law enforcement and still want them to be held to high standards.”
Sen. Whitmire, on his Facebook page, asserted that the Sandra Bland Act will go a long way to ensure the state of Texas adequately addresses the safety and mental health needs of people confined in county jails.
As a family, we understand that the catastrophic circumstances of Sandy’s unnecessary arrest and subsequent death in jail served as the impetus for legislation that seeks to protect the lives of those pulled into a criminal justice system that offers limited resources to meet their needs. It’s equally important, though, that a bill named in her honor adequately addresses the urgency to engage in dialogue that fits Sandy’s circumstances, by acknowledging that avoidance of accountability amongst law enforcement officials who operate outside of ethical and moral parameters is no longer the answer to policing American civilians with equity and fairness. Sen. Whitmire and Rep. Coleman, I look forward to continuing that solution-based discussion with you.