Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

All About Ethics Blog

Police Stops

Dominance and subservience

A pedestrian traffic infraction that rapidly escalated into a violent altercation and ultimately resulted in the death of a young African-American woman had the Ethics Center’s Emerging Issues members talking about the ethics behind law enforcement procedures in America.

Twenty-eight-year-old Sandra Bland had recently moved from Illinois to Texas to start a new job as an ambassador at her college alma mater, Prairie View A&M University.  When Texas State Trooper Brian Encinia pulled her over for allegedly failing to signal while changing lanes, a dashboard video camera captured the encounter that led to her incarceration. Spurred on by Bland’s refusal to put out her cigarette as she waited in her car, the situation escalated within minutes to the point of Encinia threatening, “I’m going to light you up,” and dragging her out of the car. Arrested for assaulting an officer and unable to post bail, Bland was found dead in her jail cell three days later, hanging from a noose constructed from a plastic bag.

The ongoing investigation into Bland’s arrest and subsequent passing is just the most recent chapter in a string of disturbing, highly-publicized confrontations between white police officers and black Americans.

Having watched the video of Bland’s arrest, several members of Emerging Issues were struck by the casual nature of the imprisonment and argued that Encinia’s behavior was outrageous and entirely over the top. In the blink of an eye, a young woman sat crying and alone in a jail cell with a felony charge to her name. For what? Bad driving? Smoking a cigarette? Refusing to act subservient to a police officer?

Emergers found the disorienting, terrifying interaction to be very much representative of a problem that happens way too often in law enforcement. The question arose: How do we select our police officers, and how do we train them? Despite having a high respect for police officers and the incredibly difficult job they do, some Emergers suggested that we may need to ask even more out of them.

While quick to admit that Encinia did many things wrong, one member of the group posited that perhaps Bland did some things wrong too.  Did Encinia not have the right to ask Bland to put out her cigarette? Maybe the situation could have ended quite peacefully, if she had simply extended Encinia the courtesy of putting out her cigarette. Perhaps police officers expect that when the guy with the gun questions you, you just say “Yes, Sir,” and “Yes, Ma’am.” They might argue that it’s in your own best interest to be polite and compliant when addressing police officers.

Others adamantly rejected this notion, insisting that Bland was perfectly entitled to continue smoking her cigarette in her car, and Encinia had no right to force her to put it out. It’s worth noting that other members of the Waller County Sheriff’s Office acknowledged that Encinia was wrong to escalate the issue in the manner he did.

Of course, this doesn’t just boil down to an issue of smoking etiquette. Perhaps the root of the problem pertains to a pervading philosophy in law enforcement: When a civilian shows any sign of resistance, the police officer must demonstrate a still superior force. In a recent NPR story, Washington police officer Russ Hicks talks about this "culture that makes it hard for [officers] to back away from confrontation."

If police officers are taught to express dominance, does it follow that we are then obligated to be subservient and expose ourselves to a certain level of humiliation? It seems reasonable that all could benefit from a law enforcement system that places a premium on officers with thick skins, who can get the job done while staying cool, calm, and collected. 


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