#SayHerName: The unique risks black women face at the hands of police perjury
The Texas state trooper who arrested Sandra Bland this summer is finally, in some measure, being held accountable for his actions.
Brian T. Encinia was fired by the Texas Department of Public Safety on Wednesday after a grand jury indicted him for perjury after lying about the circumstances of his encounter with Bland on July 10, 2015, the New York Times reported. In an effort to justify his actions toward Bland that day, the former state trooper filed a one-page affidavit stating that he removed her from her vehicle as a safety precaution to conduct the investigation. However, as special prosecutor told the Times, “the grand jury found that statement to be false.”
After the release of the dashcam footage, Encinia’s lies were clear. At the close of the routine traffic stop—Bland was pulled over for failure to use her turn signal—Encinia asked Bland to put our her cigarette. She declined. In response to her lawful refusal—she was in her own car—Encinia quickly escalated the situation, reaching into Bland’s car to pull her out, threatening, “I will light you up.”
From this point forward, we know that Bland was detained, taken to the Waller County Jail, and for reasons that still have yet to explained, at least in ways that don’t warrant speculation, ended up dead three days later.
Upon hearing the developments around Encinia, Bland’s family members found this to be “bittersweet.” Only two weeks ago, a grand jury failed to indict anyone in connection with her death at the jail.
“It [the encounter] could easily have been avoided,” Sharon Cooper, Bland’s sister, told the Associated Press. Similarly, Cannon Lamber, the family’s attorney noted this was “six months too late,” but no less an action that Encinia deserved.
For those of us who paid attention to the situation since this summer, who identify with Bland, the sentiment is shared. The charge is one step toward justice, one that cannot be taken likely. But in order to honor Bland, and the many other women who have had to face similar circumstances, or prepare ourselves for a similar possibility, we must put this into a much broader conversation about policing, but especially the way it affects black women.
Perjury is a common police practice, and they often get away with it
Encinia, if found guilty of perjury, a Class A misdemeanor, could face up to one year in jail and be forced to pay a $4,000 fine. Given the fact that his interaction with and arrest of Bland, only justified after the fact and not in accordance with the circumstances, sits as the root cause for an absolutely avoidable death, this form of punishment feels all too benevolent for a man whose action do not warrant it. Yet, it is one step toward accountability toward an activity common amongst officers, and that rarely goes noticed, let alone by the criminal justice system.
More commonly referred to as “testilying,” perjury is a tactic police officers use, commonly for search and seizures, to skip following protocol by simply saying that they did.
As it comes to most forms of police conduct, data is not readily available. No less, police brutality cases demonstrate that perjury extends beyond Encinia and Waller County State Troopers, but is, instead, a part of the national policing status quo.
Most recently, the Chicago Police Department has been under close scrutiny, and the broader Chicago political machine, over the shooting of Laquan McDonald, and particularly the shadowy actions taken to withhold the dashcam footage, released last November.
Amongst the many pieces of incriminating evidence, one includes a clear act of perjury. The Chicago Tribune reported a clear discrepancy between the video evidence and the police reports filed by officers. While video clearly demonstrates McDonald walking aware, officers stated he was not only advancing toward them, but that he pulled a knife, swinging at them in an “aggressive, exaggerated manner,” before he was shot. Again, this was not the case.
Yet, when Jason Van Dyke, the officer who shot McDonald, was charged with murder. Perjury was not among the charges.
Bland’s arrest shows how police use stereotypes to justify illegal interactions with black women
Encinia’s lies were not only possible through common policing practices. They, too, rested on the “angry black woman” stereotype that is more likely to give the benefit of the doubt that Bland was simply combative rather than make space for her rage to be justified.
Unfortunately, we’ve seen this exhibited beyond the circumstances surrounding Encinia’s arrest of Bland’s. Most recently, this played itself out in the case against former Oklahoma City Police Officer Daniel Holtzclaw.
Thirteen black woman charged him with rape and sexual assault while on duty, but of the 36 charges, he would only be found guilty of 18. The verdict spoke to the politics of respectable victims: many of the women targeted by Holtzclaw were poor and had a background of drug abuse. Because perfection is too often a tacit prerequisite for victimhood, Holtzclaw was able to leverage their background against them as a condition of the assault, and, a reason why many of the women said they did not believe anyone would believe them. For many of his victims, their instincts proved true.
In the opening statement, Holtzclaw’s attorney, Scott Adams, attempted to paint the victims as “street-smart” seductresses to the “naive and gullible” Holtzclaw who was trying to get to know the neighborhood he was assigned. The language, however, was codified. Each of the victims’ testimony showed a pattern, one that was meticulous. No less because of the way black women are hypersexualized, the defense rested their case on the cultural understanding that it is not unbelievable for black women to fit the Jezebel stereotype, promiscuous and always already sexually available. This is one of the reasons why, as the African American Policy Forum’s “Say Her Name” report shows, when we talk about police violence against black people, we must include sexual assault to adequately include black women in the conversation.
As we continue to remember Sandra Bland, we must demand accountability. Encinia’s charge is one step in that direction. But we must dismantle the ways the law is stacked against black women in order that justice be rectified for her and for other black women.
Photo credit: Flickr