Over a month has passed since Sandra Bland died in a Waller County jail, the story shows no sign of disappearing. The incident sparked national outrage when video of Bland’s arrest showed state trooper Brian Encinia intentionally escalating the drama with a justifiably angry Ms. Bland, threatening to “light you up” with his taser, then, once she steps out of her vehicle, throwing her to the ground with so much force that she temporarily lost her hearing. Bland was then charged with assaulting an officer and hauled off to jail. But none of this would have attracted much attention if Sandra Bland hadn’t turned up dead three days later.
Questions abound. Why, a month after his bizarre display of criminally awful police work, has officer Encinia been returned to routine patrol work? Why hasn’t he been fired and charged with assault? Even Donald Trump was appalled by Encinia’s police work–and when the Donald thinks an officer’s behavior is appalling attention must be paid. Trump is an international authority on awful behavior.
People are still asking what really happened inside Sandra Bland’s jail cell? Did she really hang herself with a trash bag? And if not, what alternative explanations are on offer?
And questions have been raised about the men charged with investigating officer Encinia (District Attorney Elton Mathis) and Bland’s peculiar death (Waller County Sheriff, Glenn Smith). Can DA Mathis watch the video of officer Encinia’s aggressive, unprofessional and ultimately criminal treatment of Ms. Bland and conclude the DPS officer did everything by the book?
And what are we to make of Glenn Smith, the bellicose sheriff who, just this week, told a United Methodist Pastor in town to investigate the case to “go back to your Church of Satan.” Smith also had a tree cut down to ensure that protesters would feel the full force of triple digit heat. Can this latter day Bull Conner be trusted with the investigation of the Bland case? (more…)
According to the New York Times, Will Johnson’s swift decision to fire the officer responsible for shooting Christian Taylor represents the standard practice for police chiefs across America. Ever since Ferguson, Missouri was engulfed in months of controversy following the death of Michael Brown, police departments have been bending over backwards to avoid becoming “the next Ferguson”.
Maybe. But, shortly after Ferguson became front page news, I was on a panel discussion with the Arlington police chief and he was talking about “procedural justice,” the idea that police departments function most effectively when they maintain a transparent dialogue with the communities they serve. In the course of the discussion I said that in troubled police departments, the problems begin at the top. Chief Johnson heartily agreed.
The problem in Ferguson (and thousands of other communities across the nation) is the deep mutual mistrust between law enforcement and poor communities of color. As David Kennedy argues in his book Don’t Shoot, toxic narratives, rooted in crude stereotype and broad-brush generalization, often persist within both police culture and poor black neighborhoods. Both sides assume the worst about each other and that’s why a single tragic incident can set off a firestorm.
In Ferguson, law enforcement ratcheted up the tension by attempting to intimidate protesters into submission. “Comply or die” was the implied message. This approach, naturally, fans the flames of protest. Activists respond by becoming even more confrontational, police officers respond in kind, and the situation spirals out of control.
Will Johnson wants to avoid this scenario, and this week his decisive action did just that.
No one knows why Christian Taylor stomped on cars at an Arlington car dealership, then drove his vehicle inside the dealership through a glass door. When several police officers arrived at the scene the goal was to containment. No one’s life was in danger, so the obvious strategy was to block all avenues of escape and give the perpetrator time to realize the hopelessness of his situation.
But Brad Miller, a 49 year old officer in training, didn’t grasp the logic of that strategy. Seeing the broken glass where Christian Taylor had driven his Jeep into the dealership, Miller decided to enter the building alone with the goal.
Two big mistakes. First, the officer acted without communicating with his fellow officers; secondly, he hadn’t thought things through, had no arrest strategy and wasn’t prepared for a confrontation. Instead of deescalating a dangerous situation, he was putting a confused man in the kind of comply-or-die situation that never ends well for anyone.
According to his family, Christian Taylor was a good kid. An ‘A’ Student at Angelo State University. A gifted athlete. A devout Christian who prayed for his community every day. Taylor had no history of mental illness and, so far as anyone knows, wasn’t abusing drugs or abusing alcohol in the days prior to the incident.
Most likely, the young man was in the grips of a psychotic break. Confronted by an armed officer, he held up a set of keys and announced that he was going to steal a car. Sane people don’t talk like that, nor do they drive their vehicles into car dealerships. In short, Christian Taylor wasn’t in his right mind and was unlikely to respond positively to verbal commands.
And that is why Brad Miller had to be fired.
The officer’s pastor spoke at the community prayer service sponsored by Arlington’s Cornerstone Baptist Church, and had nothing but praise for Mr. Miller. He had always wanted to be a police officer and decided that, even at 49, it wasn’t too late to realize that dream. Now, that dream is as dead as Christian Taylor and Miller must live with self-doubt and remorse for the rest of his life.
Rushing into a building without communicating with your superiors is a classic rookie mistake. Miller wanted to show his stuff. He was willing to place himself in danger even though police protocol counseled otherwise. He doesn’t have the temperament for police work (many officers don’t) and he showed it in the worst possible time in the worst possible way. Chief Johnson made the right call.
But, handled poorly, this case could easily have become another Ferguson. Initially, the Taylor family complained to the Manchester Guardian that police officials were giving them the silent treatment. But there turned out to be a very good reason for the initial silence: Chief Johnson wasn’t going to speak publicly until he had his facts, and his talking points, straight.
Pastor Dwight McKissic should be praised for pulling together a community service characterized by message discipline.
No one spoke substantively until a full hour of worship had set the emotional and theological foundation for the evening.
No one, in the absence of good information, tried to explain Mr. Taylor’s bizarre behavior.
