Officials announced that they have fired the Texas state trooper who pulled over Sandra Bland, whose death in jail last summer fueled criticism of police and their treatment of minorities.
Trooper Brian T. Encinia, 30, was formally fired Wednesday by Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw, who said the officer's actions during the traffic stop with Bland violated department standards. McCraw met with Encinia on Feb. 5 and oversaw months of investigation.
"I have carefully considered all the points raised by you in our meeting,” McCraw wrote in his letter of final termination. “I have determined that you have not rebutted the charges set out in the statement of charges of January 28, 2016. No cause has been presented to alter my preliminary decision.”
Encinia stopped Bland, 28, near the Prairie View A&M University campus on July 10 for failing to properly signal a lane change. After a heated argument, the trooper arrested Bland for assaulting a public servant. Bland was found hanged in her Waller County jail cell three days later. Her death has been ruled a suicide.
In the initial statement of charges, McCraw told Encinia there were three main reasons for his firing.
The first: “You failed to remain courteous and tactful in the performance of your duties. You engaged in argumentative discussions with Ms. Bland and you failed to exercise patience and discretion throughout the contact.”
The second: “You prolonged the traffic stop beyond the time necessary to complete the tasks.” As a result, “You extended Ms. Bland’s detention without a reasonable justification or legitimate investigative purpose.”
Third: “You failed to follow the seven-step violator interview,” which includes greeting the person stopped, stating the violation and “explaining what the violator must do.”
All three grounds were aggravated, McCraw said, by the fact that Encinia was indicted by a Waller County grand jury in connection with the traffic stop.
The grand jury indicted Encinia in January after concluding there was evidence he lied about the circumstances under which Bland left her car. If convicted of the misdemeanor perjury charge, Encinia could face up to a year in jail and a $4,000 fine. His case will be heard in District Court in Waller County.
McCraw announced the day of the indictment that he would begin termination proceedings. Encinia has 15 days to appeal McCraw's decision to the Public Safety Commission, which oversees the Department of Public Safety.
Encinia’s attorney, Larkin Eakin Jr., the former Waller County attorney, said his client will appeal the firing.
“He’s disappointed,” Eakin said. He added that he considered the firing premature.
“The director gave in to political pressure rather than waiting until the judicial process played out,” he said.
The attorney has said Encinia had grounds to stop Bland, told the truth to the grand jury and plans to fight the charge.
Encinia turned himself in the day after he was indicted by the grand jury, was released on $2,500 bond and is scheduled to be arraigned March 22.
Encinia's appeal will be heard by the Texas Public Safety Commission, a five-member oversight board that can set aside or affirm the firing following a public hearing.
Bland’s relatives have demanded investigative records in the case as part of the wrongful-death lawsuit they filed in August against the Waller County Sheriff's Office, jail officials and the Texas Department of Public Safety. A federal judge in Houston set the case for trial Jan. 23, 2017.
An attorney for the family, Cannon Lambert, said he was notified about Encinia's appeal.
“It’s unfortunate that even after having the opportunity to review the video of the stop, that Mr. Encinia is still incapable of accepting the error of his ways and is looking to appeal,” Lambert told The Times on Thursday.
Bland's case was championed by the Black Lives Matter movement and has also become part of the presidential campaign: Her mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, who lives in the Chicago suburbs, has appeared with Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
Lambert said Bland's family wishes they knew more about the circumstances of her arrest and death. Documents including the Texas Rangers' initial report have not been released.
“There is frustration in not knowing. I don’t think that will ease or cede until they do have information that will allay their concerns,” including reports and depositions, he said.
He noted that in other cases, police were fired immediately, such as the July traffic stop in which University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing shot and killed 43-year-old Samuel DuBose.
“For seven months now the family has been pulled in directions that could have been avoided,” Lambert said. “When you add insult to injury it just makes it harder to rebound.”
Government attorneys have sought to delay the lawsuit until Encinia’s criminal case plays out, or dismiss it, arguing that Bland took her life because she was distraught that her family members didn’t bail her out of jail. They have also insisted that the Department of Public Safety has constitutional immunity from such lawsuits and that Encinia has similar protection.
Lambert said that after a hearing last month, the family is still awaiting a ruling from the judge about whether the case will be delayed pending Encinia's criminal proceedings.