“She had been pulled over for failing to signal a lane change.” — The New York Times, July 16, 2015

That’s the most important line in the Sandra Bland story. And it has become lost in the controversy over whether her July 13 death in a Waller County Texas jail cell was suicide. Attention now focuses on her mental state and the marks on her body. But everyone should be taking a closer look at officer Brian T. Encinia and why he stopped Bland in the first place.

Context and Cast of Characters

Bland was black; Encinia is white; Waller County has a notorious history of racism. Encinia was patrolling what The New York Times called “a sleepy state road” that leads from the highway to the entrance of Prairie View A&M University, where more than 80 percent of students are black. In 2004, the district attorney threatened to prosecute Prairie View students from other counties who tried to vote in Waller County. Students and the state’s Republican attorney general thwarted his illegal voter suppression effort.

Bland, a suburban Chicago native, graduated from Prairie View A&M in 2008 and returned to Chicago. On July 10, she accepted a job working with students at her alma mater. Youthful optimism notwithstanding, Bland must have known that she was re-entering hostile territory.

Encinia is 30 years old and has been a Texas state trooper for 19 months. According to a now-deleted Linked-In profile, he took a circuitous route to law enforcement. In 2008, he graduated from Texas A&M University with a degree in agricultural leadership and development. Then he joined Blue Bell Creameries where he left his position as an ingredient processing supervisor in 2014. (Blue Bell is now infamous for the nationwide listeria-related recall of its ice cream.) He also worked at the Brenham (TX) Fire Department.

Disturbing Details

A detailed examination of the complete 47-minute dash-cam video from Encinia’s squad car tells far more than the short excerpts airing on television. For starters, Bland’s car had Illinois license plates. To a white local cop in many places throughout America, she was a black out-of-towner worthy of presumptive suspicion.

Also noteworthy is the principal feature of the four-lane road on which Bland drove: it’s desolate. What constructive police work could possibly occupy Encinia’s time there? During the first 15 minutes of the video, only 36 vehicles passed in her direction. Two of them made illegal u-turns — without signaling — and continued on their way.

Through the Looking Glass

After Encinia pulled Bland over, he walked to the passenger side of her car and their interaction began:

Encinia: Hello ma’am. We’re the Texas Highway Patrol and the reason for your stop is because you failed to signal the lane change. Do you have your driver’s license and registration with you? What’s wrong? How long have you been in Texas?

Timeout #1

“How long have you been in Texas?” Encinia’s early question supports my “black driver, out-of-state plate, pull-‘er-over” hypothesis.

Back Through the Looking Glass

Bland: Got here just today.

Encinia: OK. Do you have a driver’s license? (Pause) OK, where you headed to now? Give me a few minutes.

Encinia walked back to his squad car. After making Bland wait a full five minutes, he returned to the driver’s side of her car and said, “OK, ma’am. You OK?”

Bland: I’m waiting on you. This is your job. I’m waiting on you. When’re you going to let me go?

Encinia: I don’t know, you seem very irritated.

Bland: I am. I really am. I feel like it’s crap what I’m getting a ticket for. I was getting out of your way. You were speeding up, tailing me, 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, so [inaudible] ticket.

Timeout #2

According to Bland, she was changing lanes to get out of the way of Encinia’s speeding squad car as it approached her car. For that, Encinia pulls her over? Who signals while changing lanes to clear the path for a police car, fire truck or emergency vehicle approaching quickly from behind? Who signals when making a lane change when there are no other cars in sight?

Back Through the Looking Glass 

Encinia: Are you done?

Bland: You asked me what was wrong, now I told you.

Encinia: OK.

Bland: So now I’m done, yeah.

Encinia: You mind putting out your cigarette, please? If you don’t mind?

Bland: I’m in my car, why do I have to put out my cigarette?

Encinia: Well you can step on out now.

Timeout #3

It’s lawful to smoke in your own car. In fact, I assume Texans’ zeal for individual liberty makes it especially permissible in that state to smoke in your own car — perhaps while cleaning your gun.

Encinia didn’t answer Bland’s question because he couldn’t. There was no legal basis for his request, unless he thought she might use the cigarette as a weapon against him.

Back Through the Looking Glass

Bland: I don’t have to step out of my car.

Encinia: Step out of the car.

Bland: Why am I …

Encinia: Step out of the car!

Bland: No, you don’t have the right. No, you don’t have the right.

Encinia: Step out of the car.

Bland: You do not have the right. You do not have the right to do this.

Encinia: I do have the right, now step out or I will remove you.

Timeout #4

Encinia became defensive about Bland’s denial of a request for which he had no lawful justification (“Would you mind putting out your cigarette, please? If you don’t mind?”). So he bullied his way into an escalation of the conflict with a new demand (“Step out of the car”). With stunning speed, he lost his temper and started yelling.

The current focus on Bland’s mental history is misplaced; someone should investigate signs of anger, aggressiveness, racism, and generally inappropriate behavior in Encinia’s past. Even more pointedly, it’s worth scrutinizing the process that qualifies someone to become a “peace” officer for the Texas Highway Patrol.

