Oscar-Nominated Documentary Highlights the Routine Brutality of a Texas Traffic Stop
Breaion King’s arrest was quotidian to police, life-altering for her and reveals the chasm between police and the people they’re supposed to protect and serve.
“I’m in my car. Why do I have to put out my cigarette?”
That’s what an irritated Sandra Bland asked the Texas Department of Public Safety trooper who pulled her over for failing to use her turn signal on July 10, 2015, outside Prairie View A&M University. The trooper answered by ordering Bland out of her car, pointing his Taser at her and screaming “I will light you up!” before throwing her to the ground, charging her with assaulting a police officer and hauling her to the Waller County Jail, where authorities say she later hanged herself with a trash bag.
Dash-cam video of Bland’s arrest became a widely shared case study in unnecessary police escalation. What isn’t as well known is another Texas traffic stop that occurred one month before Bland’s, involving another young African-American woman. Like Bland, Breaion King asked the Austin Police Department (APD) officer that pulled her over for speeding her own annoyed-sounding question: “Would you please hurry it up?” Much like the trooper who arrested Bland, officer Bryan Richter responded by ordering King out of her car, slamming her to the pavement and charging the 26-year-old elementary school teacher with resisting arrest.
Many saw racism in Bland’s traffic stop and treatment by police. The racism of King’s encounter was impossible to ignore once video of it went public. “Why are so many people afraid of black people?” another APD officer, Patrick Spradlin, asked King while driving her to jail. The question was rhetorical; he answered it himself: “Violent tendencies.”
“Ninety-nine percent of the time when you hear about stuff like that, it is the black community that’s being violent,” Spradlin told her. “That’s why a lot of white people are afraid. And I don’t blame them.”
Viral videos of violent police encounters often feature subjects who aren’t alive to reflect on them — Walter Scott, Sandra Bland, Samuel DuBose. In a new 30-minute documentary, King explains how her traffic stop eroded whatever trust she had in law enforcement. In the aptly titled Traffic Stop, which was nominated for an Academy Award last month and is now streaming on HBO, filmmakers Kate Davis and David Heilbroner slow down King’s ordeal into chapters, making viewers digest the footage slowly as she’s introduced. Rather than pile on statistics, heavy-handed music or talking heads, the filmmakers wisely let King speak for herself.
In the opening scene, Richter lunges inside King’s car and rips her out of the driver’s seat with so much force her legs flail and clip the car parked next to her. Then you learn King’s mother died when she was 15, that she struggled in school, felt ignored by educators, and in teaching herself found her calling as a math teacher. You also learn that her sister’s a cop. “I like police officers a lot,” she says at one point.
Once you know more about King, there’s a potency to her panic and anguish as she sobs and asks for “the black police” while handcuffed in the back of a squad car. The jokes the officers crack outside — “She’s got some fight in her!” — feel even more calloused. When Richter’s supervisor arrives moments after the arrest and swallows his version of the encounter without question (“She took a big ol’ haymaker at me, that’s why I dropped her”), there’s a relatable, searing rage in King’s voice as she shouts that he’s lying. The brutality is quotidian to them, life-altering for her and reveals the chasm that often exists between police and the people they’re supposed to protect and serve.
Footage of King’s arrest didn’t become public until a year later, in the summer of 2016, when someone leaked it to Austin media. Prosecutors reviewed the footage, rejected the resisting arrest charge against King and began investigating Richter for possible criminal misconduct. Austin TV station KXAN later reported that Richter had charged more people with resisting arrest over a decade than any other APD officer. Last month, the department fired Richter for lying to investigators about the force he used during another arrest.
A grand jury ultimately cleared Richter of any charges in King’s case, but advocates for police accountability seized on her story as evidence that one of the most progressive, reform-minded police departments in the country fails to catch and correct routine brutality. Officials said they were “saddened and sickened” by King’s treatment and apologized to her, but the officers involved faced no discipline due to protections embedded in the city’s contract with the local police union.
Citing King’s case and others, activists in December pressured Austin City Council to take the unprecedented step of rejecting the police union’s contract. The city is still in the process of negotiating benefits and oversight for officers. Meanwhile, heavy-handed arrests for contempt of cop in the city continue to make headlines.
For King, her traffic stop turned nightmare left her with a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder and a series of nagging questions. “Is this how everybody views us?” she says in the documentary. “Are officers really out here for my good? Are they really here to protect me?”