It’s been almost three years since the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri brought the deaths of black people at the hands of law enforcement into sharper focus than ever before. Some of the victims are now household names you know by heart — Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Philando Castile, Freddie Gray, Samuel Dubose. Others are a little less familiar but no less real — Laquan McDonald, Renisha McBride, Aiyana Jones, Walter Scott, Kajieme Powell. A few of these cases have resulted in disciplinary action for the police officers involved, and even gone to trail. For the most part the results have been a wash of acquittals and settlements and mistrials, but little in the way of convictions or long-term consequences. But there has been a new development in the Sandra Bland case that shows incremental progress can be made.
Brian Encinia, the officer who pulled over 28 year old Sandra Bland for failing to signal a turn, was charged with perjury last year for lying on a report he filed following Bland’s arrest. In the report, he claimed that he had Bland exit her vehicle so he could “further conduct a safe traffic investigation.” However, dash cam footage shows he physically dragged her out of the car and threatened her with his taser, declaring “I will light you up!” She was ultimately cuffed and taken into custody. Bland was found dead in her jail cell three days later. No criminal charges were filed for excessive force or regarding her death, which was ruled a suicide.
The Texas Department of Public Safety did move to fire Encinia after temporarily placing him on administrative duties, and terminated him in March of 2016. Encinia was going to fight that decision, but then came the perjury charge concerning his lie about what happened when he pulled over Ms. Bland. Encinia was indicted by a Waller County grand jury for the misdemeanor, which would have been punishable by up to one year in jail and a $4,000 fine. However, the prosecution decided to take a different approach. On Wednesday, they asked the judge to drop Encinia’s perjury charge in on the condition that Encinia relinquish his police license and forfeit working in law enforcement ever again.
That’s not all that came out of Sandra Bland’s death. The Texas governor signed the Sandra Bland Act into law earlier this month, which mandates increased police training on deescalation, new jail intake processes that include mental health screening, new personal bond standards for inmates with mental health or intellectual disability conditions, and alternatives for those who would benefit from mental health care or substance abuse treatment in lieu of traditional jail time. The Sandra Bland Act is in addition to a wrongful death suit won by the Bland family. It included $1.9 million, as well as new regulations at the jail where Sandra Bland died that address the circumstances of her death, including medical care and guard training.
Reactions have been mixed to the outcomes. The reforms are a step in the right direction, but don’t extend outside Texas, or even beyond the Waller County jail. They do set an example and precedent, however, that could eventually be implemented elsewhere. There has also been criticism of the prosecution’s decision to drop the perjury charges, suggesting it lets Encinia off the hook for his lie, even if the loss of his police license has a longer term effect than a year in jail. Still, the family’s statement of emphatic gratitude suggests this might be viewed pretty neutrally. One can only hope that future trials — like that of the officers involved in Laquan McDonald’s death in Chicago — will have more definitive justice-related outcomes.
(Via Texas Tribune)