The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘I will light you up!’: Texas officer threatened Sandra Bland with Taser during traffic stop

Newly released police video shows a Texas trooper threatening Sandra Bland with a Taser when he ordered her out of her vehicle during a routine traffic stop on July 10, three days before she was found dead in a county jail. (Editor's note: This video contains graphic language and has been edited for length.) (Video: Texas Department of Public Safety)

According to newly released police video, a Texas trooper threatened Sandra Bland with a Taser when he ordered her out of her vehicle during a traffic stop on July 10, three days before she was found dead in a county jail.

Bland — a 28-year old African American woman — was stopped for failing to signal while changing lanes, but the routine traffic stop turned confrontational after the officer, Brian Encinia, ordered Bland to put out her cigarette.

“Would you mind putting out your cigarette, please?” Encinia said.

“I’m in my car, why do I have to put out my cigarette?” Bland answered.

“Well, you can step on out now,” Encinia said.

Bland refused, saying she did not have to step out of the car.

[A trooper arrested Sandra Bland after she refused to put out a cigarette. Was it legal?

Encinia opened the driver’s door and attempted to physically remove Bland from the vehicle.

“I’m going to yank you out of here,” Encinia said as the two struggled in the car. “I’m going to drag you out of here.”

“Don’t touch me, I’m not under arrest,” Bland said.

“I will light you up!” Encinia said, while pointing the Taser at Bland.

State Sen. Royce West (D) said that after viewing the video, he could confirm that Bland was threatened with a Taser by the officer.

Details of the confrontation were not included in the arrest warrant written by Encinia, which officials released Tuesday, 11 days after the arrest — and eight days after Bland’s death in the Waller County Jail.

How people reacted to Sandra Bland’s death

Margaret Hilaire, center, bows her head in prayer during a demonstration calling for the firing and indictment of Texas State Trooper Brian Encinia, Sunday, July 26, 2015, in Katy, Texas. Sandra Bland was found dead in her cell on July 13 in the Waller County Jail, just days after being arrested by Encinia during a traffic stop. Authorities determined through an autopsy that Bland hanged herself with a plastic bag. (Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle via AP)

Her death was classified as suicide by hanging, but news of the suicide — which came amid growing outrage over police interactions with African Americans — has been met with skepticism by those who knew Bland, and even others who didn’t.

[Sandra Bland previously attempted suicide, jail documents say]

Members of Bland’s family appeared at a news conference on Wednesday in Illinois, where their lawyer emphasized that Bland showed no signs of depression. In fact, he said, she was excited to have just moved to Texas from the Chicago suburbs to start a new job.

“I can tell you that we take issue with the notion that she had depression,” said the attorney, Cannon Lambert Sr.

Lambert noted that the family was not aware that Bland had taken any medication for depression and was never clinically diagnosed — but that like many people had experienced “hills and valleys.”

At a closed-door meeting with political officials and law enforcement on Tuesday, they were told that Bland disclosed to the jailer that she had attempted suicide in the past year but was not suicidal at the time of her arrest, according to the Houston Chronicle. West, the state senator who also attended Tuesday’s meeting, confirmed to The Washington Post that the disclosure was discussed at the meeting. When people are admitted to Texas county jails, they undergo a mental health evaluation that asks about suicidal attempts and mental health issues.

[Report: In jail voicemail, Sandra Bland said she was ‘at a loss for words’]

When the family finally saw the dashcam video, it elicited “extraordinary” emotion, Lambert said.

“If you look at the dashcam, I think that you see right out of the gate … that this could have easily been avoided,” he said. “There was very little reason that could be gleaned from the dashcam why Sandy had to be asked to put her cigarette out, why Sandy had to be asked to get out the car, why Sandy had to be subjected to the officer pointing a Taser at her.”

The arrest warrant detailed Encinia’s version of events but does not mention the Taser, nor does it elaborate on why Encinia ordered Bland out of the vehicle.

During the incident, Bland repeatedly asks why she is being arrested. The remainder of the confrontation occurs outside the view of the camera, but the audio captured what appeared to be a struggle.

Bland is heard saying that the officer “just slammed my head to the ground.”

[What cops are saying about the Sandra Bland video]

Later, when a female officer arrives at the scene, Encinia tells her that Bland “started yanking away, then kicked me, so I took her straight to the ground.”

On Wednesday, authorities responded to allegations that the dashcam video had been edited from its original form. The video uploaded by state officials to YouTube contains visual sequences that appeared to repeat themselves.

The issues were most pronounced in a portion of the video where Encinia can be heard speaking to someone on the phone about the incident.

At one point, Encinia explains that he was trying to “de-escalate” the situation. In the video, a tow truck operator is seen walking out of the frame of the video, then that portion of the video plays again.

[Was video of Sandra Bland’s traffic stop edited? Texas authorities respond.]

A spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety categorically denied that the 52-minute video had been altered and instead blamed a “technical issue” for the anomalies in the images.

“The video was not edited,” spokesman Tom Vinger told The Washington Post. “There was a technical issue during upload.”

Texas authorities released video of the traffic stop that occurred three days before Sandra Bland was found dead in a county jail. But questions have arisen about whether the 52-minute-long video had been edited. (Video: The Washington Post)

The investigation into Bland’s jail-cell death is being treated “just as it would be in a murder investigation,” Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis said at a news conference Monday evening. Mathias clarified on Tuesday that it is standard practice for any suspicious death in police custody to be investigated this way.

“There are many questions being raised in Waller County, across the country and the world about this case. It needs a thorough review,” Mathis said, noting that the case “will go to a grand jury,” the Associated Press reported. The Texas Rangers, a division of the state Department of Public Safety, have launched an investigation into Bland’s death, with the supervision of the FBI.

