AUSTIN, Texas — A Texas grand jury that declined to indict anyone over the jailhouse death of Sandra Bland could still charge the trooper who shouted “I will light you up!” during a traffic stop resulting in her arrest, a move that would focus attention on a state police force experts say has lagged behind widely accepted U.S. law enforcement practices to head off misconduct.
A grand jury on Monday decided that no felony crime was committed by sheriff’s officers or jailers in the death of the 28-year-old black woman from Chicago. Authorities say Bland hanged herself in jail with a plastic garbage bag three days after trooper Brian Encinia pulled her over for not signaling a lane change.
Encinia, who is white, has been on paid desk duty since the confrontation recorded on dashcam video heightened national concern about police treatment of African-Americans. Critics including Bland’s family wondered why a routine traffic stop escalated into an altercation that led to Encinia brandishing a stun gun and making the threat to light her up.
The stop also has invited scrutiny of the Texas Department of Public Safety that oversees state police. Records obtained by The Associated Press show at least six formal complaints have been found valid since the beginning of 2012 against members of the nearly 4,000-strong force for violating traffic stop procedures — the kind of incidents like the one involving Encinia and Bland. Two troopers received written reprimands, and the others received suspensions ranging from 1 to 30 days without pay.
But the department cannot put a number on informal accusations raised against troopers — such as rudeness or attitude — in which citizens don’t sign their names to affidavits that trigger formal investigations. Law enforcement watchdogs said that is a glaring departure from most major U.S. police departments that keep tally of all citizen contacts, even for accusations that are considered minor or quickly proven baseless upon reviewing patrol-car video.
“It’s almost shocking that they don’t,” said Jeff Noble, former deputy chief of the Irvine Police Department in California and now a prominent law enforcement consultant. “This is the state police of Texas. That’s no small department.”
Department policy allows such complaints to be handled at the local level, through supervisors, in what it calls “the informal resolution of citizen concerns.”
“Sometimes those are the ones you can see a pattern of an officer,” said Liana Perez, director of operations at the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement and a former police auditor in Arizona. “They may know how far they can go without it becoming a formal investigation against them. If you see a lot of complaints with rudeness or attitude, there is probably something that needs to be addressed.”
As for more serious complaints about incompetence, telling the truth or other conduct “unbecoming” of an officer, the agency provided records of 76 complaints determined to be valid in 2013 and 2014.
But other records provided to the AP by a person with access to them show a total of 204 complaints over that same time period, including 40 accusations that were determined valid but not disclosed because the punishment did not result in at least a one-day suspension. The list included troopers who were given written reprimands for use of non-deadly force, harassment and no probable cause for a search or arrest. Experts said this practice differs from most police departments, which do not limit disclosure to those of at least a one-day suspension.
DPS Director Steve McCraw defended the department’s handling of complaints as serious and rigorous.
“We investigate all complaints,” McCraw said. “I’ve had them drive the videos all the way up to my office when we’ve had complaints.”
In October, the agency began using computer software designed to document trooper issues in real time and provides supervisors with automatic alerts when early intervention is needed. The program replaces one that had made it “hard to track on paper by hand,” wrote Molly Cost, assistant general counsel of DPS in an October letter to the Texas attorney general’s office. The old practices of paper documentation made “finding patterns in employee behavior difficult to spot,” according to the letter.
DPS spokesman Tom Vinger said the agency’s new software will begin capturing “various citizen concerns” that don’t rise to full complaints.
If cleared of criminal wrongdoing by the grand jury, Encinia would still face internal discipline. McCraw has acknowledged that Encinia violated routine practices for conduct during a traffic stop.