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Trooper in Sandra Bland traffic stop indicted, fired

A Texas state trooper has been charged with perjury for conduct related to a contentious traffic stop of Sandra Bland. | AP file photo

HEMPSTEAD, Texas — 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.

But Sandra Bland’s family said Wednesday night that’s not good enough.

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.

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 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.

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The Bland family says the misdemeanor charge further supports their continuing call for a Justice Department investigation into the July 10 arrest and jailing.

“There’s a conflict and a mix of emotions that we have, because what the Grand Jury did today was reinforce what we as a family, and I would also say a large part of the American population, especially those that have followed this case very closely, have long felt for the last 5 ½ months,” Bland’s older sister, Sharon Cooper, told the Chicago Sun-Times.

“The acknowledgement by the Grand Jury that [Encinia] actually lied in the documentation that he provided is welcomed. But by the same notion, a perjury indictment is just too soft for the very offensive crime that he committed,” Cooper continued.

“Because we have strongly felt from the onset that his behavior and his conduct in his interaction with Sandra on that day, in the midst of that stop, was the very impetus for everything that happened after that.”

Cannon Lambert, an attorney for the family, said Encinia should have also been indicted for assault, battery or abuse of his official power.

The perjury charge, a misdemeanor, is “an insult,” Lambert told the Sun-Times.

“There is no question that the video expressly shows that [Encinia] assaulted her when he pointed that Taser at her, and then, the ‘I’m going to light you up,’ ” Lambert said.

“He battered her when he grabbed her and then tried to pull her out of the car, and if you look closely, he slapped her. The image of her head swings to the right at the same time that you will audibly hear the smack,” Lambert continued.

“He also falsely arrested her,” the attorney said. “Yet you charged him with lying, and we know he’s a liar. But you know that the phantom kick was the basis for arresting her. So why wasn’t he charged for false arrest? Why wasn’t he charged with abuse of police power? You’re charging him with the lowest possible thing for the purpose of pacifying the family. And it really is insulting. Justice would be that you hold this man accountable for what he did, not part of what he did. The family is disgusted.”

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.”

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. Blandeventually 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.

Another of Bland’s sisters, 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 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.

MICHAEL GRACZYK, Associated Press

Chicago Sun-Times staff Reporter Maudlyne Ihejirika and Associated Press writer Nomaan Merchant in Dallas contributed to this report.