A grand jury indicted Brian Encinia, the Texas state trooper who arrested Sandra Bland, on a perjury charge on Jan. 6. On July 13, 2015, Bland, a 28-year-old African-American woman, was found dead in her jail cell three days after being arrested by the state trooper for allegedly failing to use her turn signal. The news of Encinia’s indictment comes two weeks after a controversial decision made by the same grand jury to not indict any of the jailers who had contact with Bland in connection with her death.
The county coroner classified her death as a suicide. When news of Bland’s death, and the coroner’s decision, was made public it sparked protests across the country, including Texas, where she was jailed, and Chicago, where she lived.
Organizations such as the NAACP and Black Lives Matter led the demands for transparency in the investigation into Bland’s death and use of excessive police force by the arresting trooper. These organizations and other activists, such as Jesse Jackson, challenged the ruling of suicide, and asserted that Bland was targeted because of her race. As the Texas NAACP noted in their press release shortly following Bland’s death, “We have serious concerns surrounding the routine traffic stop that led to Sandra Bland’s arrest…”
In a press conference on Wednesday special prosecutor Shawn McDonald said: “the indictment was issued in reference to the reason he [Encinia] removed her [Sandra Bland] from her vehicle.” He went further to explain that the jury didn’t believe Encinia’s statement that he took Bland from the car she was driving so he could conduct a safer traffic investigation.
The Texas state trooper had gone on record, in a probable cause affidavit, claiming that Bland was “combative and uncooperative” during the traffic stop. In the arrest warrant Encinia claimed that “force was used to subdue Bland to the ground to which Bland continued to fight back,” and that Bland was placed under arrest “for Assault [sic] on a Public Servant [sic].” McDonald said, “The grand jury found that statement to be false.”
The Waller County district attorney, Elton Mathis, appointed an independent panel of five lawyers to oversee the investigation. Yet Bland’s family, which has filed a wrongful-death civil suit set for trial in January 2017, has expressed disappointment with the process: the family attorney, Cannon Lambert, referred to the case as a “sham”.
Following the indictment Lambert told the Sun-Times that the perjury charge was “an insult.” He went on: “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.”
False arrest, as understood under the law, refers to an officer having acted without authority, or beyond the scope of their powers, and having made an arrest without probable cause. False arrests can be hard to prove in court however due to qualified immunity, which shields government officials from liability for the violation of an individual’s constitutional rights.
As explained by civilrights.findlaw.com, “Even if the information the officer relied upon later turns out to be false, the officer is not liable if he believed it was accurate at the time of the arrest.”
False arrest charges were issued in the Freddie Gray case against three of the six officers involved. As the Wall Street Journal noted, when the charges were brought against the three Baltimore officers, use of the false imprisonment charge would force arresting officers to “tread carefully,” knowing they could face criminal consequences. The publication quoted U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings as saying “This [charge of false arrest] is the start of something big… It will cause police departments all over the country to rethink how they treat people when they arrest folks.” Once the case went in front of the grand jury, however, the charges were dropped.
The charges against Encinia will apparently also not include false arrest or false imprisonment. Bland’s older sister, Sharon Cooper, told the Chicago Sun-Times that, “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. 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.”
Many activists are still calling for truth surrounding Bland’s case and are not satisfied with the courts conclusions surrounding her death. On Jan. 1, Black Lives Matter activists organized a rally in Washington D.C to protest the lack of indictment in Bland’s case and that of Tamir Rice, the 12 year old African American boy shot dead by police in 2014 near Cleveland, OH. Marybeth Onyeukwu, an organizer of the rally gave a speech and stated, “There is no justice for us in this current system. So we’re not just protesting we are demanding a new world. And a new world means, I want you all to hear me, a new world means defunding, disorganizing and dismantling the police.”
Encinia, who was put on paid administrative leave following Bland’s death, could face up to a year in jail along with a fine of up to $4,000 if convicted. Shortly after the indictment was announced, the Department of Public Safety said that the state police agency “will begin termination proceedings to discharge him.”
“My daughter and all these other victims aren’t put on administrative leave. They’re gone,” Geneva Read-Veal, Sandra Bland’s mother, said at a press conference Jan. 7. She went on: “No one should be okay with this. No one. I know I’m not… No, I’m not super excited about this. I want to see true justice… There should have been much more…That’s not justice for me.”