It seems like every week now, there’s another person who dies after being roughed around by police. It’s to the point where it’s difficult to keep the names and places straight. Michael Brown was in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner was in New York, and Freddie Gray was in Baltimore, but where was Sandra Bland? And what was the name of the guy who got shot on video in South Carolina?
The lesson that we need to be learning from this is that law enforcement has changed, somehow, at some time in the recent past. The change has been to how they enforce the law, and the change has not been for the better.
At the core of the wrong tactical changes that have been made in many police departments across America is how officers are promoted up in the ranks. Officers now succeed or fail in the force based on the number of arrests they make. Fewer arrests mean that they are not doing their job. More arrests show that the officer knows how to ferret out crime.
It doesn’t take rocket science to show how this is a bad idea. Just watch the dashboard camera in the Sandra Bland case. Ms. Bland was driving in Prairie View, Texas when she was pulled over by officer Brian Encinia for failing to signal while changing lanes. Mr. Encinia had made a reasonable decision to give Ms. Bland a written warning for failing to signal. But written warnings are not arrests. They are not crimes that can make an officer look good for rooting out.
So Mr. Encinia went back to Ms. Bland’s car and created an altercation by telling her to put out her cigarette. Knowing her rights, Ms. Bland refused. There’s nothing illegal about smoking in your own car. Unfortunately, this put Mr. Encinia in a position to say that she wasn’t complying with an officer. He told her to get out of her car. Again, knowing her rights, she refused. Mr. Encinia tried pulling her out, and then threatened to taser her. When Ms. Bland got out, she was arrested.
Three days later, Ms. Bland died in jail. The initial autopsy deemed it a suicide, but it has since been determined to be defective. New results are still pending.
But we shouldn’t be talking about Ms. Bland’s death. She should never have been arrested. But she was, because written warnings aren’t good enough to move police officers up in their departments, and the police are human, with ambitions and often with families to support. They want promotions and pay raises as much as anyone else.
The problem is that, to get these promotions, and these pay raises, cops like Mr. Encinia often have to get an edge on their competition in the department. They can do this by creating arrests where they’re not necessary, by bullying innocent people around until they feel they can clap the cuffs on them.
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