On Tuesday Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw sat down with Texas Tribune editor Evan “newsmaker” Smith to...well, make news.
As for soon-to-be former DPS trooper Brian Encinia, who was recently indicted for perjury in the arrest of Sandra Bland in Waller County last summer, McCraw unequivocally blamed the trooper for turning a simple traffic stop into a prime example of unnecessary police escalation. But when the conversation naturally turned to racial profiling, McCraw said racial bias in policing is more “perception” than actual problem.
McCraw's comments come as his agency takes fire on a number of fronts. McCraw, a retired FBI agent appointed to state police director in 2009, largely led his agency's transformation into the heavily militarized force along the border it has become, where DPS gunboats float the Rio Grande and troopers fire on immigrants from helicopters. Allegations of civil rights abuses certainly aren't limited to the border region; consider the women who in recent years have sued DPS after troopers stuck their fingers inside of them—without a warrant, on the side of the road—because they thought they smelled pot.
For DPS the Sandra Bland story took on a new unflattering narrative as soon as dash-cam footage of Bland's arrest by trooper Brian Encinia became public last summer. When Bland asked why she had to put out her cigarette, Encinia ordered her out of her car, drew his Taser and shouted: “I will light you up!” Ultimately Bland wound up face-down on the ground, hands cuffed behind her back, telling Encinia, “I got epilepsy, you motherfucker” (Encinia's response: “Good. Good”). Charged with assault of a public servant, Bland eventually hanged herself in her jail cell three days later after she failed to make bail.
What McCraw told the Texas Tribune Tuesday—that Encinia “quickly allowed” the situation to “escalate”, that “it's always on the trooper” to be professional and respectful—shouldn't come as any surprise. Shortly after the dash-cam footage of Bland's arrest was made public, McCraw publicly stated his trooper violated departmental policies and procedures before putting Encinia on desk duty. Shortly after a grand jury indicted Encinia on a misdemeanor perjury charge earlier this month, McCraw began the process of firing the trooper. Video of the arrest was jarring enough to spark a legislative hearing in which one black lawmaker openly explained why he's afraid of police encounters; the consensus among headline writers was that state lawmakers “hammered” McCraw at that hearing.
So what did McCraw learn? According to his talk with the Trib Tuesday, the DPS director doesn't think law enforcement has a race problem—the public just thinks that they do.
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“I've seen nothing specific; I've seen isolated incidents,” McCraw told the Trib Tuesday. Notwithstanding that “isolated incidents” of racial profiling are apparently “nothing specific” as far as the state police director is concerned, McCraw followed up by saying racism is “reprehensible,” but that, “Institutionally, I've not seen it in terms of law enforcement in general.”
Even without Bland's arrest and the discussion around race and policing that it sparked, last year McCraw had ample reason to think hard about racial profiling. That's when it was revealed that McCraw's troopers have more than doubled traffic stops of Hispanic drivers over the past five years, even while the total number of tickets written to white drivers have dropped significantly. That's even before you consider that DPS troopers during that same time apparently misidentified thousands of minorities as white—meaning those traffic-stop numbers might in reality be even worse. (In the interview, McCraw largely blamed the problem on faulty drivers-license data that his department has no control over.)
Still, McCraw on Tuesday didn't shy away from criticizing the DPS trooper now infamous for pointing his Taser at a driver who dared to ask why she should have to put out her cigarette.
To McCraw, Sandra Bland's traffic stop and subsequent arrest was a mistake. It's just a mistake that apparently doesn't mean anything.