“Our hearts and prayers remain with the Bland family for their tragic loss,” Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) said in a statement Wednesday. “The family deserves answers. The Texas Rangers, working in coordination with the FBI, will conduct a full and thorough investigation that will deliver those answers and work toward the ultimate goal of ensuring justice in this case.”

Attorney General Loretta Lynch said Wednesday that the FBI was continuing to monitor the Sandra Bland situation. She said that federal officials were awaiting the results from ongoing investigations being carried out by local authorities in Texas.

In his arrest warrant, Encinia wrote that Bland was pulled over for failing to signal a lane change and he “had Bland exit the vehicle to further conduct a safe traffic investigation.”

According to Encinia, “Bland became combative and uncooperative.”

“Numerous commands were given to Bland ordering her to exit the vehicle,” Encinia wrote. “Bland was removed from the car but became more combative.”

He added that Bland was handcuffed “for officer safety” but that she “began swinging her elbows at me and then kicked my right leg in the shin.” Encinia said he suffered from pain in his right leg and had small cuts on his right hand.

“Force was used to subdue Bland to the ground to which Bland continued to fight back,” he added.

Bland’s sister, Sharon Cooper, said Wednesday that the arrest was “petty” and probably motivated by the fact that Bland was from out of town.

“She was pulled over for something so insignificant because an officer felt that maybe his ego was bruised,” Cooper said at a news conference. “Not once did he ever say he was threatened.”

Bland was charged with assault on a public servant then booked in the Waller County Jail, where she later died.

“There are questions that need to be answered as it relates to the arrest,” noted West, who added that what transpired in the arrest would be part of the ongoing investigation.

Asked whether Bland deserved any blame for the events that led to her arrest and death, West replied: “No.”

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) cautioned that everyone should wait for the facts of the case to unfold before making a determination about blame.

“There’s a rush to judgment too often in America,” Patrick said at the news conference on Tuesday. “But here in Texas, I can tell you that we believe in total transparency, and we will find the truth wherever that leads.”

“If indeed she took her own life, that is a question that has to be asked,” he added.

Encinia, who has been a state trooper for about a year, was placed on administrative duty on Friday pending the outcome of the investigation, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety, which said that the officer violated the agency’s procedures during the traffic stop.

[Did Sandra Bland have a right to record her police confrontation? Maybe not.]

“Regardless of the situation, the DPS state trooper has an obligation to exhibit professionalism and be courteous,” said DPS Director Steve McCraw. “That did not happen in this situation.”

Bland’s immediate family members and their attorney met privately with Mathis and Waller County Judge Trey Duhon on Tuesday morning for what Duhon called a “very positive meeting” that lasted an hour.

“The family expressed some their concerns and the fact that they still have many questions that need to be answered,” Duhon said. “It was important to express to the family that my current administration and officials in Waller County are completely committed to an open and transparent investigative process.”

[A black woman was arrested after a traffic stop in Texas. Days later, she died in a jail.]

An autopsy from the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences has classified Bland’s death as suicide by hanging, and the Waller County Sheriff’s Office, which administers the jail in which Bland died, said her death appeared to be from “self-inflicted asphyxiation.”

That determination was fiercely questioned by Bland’s family and friends, who said it was “unfathomable” that the woman they knew would take her own life. Bland’s family has called for an independent autopsy.

“It is very much too early to make any kind of determination that this was a suicide or a murder because the investigations are not complete,” Mathis told reporters.

Mathis noted that “there are too many questions that need to be resolved. Ms. Bland’s family does make valid points. She did have a lot of things going on in her life for good.”

Captain Brian Cantrell of the Waller County sheriff's department and Assistant District Attorney Elton Mathis offered new details July 20 in the death of Sandra Bland, who prison officials found hanging in her cell. (Video: Reuters)

Bland was moving from Illinois to Texas for a job at her alma mater, Prairie View A&M University, when she was pulled over near the campus on July 10.

She “became argumentative and uncooperative” during the arrest, the Texas Department of Public Safety said last week, and was taken into custody by a state trooper on a charge of assault on a public servant. After a weekend in the Waller County Jail, Bland was found dead on the morning of July 13.

During Monday’s news conference, Mathis said investigators would look for DNA and fingerprint traces on the plastic bag that was used in her death.

The Waller County Sheriff’s Office has now released video footage of the jail in which Bland died. The video does not show what happened in Bland’s cell, but it does capture who entered and exited that cell in the hours before and after her death, authorities said.

The video of the hours before Bland’s death, reviewed by CBS affiliate KHOU, shows an officer stop at her cell at just after 7 a.m. on July 13. The officer “visually noted she was in good health,” Capt. Brian Cantrell, a spokesman for the Waller County Sheriff’s Office, told reporters.

“Ms. Bland contacted the main control room, via intercom, at 7:55 a.m.,” Cantrell said. “Ms. Bland was inquiring on how to make a phone call.”

Just before 9 a.m., the video shows a female officer approach the cell, peer in, and then ask another officer for help.

The Waller County, Tex., sheriff’s department released video showing the area where Sandra Bland was found hanged to death in her prison cell. The FBI and the Texas Rangers are investigating her death. (Video: Reuters)

“The jailer looked through the window and observed Ms. Bland hanging from her privacy partition in her cell,” Cantrell said. “I’d also like to reiterate that she was found in a semi-standing position with ligatures surrounding her neck. Ms. Bland was then placed on the floor for jailers to perform CPR.”

Cantrell described Bland’s death as “a tragic incident, not one of criminal intent or a criminal act.”

Wesley Lowery, Elahe Izadi and Mark Berman contributed to this post, which was originally published July 21 and has been updated multiple times.