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Korecki: How Illinois can avoid its own Sandra Bland tragedy

There’s a word that’s emerged prominently in the coverage surrounding the traffic stop, arrest and subsequent jailhouse death of Sandra Bland that’s worth study.

Escalation.

A police dashcam video released last week of the former Naperville resident who was found dead in a Texas jail cell sparked a national firestorm over the conduct of the arresting state trooper and raised significant questions about police powers.

That’s after Brian T. Encinia, the  trooper, pulled over Bland for failing to signal while changing lanes.

She complied with his requests to turn over her information. After he walked back to her car, presumably to let her get on her way, he checked her attitude.

He asked if she was OK, noting she seemed “irritated.” She was, she said, because she changed lanes to move over since his squad was gaining speed. Now, she was getting a ticket.

That’s where it arguably should have ended.

Instead, she was arrested and held in overnight custody. She was later found hanging in her jail cell. A preliminary autopsy has determined that her injuries are consistent with suicide even as her family swears she would never take her own life.

“They’ve got blood on their hands whether or not it’s a suicide,” state Sen. Kwame Raoul, D-Chicago, said of the police. “Fundamentally, she shouldn’t have been in jail.”

In Illinois, Raoul has co-sponsored sweeping law enforcement reform legislation that awaits Gov. Bruce Rauner’s signature. Raoul said elements of the legislation go directly toward addressing the kinds of things that went wrong after Bland’s police encounter.

It’s a traffic stop, recall, that is happening in a post-Ferguson and post-Baltimore era, where racially-charged, police incidents in those cities have heightened tensions across the nation. It’s also taking place after the well-publicized death of Eric Garner, who was put in a chokehold and taken to the ground by a New York City Police officer. Garner complained: “I can’t breathe,” during his arrest then died.

Those incidents helped drive the legislation in Illinois, SB1304, which sets out clear procedures for the use of body cameras and dashcam cameras. The bill bans Illinois police officers to use chokeholds, unless the use of deadly force is warranted. It requires police to fill out “receipts” for those individuals — including pedestrians — who are “frisked” or patted down but not arrested. Police would have to detail the reason for stopping the person, detailing that person’s race and logging any contraband or other personal items taken from the person.

The provisions work to place additional checks on police authority while also providing police officers evidence if they later face misconduct allegations.

While the words “escalation” or “de-escalation” do not appear in the text of the 174-page bill, the legislation includes clauses requiring additional police training every three years on “constitutional and proper use of law enforcement authority, procedural justice, civil rights, human rights and cultural competency.”

A key component to that training, Raoul says, is practicing scenarios like the one that confronted Encinia that day.

Someone mouths off, shake it off.

De-escalate.

A review of the Bland traffic stop video seems to show the exact opposite unfolding.

Encinia was seemingly annoyed by the way she responded to him when he asked about her irritation. He asked her to put out her cigarette. Why, she asked, when she was sitting in her own car?

That’s when he asked her to get out of her car.

When she wouldn’t, he opens her door and orders her out. He eventually pulls out a taser and threatens: “I’ll light you up!”

Escalation.

“That displays the kind of abuse of authority. You’re not supposed to exercise your authority that way, just because you’re pissed off, because you’re disrespected,” Raoul said.

The senator said every police department in the state should review the footage released last week.

Said Raoul: “It’s a great training video as to what not to do as an officer to escalate a routine stop.”