Police cams center of story, again, in Sandra Bland case

Janet Nguyen Jul 22, 2015

Video from a Texas state trooper’s dashboard camera is being scrutinized after capturing the officer’s violent encounter with a citizen who later died in jail. 

That citizen was Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old Chicago native who had just moved to Texas for a job at Prairie View A&M University. On July 10, she was pulled over by state trooper Brian T. Encinia for failing to signal a lane change. The exchange that followed soon escalated. Bland refused to put out a cigarette, after which the officer threatened her with a stun gun.

As the New York Times reports, a dashcam video released Tuesday shows most of the ensuing exchange, including audio from a portion of the video where the two are out of frame that includes Bland saying, “You just slammed me, knocked my head into the ground.”

After three days in a jail cell, Bland was found dead, in what was originally deemed a suicide. Details continue to emerge, and both the state of Texas and the FBI are investigating.

With the release of the dashcam footage comes troubling revelations. As Buzzfeed writes, the Texas Department of Public Safety says the arrest violated several rules of conduct.  

The investigation into Sandra Bland’s death is the latest story fueling an ongoing national conversation about civilian deaths during arrests and while in police custody, racial violence and the flaws in our nation’s incarceration system.  

The Marketplace series “Behind the Blue Line” explored some of the same issues that are surfacing in this case, namely questions about use of excessive police force and whether the filming of police can increase accountability and transparency.  

Police departments grapple with body camera costs  

Cases involving allegations of excessive police force have prompted proposals to equip police officers with body cameras to monitor their behavior. 

According to a survey by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), many police chiefs reported that the use of body cameras correlates with a decrease in complaints against officers.

However, there are monetary barriers to the cameras’ implementation, which can cost up to millions of dollars annually for a city-wide program. Another survey from PERF reports that 39 percent of police executives have said that cost was one of the main reasons they don’t use body cameras within their departments.

Body cameras spread, changing how cops do their job

Aside from President Obama, who requested $263 million to fund body cameras and training for police officers across the country, others are trying to devote financial resources to increase accountability in policing. At the federal level, Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced in May that that the Justice Department would spend $20 million on body cameras for select police departments throughout the nation. 

Some places have already invested in the use of body cams. Take the Seattle Police Department.  It announced plans to spend $2 million on 1,000 cameras, and currently uploads police body cam footage to its YouTube channel.

Since 2012, Rialto, California’s police department has also been using body cams.  Officers must turn them on “before any significant encounter with a member of the public, a witness or a suspect.”  

A study by the Cambridge University Institute of Criminology  in the United Kingdom found that in the first year of the department’s use of body cameras, there was an 88 percent decline in civilian complaints against police and a 60 percent decline in use-of-force by police. As a result, Rialto police chief Tony Farrar has supplied the entire department with body cameras. 

However, despite bodycams’ advantages, some officers and criminal justice experts have contested their use.  They argue that filming may prevent police officers from acting as they normally would, or inhibit them from using “adequate force when they need to.”

Training is in short supply for police forces  

Questions about Bland’s mental health have been raised amid the Wednesday release of booking documents. The documents reveal discrepancies, with two forms indicating that Bland had attempted suicide in 2014 and 2015, respectively. 

Texas State Sen. Royce West has criticized jail officials for their treatment of Bland, saying he thinks they should have put her on suicide watch, which would require 15-minute face-to-face checkups, instead of the standard hourly ones. Bland’s family, however, refutes the claim that she committed suicide. 

Ongoing police training is expensive and in short supply. Of the country’s 18,000 local and state police departments, just 15 percent “do comprehensive mental health crisis training,” according to a program manager with the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Kevin Dillon, a retired police officer and owner of KFD Training and Consulting, says he thinks that police officers aren’t getting enough training in areas such as use of force.

Tight budgets can make spending on training difficult, he says. 

“[Training can cost] anywhere from $100 for a one-day course for one officer to over $10,000 for a whole department for a week,” Dillon told Marketplace’s Sally Herships. 


Editor’s note: This story was changed to reflect that the officer did not pull Bland from her car.  

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