Why the Traffic Stop of Sandra Bland Should Scare Us All

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Today I am wading into some uncomfortable waters, not because I like controversy, but because it matters.

I’ve just watched the full video of the arrest of Sandra Bland, a civil rights activist from Chicago who was starting a new chapter of her life with a job in Texas when a traffic stop by Officer Brian Encinia quickly escalated into a series of events that ended in her untimely death in a jail cell, with Mr. Encinia under criminal probe, and her death, initially reported as suicide, under investigation as murder.

This video scares me to death.

Not because I think every police officer is bad. I do not. By and large, I believe most care about the welfare of those within their community and work hard to protect the public while risking their lives to do so, conducting themselves with a high level of professionalism under difficult circumstances. I have deep respect for the many within our communities who serve with integrity and who uphold the law with compassion and professionalism.

But there has been an increased number of incidents where police officers have not controlled their own emotions but escalated a situation because of their own confrontational, aggressive behavior, looking a lot more like they’ve been trained for combat than civil service.

As a mother of a teenage son, that absolutely terrifies me.

Whether he is out with friends or attending school, since more public schools are housing armed officers on premises – including his, I can’t imagine that I am alone in worrying that my kid could end up in a domino-effect of escalated reactions by an authority figure which results in terrible consequences. One only has to read about the young boy with autism who was physically forced into a trash can by his teacher or about the 1,600 students in a single school district in Louisiana who all within a single year now have arrest records for such reprehensible behavior as throwing Skittles on the school bus, carrying a cell phone or using bad words to understand that extreme responses to minor incidences are already a problem in some schools.

2472344B-343C-4C95-9AF9-1376999663A9There is growing outrage over these extreme consequences resulting from out of control authority figures, and yet, especially when it comes to our police, we  understand that the difficult task of keeping order means that sometimes force is absolutely required to address dangerous situations which threaten the lives of citizens and police officers. And the increased awareness is also, in part, a result of mandates for greater transparency which has led to more dash cam recordings shared with the public as well as the proliferation of cell phone cameras and platforms such as Twitter, YouTube and Reddit. Open digital platforms have resulted in rapid, real-time sharing of evolving events, turning the world into active participants in the court of public opinion. Dante Barry, the Executive Director of Million Hoodies for Justice, recently shared his insights at the Personal Democracy Forum in NYC on this new age of powerful platforms generating powerful movements like #BlackLivesMatter. Barry presented many counterpoints addressing the need for judicious protections of privacy and rights as new technologies are adopted.

But even more important than technology, I believe the impetus is on us to address the human factor as well. The behavior of some of the authority figures caught on video is downright scary. When we understand that the person standing inches away from our vehicle may be a consummate professional with proper training or might be someone who quickly escalates to force, we, as citizens, end up having to decide when we are pulled over whether to push back when we believe our rights are being violated or to accept the possible violation of our rights as the necessary price of not possibly ending up in jail or dead. And when we have to teach our children to not question what is being decided about them by a teacher, principal or police officer for fear that any sign of resistance my trigger this kind of escalation, what kind of adults are we going to produce? Is the answer as simple as implementing new training techniques which focus less on ‘combat preparedness’ and more on behavioral techniques? Is the solution much less attainable due to systemic problems which run much deeper? I honestly don’t know the answer. I just know that somehow we have to find a way to stop the extreme escalations by those in authority positions which result in devastating, irreparable tragedies for everyone involved.

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