Nearly six months after the death of Sandra Bland, the indictment and rumored decision to fire the Texas state trooper who arrested her in what began as a traffic stop has proved “bittersweet” for her sister.
Sharon Cooper told The Associated Press on Wednesday that while she feels the perjury charge against Trooper Brian Encinia was long overdue, the burden of her family’s loss is far greater.
Ms. Bland, who was black, was found hanging in her jail cell three days after her arrest, in what authorities have declared a suicide.
Her family has been pushing for greater accountability in Bland’s death. Ms. Cooper said she felt her sister’s encounter with Trooper Encinia, who pulled her over for failing to signal a lane change in what quickly became a confrontation, “largely impacted” what happened to her sister.
“It could easily have been avoided,” she told the AP.
Bland was moving from the Chicago area to Texas, having just interviewed for and accepted a job at her alma mater, Prairie View A&M University, when she was pulled over by Encinia, who claimed she was “uncooperative and combative” after he ordered her out of her car.
But a grand jury found Wednesday that Encinia’s statement, made in a one-page affidavit justifying Bland’s arrest was contradicted by video from the dashboard camera in his patrol car showing the trooper drawing his stun gun and telling her “I will light you up!”
Hours after Encinia’s indictment on perjury charges, the Texas Department of Public Safety said it would “begin termination proceedings” against the state trooper, who was put on paid desk duty after Bland was found dead in her cell.
He was not immediately taken into custody and a date for the arraignment in Waller County has not yet been set. “His reaction was he’s not guilty,” Larkin Eakin, Encinia’s lawyer told The New York Times. “When you’re not guilty, you don’t expect to be indicted.”
In the dash cam video, Bland eventually steps out of the car and Encinia orders her to the side of the road. Off-camera, she can be heard screaming that he is about to break her wrists and that he has knocked her head into the ground.
Bland’s arrest and death while in police custody prompted outrage over the summer, including from the national Black Lives Matter movement. Protestors questioned if her death was indeed a suicide.
They linked her encounter with Encinia to other violent confrontations between police and black people which have prompted conflicting and troubling reports about the behavior of the officers, including Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Walter Scott in North Charleston, S.C., and Freddie Gray in Baltimore.
In the affidavit that eventually prompted the perjury charges, Encinia wrote that he told Bland to exit the vehicle and handcuffed her after she became combative. He said 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 that she continued to fight back. He arrested her for assault on a public servant.
His behavior prompted a condemnation from Steven McCraw, the director of the state’s Department of Public Safety, who said, under sharp questioning at a legislative hearing in July that Encinia had behaved rudely and failed to de-escalate a confrontation, the Times reports.
After her arrest, Bland was taken to the Waller County jail in Hempstead, 50 miles northwest of Houston, where she was found three days later hanging from a jail cell partition with a plastic garbage bag around her neck. Her family has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit, which is scheduled to go to trial in January 2017, alleging that Encinia fabricated a reason to arrest her. It also says she was not properly supervised by jail officials after she told them of a previous suicide attempt.
The grand jury in Waller County previously declined to charge any sheriff’s officials or jailers in her death, while Encinia’s perjury is a misdemeanor that carries a maximum of one year in jail and a $4,000 fine.
Cannon Lambert, an attorney for Bland’s family, told the AP that Encinia should also have been indicted for assault, battery, or abuse of his official power.
The family is awaiting the release of documents from the investigation into the conduct of Encinia and Waller County officials, who they hope can be deposed in court to unravel the events surrounding Bland’s death.
“Our family's grieving process is at a standstill," Cooper, Bland’s sister, told the AP.
“The public deserves accountability," Mr. 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."
This report contains material from The Associated Press.