“I'm Giving You a Lawful Order”: Dialogic Legitimacy in Sandra Bland's Traffic Stop

Date01 June 2017
Published date01 June 2017
“I’m Giving You a Lawful Order”: Dialogic
Legitimacy in Sandra Bland’s Traffic Stop
en V. Lowrey-Kinberg Grace Sullivan Buker
On July 10, 2015, a young African American woman named Sandra Bland
was stopped by State Trooper Officer Brian Encinia for failing to signal a lane
change. What began as a routine traffic stop quickly devolved into shouting, a
physical confrontation, and Bland’s subsequent arrest. We use discourse anal-
ysis to examine the rapid escalation of this encounter with a focus on proce-
dural justice (Sunshine & Tyler2003) and the dialogic approach to legitimacy
(Bottoms & Tankebe2012). In analyzing the transcript of Sandra Bland’s traf-
fic stop, we addressseveral key questions: How is procedural justice manifested
linguistically?Can the dialogic legitimacyframework be used to understandthe
dynamicsof individualpolice-citizen interactions?The conclusions of this analy-
sis provide an interdisciplinary view of how procedural justice and legitimacy
are manifestedand negotiated in a police-citizen interaction.
On July 10, 2015, a 28-year-old African American woman
named Sandra Bland was pulled over by State Trooper Officer
Brian Encinia in Prairie View, Texas for failing to signal a lane
change. The traffic stop that followed devolved into shouting, a
physical confrontation, and Bland’s subsequent arrest for assault-
ing a public servant. What began as a routine traffic stop resulted
in Bland’s jailing and eventual suicide at the Waller County jail
(Hennessy-Fiske 2015). These events were the subject of public
outrage, especially as they came amidst a number of other police-
citizen incidents, including those involving Michael Brown of Fer-
guson, Missouri; Eric Garner of New York City; and Tamir Rice
of Cleveland, Ohio. Encinia was later indicted for perjury and his
employment was terminated (Burnside & Berlinger 2016). A
wrongful death lawsuit brought by Bland’s family was settled for
$1.9 million (Hauser 2016). Sandra Bland’s traffic stop raises
The authors extend their gratitude to Eliezer Kinberg for providing the inspiration for
this study as well as Roger W. Shuy, Justice Tankebe, Edward R. Maguire, and the anony-
mous reviewers for their many helpful comments and suggestions.
Please direct all correspondence to Bel
en V. Lowrey-Kinberg, Department of Justice,
Law and Criminology, American University,4400 Massachusetts Ave NW, Washington, DC
20016; e-mail: belen.lowrey@student.american.edu.
Law & Society Review, Volume 51, Number 2 (2017)
C2017 Law and Society Association. All rights reserved.
several questions with important implications for police-citizen
interactions. How did a routine traffic stop become such a violent
encounter? What interactional factors could explain such rapidly
escalating tensions between an officer and a civilian?
Unlike many cases of police-citizen confrontations discussed
in the media, Officer Encinia’s dashboard camera captured the
entire interaction, from the time Bland was pulled to the side of
the road through Officer Encinia’s call to his supervisor after the
conclusion of the incident. In our analysis, we use a transcript of
Bland’s traffic stop and arrest to examine the rapid escalation of
the encounter with a focus on procedural justice (Sunshine &
Tyler 2003) and the dialogic approach to legitimacy proposed by
Bottoms and Tankebe (2012). While procedural justice provides a
lens through which to understand how individual portions of the
discourse convey legitimacy, the dialogic approach provides a
broader framework for understanding the progression of the
interaction. Using discourse analysis, this article will explore the
formulation of procedural justice and police legitimacy in Bland’s
traffic stop, more specifically how authority is claimed by Encinia,
how it is resisted by Bland, and the role it plays in the escalation
of the encounter.
This case study of Bland’s traffic stop adds to the small body
of literature on the language of police-citizen interactions and is
the first, to our knowledge, to focus on the language of police
legitimacy and procedural justice. In analyzing the transcript of
Sandra Bland’s traffic stop, we address several key questions:
How is procedural justice manifested linguistically? Can the dia-
logic legitimacy framework be used to understand the dynamics
of individual police-citizen interactions? The conclusions of this
analysis provide a concrete and interdisciplinary view of how pro-
cedural justice and legitimacy are manifested and negotiated in a
police-citizen interaction.
Literature Review
Several bodies of literature are important in understanding
the devolution of Sandra Bland’s traffic stop and the manifesta-
tion of procedural justice and legitimacy therein. Here, we review
the literature on race and identity in police-citizen interactions,
procedural justice theory, dialogic legitimacy, and the use of dis-
course analysis in the legal context.
Police, Race, and Identity
It is impossible to ignore the role that race and social identity
may play in today’s police-citizen interactions, especially in light
380 Dialogic Legitimacy
of the history of race and policing in the United States (Berry
1994; Hawkins & Thomas 1991), police shootings of African-
American men and women, and protests against the police use of
force that have accompanied these events (Davey & Bosman
2014; Lee & Landy 2015; Mueller & Southall 2014; Yan & Ford
2015). From this perspective, it is not surprising that studies have
found that minority citizens hold more negative views of police
than do White citizens (Albrecht & Green 1977; Decker 1981;
Jacob 1971; Lundman & Kauffman 2003; Scaglion & Condon
1980; Tuch & Weitzer 1997). Moreover, minorities perceive dis-
crimination and misconduct to be more widespread among police
than do Whites (Hagan & Albonetti 1982; Hagan, Shedd, &
Payne 2006; Weitzer & Tuch 2004; Wortley, Hagan, & Macmillan
These deep-seated beliefs regarding fairness and discrimina-
tion may influence minority citizens’ interpretations of police
actions. For example, in a recent mixed-methods study of citi-
zens’ perceptions of police, Epp, Maynard-Moody, and Haider-
Markel (2014) found that race is a significant factor in how inves-
tigatory traffic stops are interpreted by citizens. The researchers
argue that the institutionalized practice of conducting investigato-
ry stops undermines the legitimacy of the police in the eyes of
Black Americans and sends a strong message about their identity
and belonging as citizens. Similarly, Skogan (2012) notes that citi-
zens’ “prior expectations could independently color how they
view specific features of an encounter” (276), a statement that
echoes the findings of other researchers (Levin & Thomas 1997;
Rosenbaum et al. 2005).
Officers themselves may be subject to conscious and uncon-
scious biases that can affect their interpretations of citizens’ words
and actions (Correll et al. 2002; Fridell 2013; Lane, Kang, &
Banaji 2007). Relatedly, Price (2005) and Bottoms and Tankebe
(2014) explain that power-holders can come to believe that par-
ticular groups are not restricted by or entitled to certain moral
Moreover, aspects of a citizens’ “moral worthiness,”
including age, sex, race, and role have been theorized to influ-
ence police actions in individual encounters (Mastrofski et al.
2016: 121). Officers’ underlying beliefs about citizens’ moral wor-
thiness may, in turn, shape behaviors in individual interactions.
For instance, recent research found that officers in Oakland, Cali-
fornia used more informal terms when speaking with Black driv-
ers than with White drivers. These linguistic choices may reflect
For linguistic perspective on social categorization by those with institutional power
see Gordon (1983).
Lowrey-Kinberg & Buker 381

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