I used to walk with friends pre-pandemic, but now have been walking alone. As a consequence, I’ve been listening to a lot of books to ease my boredom (thank you Chicago Public Library!) Talking to Strangers is my latest. It is probably the most thoughtful and compassionate investigation of the Sandra Bland case I’ve ever heard. It is also a not-quite an indictment of “stop and frisk,” which was what Sandra’s case was all about. More on the “not quite” later.
Like all of Gladwell’s books, it takes a meandering route to its conclusion. But what complicated issue has a “straight answer”?
It explores the inability of the majority of humans to tell if another human is lying. It explores famous cultural miscommunications, such as the one between Cortes and the Aztecs. And it explores famous liars (Bernie Madoff), infamous cases of honest people accused of lying (Amanda Knox), and psychological research into human lies and the inability to perceive them (or the truth.) It also explores how humans lie under stress (and hence the failure of torture to extract reliable intel) but also the inability under stress for people to make “good choices.”
The book also looks deeply at “Coupling.” Here is where the “not-quite” indictment of stop and frisk comes into play. Stop and frisk works IF it occurs in places that have high crime rates. By “places” the research doesn’t support applying the policy to cities, or neighborhoods, or even streets–it indicates applying it only at specific street corners, or cul de saqs, or addresses. Contrary to what you might believe, and I didn’t know, crime doesn’t move easily.
Stop and frisk doesn’t work any other way, and in fact, leads to the erosion of trust in the police.
Yet, many police are trained to enact stop and frisk policies everywhere. Bryan Encinea was trained to be suspicious by default and to look for any reason to pull someone over…even though he served in a low crime area, and pulled Sandra over at a place that was extremely low crime.
Something that struck me, listening to the book, was how Sandra Bland didn’t show “respect” for authority when she was pulled over. Sandra had serious depression, and she’d been pulled over a lot and had trouble with the law in the past. She wasn’t a good driver, and Encinea was drawn to her because she allegedly blew through a stop sign just outside of his area of jurisdiction. He followed her until he had a reason to pull her over–a missed turn signal. (Let’s acknowledge here how having a police car follow you might lead you to make a mistake while driving.) It was not enough reason for an arrest. Gladwell emphasizes her personal troubled history as being the reason for her nerves, and her “disrespect.”
I kind of wonder if it is a family history of poverty. My beloved stepfather (aka, The Marine) was from an affluent family. But my mother and my biological father’s extended family hail from Appalachia. There is deep, multi-generational poverty on both sides. It leaves a long foot print on behavior and definitely on psychology. I could hear Sandra thinking, “Why be respectful? I’m just going to get another ticket I can’t pay off anyway. I might as well have a damn smoke.” It’s something some of my relatives would think. Some of my relatives on my dad’s side also had tangled relationships with the law. No, they didn’t die in police custody, but some of those relatives are also dead under mysterious circumstances. Poverty, fatalism, and early death go hand in hand.
Gladwell shows how her disrespect read as guilt of a higher crime to Encinea. He never gives Encinea a full pass, but he does say how Encinea’s training was largely at fault. And he clearly indicts the “wiser, calmer heads” that should know better, but don’t, even when presented with the evidence.
The whole book is fascinating, with departures from the main story line that seem out of the blue at first, but tie into the main thread of the narrative. I highly recommend it as a listen and or a read if that is your thing.