One of my friends specializes in criminal law. Here’s what he tells black clients and friends: if you’re subject to a routine police stop in a white neighborhood, remain in your car so the policeman doesn’t perceive your act of getting out as aggressive. Perhaps Bland had received similar legal advice. Still, once policeman asks you to get out of your car, it’s wise to obey.

Back Through the Looking Glass

Bland: I refuse to talk to you other than to identify myself. [crosstalk] I am getting removed for a failure to signal?

Encinia: Step out or I will remove you. I’m giving you a lawful order. Get out of the car now or I’m going to remove you.

Bland: And I’m calling my lawyer.

Encinia: I’m going to yank you out of here. (Reaches inside the car.)

Bland: OK, you’re going to yank me out of my car? OK, alright.

Encinia (calling in backup): 2547.

Bland: Let’s do this.

Encinia: Yeah, we’re going to. (Grabs for Bland.)

Bland: Don’t touch me!

Encinia: Get out of the car!

Bland: Don’t touch me. Don’t touch me! I’m not under arrest — you don’t have the right to take me out of the car.

Encinia: You are under arrest!

Bland: I’m under arrest? For what? For what? For what?

Timeout #5

Encinia didn’t have an answer to her question. As described below, he and a colleague eventually developed one after the incident was over. But Bland knew her constitutional rights, even though Encinia never explained them to her.

Back Through the Looking Glass

A few minutes later, Bland was on the ground and in handcuffs as their exchange continued:

Encinia: You were getting a warning, until now you’re going to jail.

Bland: I’m getting a — for what? For what?

Encinia: You can come read.

Bland: I’m getting a warning for what? For what!?

Encinia then showed her the ticket.

Encinia: Come read right over here. This right here says ‘a warning.’ You started creating the problems.

Timeout #6

After Encinia extracted Bland forcibly from her car without telling her why, wrestled her to the ground, and placed her in handcuffs, he finally revealed that she was just going to get a warning for her supposed failure to signal a lane change. That’s astonishing. If Bland had lived to file a lawsuit against Encinia, she should have won.

Getting His Story Straight

After the incident was over, Encinia spoke with someone on his radio (presumably a supervisor) as they developed an underlying theory to justify his behavior:

“I tried to de-escalate her. It wasn’t getting anywhere, at all. I mean I tried to put the Taser away. I tried talking to her and calming her down, and that was not working….

“Evading arrest or detention. (Inaudible). Resisting arrest … She was detained. That’s the key and that’s why I am calling and asking because she was detained. That’s when I was walking her over to the car, just to calm her down and just to (say) stop.

“That’s when she started kicking. I don’t know if it would be resist or if it would be assault. I kinda lean toward assault versus resist because I mean technically, she’s under arrest when a traffic stop is initiated, as a lawful stop. You’re not free to go. I didn’t say you’re under arrest, I never said, you know, stop, hands up.

“Correct, that did not occur. There was just the assault part…

“Like I said, with something like this, I just call you immediately, after I get to a safe stopping point.

“No weapons, she’s in handcuffs. You know, I took the lesser of the uhh … I only took enough force as I — seemed necessary. I even de-escalated once we were on the pavement, you know on the sidewalk. So I allowed time, I’m not saying I just threw her to the ground. I allowed time to de-escalate and so forth. It just kept getting. (Laughing) Right, I’m just making that clear.”

Sickening and Sad

All of this suggests obvious questions that no one is asking:

— When did Bland fail to signal the lane change that caused Encinia to pull her over?

— Why did Encinia ask Bland to get out of her car? Because she kept smoking her cigarette after he asked her to stop?

— Shortly before Encinia first told Bland that she was under arrest, he grabbed her. But she hadn’t touched him. What was the charge for which he first said he was arresting her?

— What justified Encinia in forcibly removing Bland from her car? Her refusal to obey his dubious order that she get out on her own after refusing to extinguish her cigarette?

— What made Encinia laugh while he was on the car radio as a fellow officer on the scene told Bland she was under arrest for assault on a public servant — the only charge ever lodged against her?

Let’s hope Encinia is under oath when he provides the answers. The testimony of the person who caused him to laugh over the radio should be interesting, too.

Three days later, Sandra Bland was dead. No one is laughing now.


  1. Very disturbing. The news media certainly didn’t cover all the pertinent facts of this case; thanks for bringing it to our attention.

  2. I have no argument with your hypothesis and I believe officer Encinia’s actions are unjustifiable, I feel a fair view of the incident is lacking if one does not acknowledge that, justified or not, ordering Bland out of the car was a lawful order which she refused to obey.

    • Commenter: “I feel a fair view of the incident is lacking if one does not acknowledge that, justified or not, ordering Bland out of the car was a lawful order which she refused to obey.”

      Let’s see:

      1) The officer didn’t enforce traffic laws against previous drivers.
      2) The officer pulled up behind Bland, *forcing* her to move over.
      3) The officer committed false arrest – he was handing her the ticket when he made an unjustified order.

      Will you acknowledge that?

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