Bland’s traffic stop should not have ended in tragedy

Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, center, hugs family at a Prairie View A&M University memorial service Tuesday.
Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, center, hugs family at a Prairie View A&M University memorial service Tuesday. AP

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 justifiable attitude, but she did little to make a bad situation better.

We expect better behavior from cops. DPS has taken Encinia off the road for violating procedures. At a Tuesday news conference, I asked DPS Director Steve McCraw whether Encinia had violated procedures by way of actions or words. His answer: “Both.”

At that same news conference, state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas and state Rep. Helen Giddings, D-Dallas, said they knew enough to know Bland should not have been in custody. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said he wanted to await further investigation.

Anyone who watches the video will agree there was no need for that.

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

The video actually starts with Encinia’s earlier courteous handling of a woman pulled over for speeding.

Two minutes later, Bland changed lanes without signaling.

“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.

“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?”

“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.

To me, that seemed a moment for him to calm things. Instead, he seemed intent on displaying his authority.

“You mind putting out your cigarette, please?” 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 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 out of line.

According to the video, it’s not until Bland is handcuffed that Encinia 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.

Several minutes later, a voice on the video that sounds like Encinia is reporting in:

“This is a traffic stop, have a little bit of an incident.”

Ken Herman is a columnist for the Austin American-Statesman.