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Ken Herman: A routine traffic stop gone wrong

In this July 10 frame from dashcam video, a heated confrontation involving trooper Brian Encinia leads to the arrest of Sandra Bland after a minor traffic infraction in which the state trooper tried to drag Bland from her car, drew his stun gun and threatened that he would ‘light you up’ in Waller County, Texas. Bland was taken to the Waller County Jail that day and was found dead in her cell July 13.
In this July 10 frame from dashcam video, a heated confrontation involving trooper Brian Encinia leads to the arrest of Sandra Bland after a minor traffic infraction in which the state trooper tried to drag Bland from her car, drew his stun gun and threatened that he would ‘light you up’ in Waller County, Texas. Bland was taken to the Waller County Jail that day and was found dead in her cell July 13. AP

AUSTIN, Texas — The dashboard camera video from Department of Public Safety trooper Brian Encinia’s traffic stop of Sandra Bland on July 10 should be shown as a how-to video at all police academies.

It would be called “How to Help Turn a Routine Traffic Stop into a Trail to Tragedy.”

Bland was found dead by hanging in the Waller County Jail three days after Encinia arrested her after stopping her for failing to signal a lane change.

The dashcam video shows that Bland, 28, consistently responded to Encinia with what could be called attitude. Many will see justifiable attitude, but she did little to make a bad situation better.

We expect better behavior from cops. We didn’t get it here. DPS has taken Encinia off the road for violating procedures. At a July 21 news conference, I asked DPS Director Steve McCraw whether Encinia had violated procedures by way of actions or words.

His answer: “Both.”

There’s much we don’t know about Bland’s jail death. The local DA says, at this point, evidence supports suicide as the cause. We'll see. But, thanks to the video, there’s not much more we need to know about the traffic stop that led to the death. If this was a suicide, DPS bears some responsibility.

The video shows Encinia missed several opportunities to cool the situation down and took just about every opportunity to escalate it.

The video actually starts with Encinia’s earlier courteous handling of a woman pulled over for speeding. “This here is a warning,” he told her. “There is no fine. There is no penalty, but you need to follow the posted speed limit, OK?”

Perfect.

Two minutes later, Bland changed lanes without signaling. She later told Encinia she changed lanes because he was approaching.

“Hello, ma’am,” Encinia told her. “The reason for your stop is you failed to signal your lane change. Got your driver’s license and insurance with you?”

And, seeing or sensing something through the passenger-side window, he said, “What’s wrong?”

Her response is inaudible. After returning to his car for a few minutes, Encinia returned to Bland’s car, this time at the driver’s window. And this time the conversation seemed to go from zero to mayhem in record time, with Encinia doing nothing to calm it down and everything to torque it up.

“You OK?” he asked her.

“I’m waiting on you,” Bland replied. “This is your job. I’m waiting on you. What do you want me to do?”

Bland said that with the kind of attitude cops don’t like but must know how to deal with and defuse for the sake of all involved.

“You seem very irritated,” Encinia said.

Bland said she changed lanes because she saw him approaching. “So I move over and you stop me. So yeah, I am a little irritated, but that doesn’t stop you from giving me a ticket.”

”Are you done?” Encinia said curtly and with some attitude of his own.

To me, that seemed a moment for him to calm things down by clearly stating she was just getting a warning and both of them could get on down the road momentarily. Instead, he seemed intent on displaying his authority.

“You mind putting out your cigarette, please, if you don’t mind?” he asked.

“I’m in my car,” she said. “Why do I have to put out my cigarette?”

It’s a good question, especially absent evidence she was intentionally blowing smoke in his face.

“Well, you can step on out now,” Encinia said in the words that led to the argument that led to the arrest that led to the scuffle that led to the jailing that led to Bland’s death.

“I’m going to yank you out of here,” Encinia told Bland as she claimed a right to remain in her car. Moments later, Encinia pointed his Taser at her.

“I will light you up,” he screamed just before Bland got out of her car.

Bland was profane and verbally combative. I'll let you judge whether she was totally out of line. But I expect cops to be trained in how to deal with profane, verbally combative folks without fueling the fire.

According to the audio from the video, it’s not until Bland is handcuffed that Encinia first tells Bland she was not facing a penalty for the illegal lane change.

“You were getting a warning ticket until now you’re going to jail,” he said.

Ken Herman is a columnist for the Austin American-Statesman. E-mail: kherman(at)statesman.com.

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