By Brian Collister, KXAN and The Texas Tribune, Sept. 16, 2017
Former Texas Department of Safety Trooper Brian Encinia said he feared for his personal safety after pulling over Sandra Bland in Waller County on July 21, 2015.
“My safety was in jeopardy at more than one time,” said Encinia, during an interview by the agency’s Office of Inspector General, when asked if he was scared during the traffic stop.
Audio from the interview, which took place three months after Bland was found dead in her jail cell, was recently released to KXAN-TV. Encinia has never been questioned in a criminal or civil court or spoken publicly to explain his actions that day.
Encinia stopped Bland, 28, in Prairie View for failing to signal a lane change. Their interaction quickly became heated and she was ultimately arrested on suspicion of assaulting a public servant. She was found hanged in her jail cell three days later.
After her death, dashboard camera video of the arrest gained national attention and contradicted Encinia’s official report of the incident. He was fired from DPS and indicted on a perjury charge for lying in his report, but the charge was dropped after Encinia agreed to give up his police license and never seek another job in law enforcement.
In the audio recording, Encinia said he became concerned by the way Bland was acting and her movements inside her car as he watched from his patrol vehicle while writing her a warning citation.
“I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know what was wrong. I didn’t know if a crime was being committed, had been committed or whatnot,” said the trooper.
When asked what crime he believed Bland was committing, or about to commit, Encinia responded: “I had a feeling that anything could’ve been either retrieved or hidden within her area of control. My primary concern was with that purse, with her console, as far as being any kinds of weapons or drugs or, it’s unknown to me. I don’t know what happened, but something did, and to me that was the reasonable suspicion.”
But when investigators asked why he didn’t order Bland out of the car at that point, or ask what she was doing, Encinia said he had no answer.
In a newly released DPS use-of-force report from the arrest, Encinia’s supervisor says the trooper was rude when asking Bland why she seemed irritated and when he asked her if she was done after she stopped talking. The report also says he did not follow procedure when he didn’t tell Bland what action he was going to take and the situation had already gotten out of hand.
The interaction was tense almost immediately, and escalated after Encinia asked Bland to get out of the car when she refused to put out a cigarette. When she didn’t comply, he opened her car door, threatened to drag her out and told her, “I will light you up.”
“I think things could’ve been handled differently, yes sir. I still did have a concern for the area of her control that I didn’t know what was there, but I do agree that things could’ve been done differently,” said Encinia, when asked if he could have de-escalated the situation by telling Bland she was only being given a warning for the traffic violation.
When asked why he did not initially tell Bland why she was under arrest, Encinia said, “I don’t have a reason for that, no sir.”
Encinia denied racially profiling Bland, a black woman.
Encinia said Bland had driven through a stop sign as she left the Prairie View A&M campus, but the trooper admitted he was unsure if it was on private or public property.”I was unsure at the time if that stop sign was located at a public or private roadway,” said Encinia.
Knowing he could not ticket Bland for failure to stop at the sign, Encinia went on to explain why he followed her. “I was checking the condition of the vehicle, such as the make, the model, had a license plate, any other conditions.”
KXAN reached out to Encinia, but he declined an interview request. When asked if DPS had a comment, a spokesman for the department pointed out that DPS terminated Encinia.
Encinia’s statements during the DPS administrative investigation were criticized by the San Antonio-based attorney who helped represent the Bland family.
“First of all, the grand jury didn’t believe it. They indicted him. Secondly, the DPS didn’t believe it. They fired him. And thirdly, the family doesn’t believe it and I certainly don’t believe it,” said Bland family attorney Tom Rhodes. “It’s just nonsense. It was justification made up by him, in a not very intelligent way, to justify his illegal use of force against her.”
Additional material from Jolie McCullough of The Texas Tribune.
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.
Photo by Patrick Feller