Austin, Texas (TexasTribune) – When asked Tuesday whether Sandra Bland was at all to blame for a heated exchange with a state trooper during a traffic stop last year, Texas Department of Public Safety director Steve McCraw said officers are responsible for escalations.
“It’s always on the trooper,” McCraw told Texas Tribune CEO and Editor-in Chief Evan Smith. “We’re accountable for every stop. And the citizen has a right to be objectionable – they can be rude. They can do a lot of things. They can say things, they can do things, and at the end of the day, we have an obligation not to react and be pulled into that. We’ve got to be professional, above that.”
Bland’s death in her Waller County jail cell three days after she was stopped by DPS Trooper Brian Encinia on July 10 for failing to signal a lane change ignited a national firestorm. The two argued over the stop and her smoking a cigarette before she was pulled out of her car and arrested for allegedly assaulting a public servant. Three days later, she was found hanged in her jail cell. Her death was ruled a suicide.
Encinia violated protocol, acted unprofessionally and allowed the interaction to escalate quickly, McCraw said. “We require professional courtesy and display at all times, and clearly he did not do it in that situation,” the director said.
Troopers had more than 2 million interactions in 2015, McCraw said, and they “don’t get pulled into” confrontations like Encinia did, he said.
Encinia was placed on desk duty after the incident, and McCraw began the process of firing him after a Waller County grand jury indicted Encinia on Jan. 6 on a charge of perjury, a Class A misdemeanor. He could face up to a year in the Waller County Jail and a $4,000 fine.
The grand jury concluded Encinia gave conflicting accounts about how Bland exited her car.
Encinia’s lawyer has said the trooper did nothing wrong and did not lie. Encinia has said he will appeal the move to fire him, but as of Tuesday morning, he had not yet done so, McCraw said.
Besides termination proceedings and the misdemeanor charge, Encinia is also fighting a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal.
This report was prepared by Johnathan Silver for Texas Tribune.