There are two important sets of questions about what happened to Sandra Bland between July 10 and July 13 in Waller County, Texas. The first concerns the circumstances under which she was arrested. The second is about how and why she ended up dead in a jail cell three days later. Both questions have been addressed by materials released this week by authorities, though many uncertainties remain.
Tuesday afternoon saw the release of extraordinary dashcam footage of the traffic stop that led to Bland’s arrest. In the video, you can see Bland’s car making a lane change right before the officer who was driving behind her, who has been identified as Texas Department of Public Safety trooper Brian Encinia, pulls her over. “You seem very irritated,” he says to her, while standing next to the driver’s side window.
“I was getting out of your way,” Bland responds. “You were speeding up, tailing me, so I move over, and you stop me. So yeah I am a little irritated.”
Encinia asks Bland to put out her cigarette, which she refuses to do, saying, “I’m in my car, I don’t have to put out my cigarette.”
“Well, you can step on out now,” Encinia responds.
From there the two yell back and forth, until Encinia starts shouting, “Step out or I will remove you.” At one point he says, “I’m gonna yank you out of there,” and later, “You are under arrest.” Finally he pulls out his Taser and aims it at Bland, screaming, “I will light you up!” at which point she exits her vehicle. As Encinia leads her to the sidewalk, Bland has her phone out, which she says she is using to record the encounter, so that she can use the evidence in court later. Encinia tells her to put it away, which she does. Off-camera, the conflict between them then escalates. While Encinia is trying to handcuff Bland, she is heard yelling that he’s about to break her wrist, that he slammed her head against the ground, and that she has epilepsy. (It’s unclear whether or not epilepsy had anything to do with Bland’s death.)
Later in the video, after Bland has been placed in the back of the police car, Encinia can be heard explaining to a dispatcher, “I tried talking to her, calming her down, and that was not working.” Later, he says with a laugh, “I don’t have serious bodily injury. But I was kicked.” At one point it sounds as though he’s talking through the possible reasons he could use to justify having arrested her. “I don’t know if it’d be ‘resist’ or if it would be assault, you know?” he says. “I kind of lean toward assault, versus resist, because I mean, technically, she’s under arrest when the traffic stop is initiated.”
Earlier Tuesday, authorities released an affadavit signed by Encinia, in which he describes having “removed” Bland from her car and handcuffed her “for officer safety” after she became “combative.” Encinia says in the affidavit Bland started “swinging her elbows” and kicked him in the shin, at which point he used force to get her to the ground and arrested her for assaulting a public servant after she continued fighting him. Encinia does not reference the fact that he threatened Bland with a Taser in the affidavit.
Meanwhile, the contention that Bland committed suicide seemed to gain some credibility Monday with the release of a three-hour video, recorded with a security camera in the jail, which appeared to show that no one entered Bland’s cell during the 90 minutes before her body was discovered. The footage has not yet been verified by the FBI, where investigators are said to be going over hard drives submitted to them by the Waller County sheriff’s office so that they can make sure the footage was not manipulated.
The sheriff's story, backed up by a medical examiner who conducted an autopsy but disputed by Bland’s friends and family, has been that Bland took her own life by hanging herself using a plastic bag in her cell. Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis, whose office is investigating the case under the supervision of the FBI, said at a press conference Monday that while signs point to suicide, murder has not been ruled out as the cause of Bland’s death.
Encinia has been on administrative duty since Friday, and will remain so pending the results of the investigation. Texas Department of Public Safety director Steve McCraw is quoted in the Washington Post saying that Encinia violated the agency’s procedures during the stop. “Regardless of the situation, the DPS state trooper has an obligation to exhibit professionalism and be courteous,” McCraw said. “That did not happen in this situation.”
This post has been updated.