No one, save Chief Johnson, described the tragic events and the chief;s performance was flawless. He described how the operation should have been handled. He explained the linkage between officer Miller’s poor judgement and the end result. And then, for a full hour, he answered carefully vetted questions from the community.
Dwight McKissic traveled to Ferguson last year as an observer and, having spoken with him on several occasions, I know he is deeply concerned about racial justice. But he didn’t want the frayed emotions of the moment to derail a meeting called for the purpose of unity and reconciliation. McKissic and I both attended a similar event at a Dallas church last year where several families who had lost loved ones in police shootings hurled insults and curses at public officials. The pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church didn’t want any of that going on in his sanctuary and took effective steps to limit questions to the issue at hand. Statements were not allowed, only questions, and questioners were briefly vetted before getting a turn at the mic.
Several questioners were representing their Sunday school classes, and their excellent questions, though pointed, were always respectful.
When the service was over, I asked the police chief if he thought the absurd American statistics on police shootings said as much about American society as they say about police culture. In other words, is one of the reasons American cops are so much more likely to shoot civilians related, to a certain extent, to the violent and chaotic nature of American society?
Johnson agreed enthusiastically with my premise, although we didn’t have time to explore the matter in depth.
Having lived in both Canada (a country with strict gun controls) and the United States, I am painfully aware of the singular aspects of American culture. The free availability of fire arms is a huge problem, especially in neighborhoods characterized by poverty, unemployment, and crime.
David Kennedy’s, Don’t Shoot is the best analysis of black-on-black violence I have come across. The mayhem, he believes, is driven by a tiny group of psychopathic personalities who enjoy violence for its own sake. Most gangs, and most gang members, secretly hate the violence and wish they could escape it; but the realities of street life make it difficult to lay your weapon down.
It should be noted that Christian Taylor, the young man who died in Arlington, didn’t come from the violent world I have just described. In fact, he was committed to helping people trapped in violent sub-cultures, and he wasn’t armed the night he died.
But police officers don’t just fear violence from gang-bangers; with each passing year, mass killings of the Sandy Hook, and Charleston variety are becoming increasingly common. Men in battle fatigues carrying semi-automatic weapons think its cool to parade through restaurants and department stores just because the law allows it.
Furthermore, much of the pro Second Amendment rhetoric in the nation is rooted in the insane notion that if everyone was armed, and prepared to spray bullets at the slightest provocation, we’d all be a lot safer. Although crime rates have been plunging to record low levels, there remains a widespread belief, echoed recently by Donald Trump, that we are in the middle of an unprecedented crime wave.
Violent crime on a mass scale is limited to a small number of neighborhoods in a few American cities: Chicago, New Orleans, Detroit and Baltimore, for instance. But we have become a nation characterized by fear and what theologians call the myth of redemptive violence. Our movies, our television dramas and our video games are predicated on the allure of violence.
And the cumulative weight of all this madness makes it hard for police officers (and their significant others) to sleep at night. You never know when somebody’s going to pull out a piece and start firing. Police officers in countries like Britain, France, Germany, Australia and Canada have far less to worry about. America is a wonderful nation in many ways; in fact, we’re are almost as exceptional as we think we are. But we have sown the wind of violence and are reaping the whirlwind of fear.
Throughout the service at Cornerstone, participants insisted that the solidarity, unity and spirit of reconciliation on display that night must constitute a beginning, not an end. But how, precisely, do we move forward? Mayor Williams, Pastor McKissic, Chief Johnson, what’s the next move?
IF YOU’RE A Christian who cares about social justice, you can’t afford to ignore Texas.
In his book Rough Country, Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow puts it bluntly: “Texas is America’s most powerful Bible-Belt state.” Texas has the second largest population in the country, home to more than 26 million people. In 2014, Texans led six out of 21 congressional committees. And more than half of Texans attend church at least twice monthly.
No other state has more evangelical Christians than Texas. Many national Christian media companies, parachurch ministries, and influential megachurches are based in Texas. That’s why Texas is called the Buckle of the Bible Belt: It’s the most populous, wealthy, and politically powerful part of the country where evangelical churchgoing is still a dominant force.
But what if we reimagine the Bible Belt? In 2005, Texas officially became a “majority-minority” state, where traditional minority racial or ethnic groups represent more than half of the population. A majority of Texans under 40 in the pews are people of color. This creates an opportunity: Demographic change could lead to cultural change. What if we cast a new vision for faith in Texas public life that puts working families and people of color at the center?
But demographic change will not translate automatically into cultural change. The dominant historical Bible Belt narrative has influenced and shaped the identities of all Texas Christians, including in the African-American and Latino faith communities.
Christians and white supremacy
In Texas and most of the South, the dominant form of evangelical Christianity has been deeply complicit with white supremacy. During the ascendency of the Ku Klux Klan, many white Christians acted as if lynching was a legitimate defense of their white Christian civilization. In the 1920s, J. Frank Norris, pastor of a 10,000-member fundamentalist megachurch in Fort Worth, kept close ties with the Klan, according to author David R. Stokes. Norris, a powerful fundamentalist leader, even invited the Texas Klan’s Grand Dragon to lead prayer from the church’s pulpit one Sunday morning and later hired him to teach at the church.
In the 1950s and ’60s, the most powerful leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention—including W.A. Criswell, pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, the nation’s largest Southern Baptist church at the time—opposed the civil rights movement. In 1956, Criswell denounced the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision that ruled racial segregation unconstitutional. “Let them integrate,” Criswell shouted before the South Carolina legislature, according to historian Andrew M. Manis. “Let them sit up there in their dirty shirts and make all their fine speeches. But they are all a bunch of infidels, dying from the neck up.”