Page: Why was Sandra Bland ever arrested?

Clarence Page

Evidence points to suicide, not homicide, as the cause of a Chicago-area woman’s death in a Texas jail cell outside Houston, officials say. Yet the arresting officer’s dash-cam video raises serious questions as to why Sandra Bland was arrested in the first place.

Bland, 28, from suburban Naperville, became a tragic national news story after she was found dead in a Waller County, Texas, jail cell on July 13, three days after she was arrested for a minor traffic offense.

The cause of death was listed as “self-inflicted asphyxiation” with a noose fashioned from a plastic garbage bag. The autopsy report released July 23 found no evidence or injuries that would suggest she was killed by anyone but herself, authorities said.

Her family found that hard to believe. She was looking forward to her new job at her alma mater, Prairie View A&M University, they said. But other evidence, including a video she posted on her Facebook page in March, indicated she might have had problems with depression in the past.

A death investigation by the Texas Rangers and FBI continues.

But after a year of national controversies over police and their dealings with black suspects, the videotaped arrest of Bland, a black woman, by Texas State Trooper Brian T. Encinia raises new questions about the right way and the wrong way to handle a traffic stop.

After pulling her over and issuing a written warning for failure to use her turn signal, Trooper Encinia is seen and heard arguing with Bland, ordering her to put her cigarette out, ordering her out of the car and pointing a Taser at her as he threatened, “I will light you up.”

All of this for failure to use a turn signal? As Rebecca Robertson, the legal and policy director for Texas ACLU told The New York Times, “The initial stop should not have resulted in an arrest.” Trooper Encinia could have just handed Sandra Bland a ticket through the window and let her drive away, she said.

Instead we see him reaching in to pull her out of the car and, in another scene caught by a cellphone camera, wrestling her to the ground, as she loudly resists.

Was she resisting a “lawful order,” as the officer insists? Or was she asserting her rights to smoke and exercise free speech? Those can be complicated questions for legal experts to work out.

But the trooper has been put on administrative leave for violating unspecified police procedures and the department’s courtesy policy, spokesmen said. Judging by the video, the officer looks and sounds less like a seasoned professional and more like Barney “single bullet” Fife from the old “Andy Griffith Show” on a power trip.

Bland didn’t help herself by arguing loudly with the officer. The most serious unwritten crime you can commit with some police is “contempt of cop.” In the trooper’s eyes, she appears to have committed that offense even before he got physical.

But sound professional standards call for a police officer to try to de-escalate such situations, not make them worse.

Even billionaire presidential candidate Donald Trump, seldom a model of understatement, told a reporter in Texas, “This guy (Trooper Encinia) was overly aggressive. And I’m a huge fan of the police. But this guy was overly aggressive. Terribly aggressive.”

You don’t have to be a liberal to be upset about seeing a police officer provoke a routine traffic stop into a major civil liberties issue.

The family’s suspicions are understandable. As experts have pointed out, the larger tragedy of suicides in local jails is just how common they are — 43 per 100,000 in 2011, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, or more than three times that of the general population.

Clarence Page is a columnist for The Chicago Tribune.