Trooper in Sandra Bland traffic stop indicted, fired
HEMPSTEAD, Texas (FOX 32 / AP) - A Texas state trooper who arrested Sandra Bland after a contentious traffic stop last summer was fired Wednesday after being charged with perjury for allegedly lying about his confrontation with the black woman who died three days later in jail.
"I'm thrilled to see that they've acknowledged what we saw 5 1/2 to 6 months ago that the police officer lied," said Bland's sister Sharon Cooper.
Trooper Brian Encinia claimed in an affidavit that Bland was "combative and uncooperative" after he pulled her over and ordered her out of her car. The grand jury identified that affidavit in charging Encinia with perjury, special prosecutor Shawn McDonald said Wednesday night.
"We've always strongly felt that her blood is definitely on his hands. From the time that he intercepted her, he yanked her out of her vehicle, he assaulted her, he threw her to the ground, he put her head into the ground and those are charges that we certainly would've liked to have seen in this case," Cooper said.
Hours after the indictment, the Texas Department of Public Safety said it would "begin termination proceedings" against Encinia, who has been on paid desk duty since Bland was found dead in her cell.
Bland's arrest and death - which authorities ruled a suicide - provoked national outrage and drew the attention of the Black Lives Matter movement. Protesters linked Bland to other black suspects who were killed in confrontations with police or died in police custody, including Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Freddie Gray in Baltimore.
Video of the stop shows Encinia drawing his stun gun and telling Bland, "I will light you up!" She can later be heard off-camera screaming that he's about to break her wrists and complaining that he knocked her head into the ground.
Encinia's affidavit stated he "removed her from her vehicle to further conduct a safer traffic investigation," but grand jurors "found that statement to be false," said McDonald, one of five special prosecutors appointed to investigate.
"It was specifically that he, in his probable cause affidavit stated that he removed her from the vehicle to conduct, to further conduct a safer traffic investigation and the grand jury found that statement to be false," said special prosecutor Shawn McDonald.
She was taken to the Waller County jail in Hempstead, about 50 miles northwest of Houston. Three days later, she was found hanging from a jail cell partition with a plastic garbage bag around her neck. The grand jury has already declined to charge any sheriff's officials or jailers in her death.
The perjury charge is a misdemeanor that carries a maximum of one year in jail and a $4,000 fine. Encinia was not immediately taken into custody, and an arraignment date has not yet been announced. Encinia could not immediately be reached for comment; a cellphone number for him was no longer working.
Cooper also says that Encinia's indictment was "bittersweet."
"We have always felt from the onset, from our viewing of the dashcam video, is what happened to Sandy was largely impacted by the fatal encounter that she had with Officer Encinia," Cooper told the Associated Press.
Cannon Lambert, an attorney for the family, said Encinia should have also been indicted for assault, battery or abuse of his official power.
"The public deserves accountability," Lambert said. "If you don't have public accountability, you don't have public trust. I want the public to be able to trust the police."
About two dozen protesters attended Wednesday's news conference where the indictment was announced. One protester's sign read, "Legalize black skin."
Speaking afterward, one protester, Jinaki Muhammad, called the misdemeanor charge "a slap in the face to the Bland family."
Another of the special prosecutors assigned to the case defended the outcome.
"I don't think there's a way to satisfy everybody in the community, the only thing we can do is present the evidence to the grand jury and whatever charges they come back with, we have to go forward with those," said Darrell Jordan.
But the Bland family attorney says the grand jury could have and should have done a lot more.
"But he did a whole lot more than that, a whole lot more. He abused his authority, he assaulted this woman by pointing a taser after commanding that she get out of a vehicle or he would light her up. So, this is a far cry from the indictment that is warranted in the case," said attorney Larry Rogers Jr.
Encinia also faces a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Bland's family. Attorneys for Bland's family did not immediately return messages seeking comment about the indictment.
Encinia pulled Bland over on July 10 for making an improper lane change near Prairie View A&M University, her alma mater, where she had just interviewed and accepted a job. Dashcam video from Encinia's patrol car shows that the traffic stop quickly became confrontational.
The video shows the trooper drawing his stun gun after Bland refuses to get out of her car. Bland eventually steps out of the vehicle, and Encinia orders her to the side of the road. The confrontation continues off-camera but is still audible.
Encinia wrote in his affidavit that he had Bland exit the vehicle and handcuffed her after she became combative, and that she swung her elbows at him and kicked him in his right shin. Encinia said he then used force "to subdue Bland to the ground," and she continued to fight back. He arrested her for assault on a public servant.
Bland's sister, Shante Needham, has said Bland called her from jail the day after her arrest, saying she'd been arrested but didn't know why, and that an officer had placed his knee in her back and injured her arm.
Her family has said they were working to get money for her bail when they learned of her death.
Cooper said Wednesday that the family still has unanswered questions about what happened in the days before her death.
"Our family's grieving process is at a standstill," she said.
Here are some key events in the Bland case:
- July 10: Bland is pulled over in Prairie View, northwest of Houston, for changing lanes without signaling. The stop grows confrontational and state trooper Brian Encinia orders her from the car before forcing her to the ground and taking her into custody on a charge of assaulting a public servant. Bland, who was in the process of moving to Texas from the Chicago area, is booked into the Waller County jail.
- July 13: A jailer finds Bland hanging in her cell. A preliminary autopsy determined she used a garbage bag to hang herself.
- July 16: The Texas Department of Public Safety announces Encinia has been placed on administrative leave. Authorities determine he violated procedures guiding traffic stops and the department's courtesy policy.
- July 21: DPS releases dash-cam video showing the traffic stop, which quickly became confrontational. The video shows the trooper holding a stun gun and yelling, "I will light you up!" after Bland refuses to get out of her car. Bland eventually steps out of the vehicle, and Encinia orders her to the side of the road. The confrontation continues off-camera but is still audible.
- July 22: Waller County Sheriff Glenn Smith reveals that Bland told a guard during the booking process that she had previously tried to kill herself. Smith said two jailers who spoke with Bland insisted that she appeared fine when booked into the jail. She was not placed under suicide watch.
- July 23: The Waller County district attorney's office reveals details of autopsy findings, which concluded Bland killed herself. The findings also show she had marijuana in her system and that about 30 cuts along Bland's wrist were likely self-inflicted some weeks before her arrest.
- July 31: Department of Public Safety personnel records show Encinia was once cautioned about "unprofessional conduct" in a 2014 incident while he was still a probationary trooper.
- Aug. 4: Bland's family files a wrongful death lawsuit.
- Dec. 17: A judge sets a Jan. 23, 2017, trial date for the wrongful death lawsuit.
- Dec. 21: Waller County grand jury decides no felony crime was committed by the sheriff's office or jailers in the treatment of Bland.
- Jan. 6: Waller County grand jury indicts Encinia on perjury count, a misdemeanor. He's accused of lying about how he removed Bland from her vehicle during the stop. The Department of Public Safety says it is firing Encinia.