Trooper in Sandra Bland traffic stop indicted, fired

2016-01-07 12:14
Sandra Bland. (File, AP)

Sandra Bland. (File, AP)

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Hempstead – A Texas state trooper who arrested a black woman after a contentious traffic stop last summer was fired Wednesday after being charged with perjury for allegedly lying about his confrontation with the woman, who died three days later in jail.

Trooper Brian Encinia claimed in an affidavit that Sandra Bland was "combative and uncooperative" after he pulled her over and ordered her out of her car. A grand jury identified that affidavit in charging Encinia with perjury, special prosecutor Shawn McDonald said on Wednesday night.

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.

She was taken to the Waller County jail in Hempstead, about 80km 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 misdemeanour 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.

Wrongful death

Bland's sister, Sharon Cooper, told The Associated Press that Encinia's indictment was "bittersweet." Encinia also faces a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Bland's family.

"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 said.

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 misdemeanour charge "a slap in the face to the Bland family."

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, her sister, said on 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.

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