Trooper Who Arrested Sandra Bland Indicted on Perjury
By St. John Barned-Smith
The state trooper who arrested Sandra Bland, the 28-year-old African-American woman who was found dead three days later in her Waller County Jail cell, has been indicted on perjury charges, a special prosecutor said.
Hours after the decision was announced, the Texas Department of Public Safety said it was initiating termination proceedings against Brian Encinia, the 30-year-old trooper who last July stopped Bland for failing to signal a lane change and arrested her.
The announcement came late Wednesday afternoon at the courthouse in Hempstead, about 50 miles northwest of Houston, during the grand jury's fourth meeting since it was convened this fall to deliberate the circumstances around Bland's arrest and incarceration.
Darrell Jordan, one of five special prosecutors, said the grand jury's indictment stemmed from a statement the trooper made in a one-page affidavit he filed in Bland's arrest, in which he said he pulled her out of her Hyundai Azera to "further conduct a safe traffic investigation."
"They just didn't believe it," Jordan said, adding that a warrant would be issued for Encinia's arrest.
Larkin Eakin, Encinia's lawyer, said he spoke with the trooper after the indictment. "He was surprised obviously, because he does not feel anything was misleading in his report," Larkin said, adding that Encinia would plead "not guilty" to the charge against him.
Bland's case was one of several high profile lethal incidents between law enforcement and civilians over the last 18 months that prompted nationwide protests about the treatment of people of color by police, and her face was among those that became emblems of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Video of confrontation
Encinia -- who joined DPS in June 2014 -- stopped Bland on July 10 for an improper lane change near Prairie View A&M University, her alma mater, and where she had recently taken a new job. Video of the incident -- from a bystander and a dashboard camera in Encinia's cruiser -- recorded an increasingly confrontational encounter between the two after Bland refused to put out a cigarette, with Encinia at one point brandishing a stun gun and yelling at Bland, "I will light you up!"
Encinia has never spoken publicly about the arrest. The only account made public is from the affidavit he filed and the recordings, where he could be heard telling a supervisor the traffic stop was not over when he pulled Bland out of the car.
"The traffic stop was not completed," he said, in the video. "I was trying to get her out over to sign."
Later, he told the supervisor he repeatedly tried to de-escalate the situation, parts of which were out of the frame of the camera, and that Bland kicked him and tried to get away. In the video he can be heard saying he needed Bland on the sidewalk "because I don't want to be out in the middle of the road while we're arguing or whatever."
Three days after the arrest, jail staff found Bland hanging in her Waller County Jail cell from a noose made from a trash bag. Her death, ruled a suicide by medical examiners, sparked disbelief from her family in Chicago and fueled outrage among many across the country over how police use force in encounters with civilians.
After the video surfaced, DPS Director Steven McCraw said Encinia violated department standards and the department's courtesy policy and placed him on administrative duty.
Following news of the indictment, DPS announced it was beginning termination proceedings.
"Following the Waller County grand jury indictment of Trooper Brian Encinia today, the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) will begin termination proceedings to discharge him from the department," the agency said, in a press release Wednesday night.
The indictment follows an announcement in December by special prosecutors that the grand jury had declined to indict any members of the Waller County Jail staff or sheriff's office. Jordan said that while the grand jury will continue reviewing other Waller County cases, it had concluded its review of Bland's arrest and death.
Previously, state regulators had found that the Waller County Jail was in violation of minimum standards, and faulted the jail for not putting Bland on a stricter observation watch and missing warning signs that she was a potential risk for suicide.
Bland's family has filed a civil lawsuit in federal court in Houston and has repeatedly criticized Waller County's handling of Bland and the grand jury's review of her death.
Cannon Lambert, one of the Chicago-based lawyers representing Bland's relatives, said the family still had questions.
"We just don't understand why it took six months to charge him for lying when you can see he was lying in the videotape they have had from the very beginning," he said. "We also don't understand why (Encinia) wasn't charged with assault when he said 'I'll light you up, and with battery for grabbing (Bland) when she was in the car."
"Why didn't they charge him with false arrest?" he continued. "The whole arrest was predicated on a phantom kick -- why didn't they charge him with abuse of police power -- all he had to do was give her the warning."
The charge the trooper faces is a Class A misdemeanor. If convicted, Encinia could face up to a year in jail and a $4,000 fine.
Bland's mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, called the grand jury decision a "slap on the wrist."
"What I'm looking for is for the accountability to be placed where it needs to be," she said. "That's what I want to see."
The state office of the attorney general -- which is representing Encinia in the wrongful death suit filed by Bland's family against the trooper, DPS, the Waller County Sheriff's Office, and two Waller County jailers -- will not be representing him in the criminal case, according to a spokeswoman.
The outcry after Bland's death led state lawmakers to hold hearings on jail procedures and safety and for state regulators to change how inmates are evaluated for mental health issues after they are arrested.
After the indictment, House County Affairs Committee Chairman Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, who presided over hearings to investigate policing and safety in jails, said in a statement he was "glad that Sandra Bland's family will get their day in court."
"In my opinion, Trooper Brian Encinia's actions were the catalyst for the death of Sandra Bland," he said. "Trooper Encinia is innocent until proven guilty and it is now up to our justice system to make the final determination."
Cindy George and Dylan Baddour contributed.
(c)2016 the Houston Chronicle