Nervous and distraught, Earledreka White did the only thing she thought she could to allay her fears after being stopped by a police officer in Houston: She called 911 to report the traffic stop and asked for police backup.
White’s voice was so shaky that she stuttered when trying to give the emergency dispatcher their location, a medical plaza parking lot outside the Loop 610 near downtown Houston. Next to her stood an officer with Houston’s Metro Police Department, waiting while she made the call in the doorway of her sedan.
“He’s saying I crossed over a solid line and I did not,” White told the dispatcher. “I got out of the car to ask him what the offense was. He raised his voice at me and threatened to arrest me. So I’m really confused. And I would like another officer to come out here.
“My heart is racing. I’m really afraid.”
Less than two minutes later, the officer reached for his handcuffs, then for White’s left wrist.
Soon, the two began shouting as White begged him to stop.
After a violent struggle, the 28-year-old African-American woman was arrested, sobbing.
The charge? Resisting arrest.
Video of the March 31 traffic stop has become another Rorschach test for people to calibrate their divided views on police practices in the United States.
Attorneys for White said the footage clearly shows the Houston police officer escalated the confrontation, unprompted. As the video spread online Thursday, some said the incident was yet another example of excessive police force being used against African Americans.
The Metro Police Department has cleared the officer of any wrongdoing and said his actions were valid. Still others criticized White for getting out of her vehicle in the first place.
White’s attorneys released video of the incident to the Houston Chronicle, which published the footage along with audio from the 911 call this week.
The newspaper described how the situation escalated after White was stopped:
White then tells the dispatcher she is being “harassed.” At that point, according to the combined audio and video, the officer grabs her and tries to pin her arms behind her back, unleashing a minutes-long struggle with White screaming for him to stop.
“I was shocked. I was absolutely shocked,” Zack Fertitta, an attorney who is handling White’s case pro bono, told The Washington Post on Thursday. “This is a clear violation.”
The officer, identified in records as Gentian Luca, is a three-year member of the force, according to the Metro Police Department. Fertitta said there was no reason for Luca to arrest White, who reportedly was stopped for crossing a double white line while driving.
“He’s the one that caused the confrontation and then he claims resisting arrest,” Fertitta said. “Yes, she did get out of her vehicle, which I would advise against anybody ever doing. However, it’s not a crime to get out of your vehicle at a traffic stop.
“It’s not as if she was on a roadside. She was in a parking lot. She had her hands clearly visible. There was nothing in her hands. There was no danger for this officer. And she immediately got back in her car.”
White spent two days in jail on a misdemeanor charge of resisting arrest and was released on a $1,000 bail.
Less than a week after the traffic stop, White, of Houston, filed a formal complaint with Metro Police, alleging several counts of misconduct against Luca.
In the complaint, White said Luca “used excessive force, was rude and disrespectful when talking to her, threatened her with ‘I will Tazer your ass,’ “ and then arrested her “for no reason.”
White further alleged Luca had pulled her hair and wrestled her onto the car, causing her neck soreness and severe migraines afterward.
Over several weeks, an internal investigation reviewed all surveillance video, as well as written statements from four other law enforcement officials who arrived at the scene after White was taken into custody. On May 13, Metro police issued findings from its investigation and cleared Luca of all alleged violations.
Metro Police Chief Vera Bumpers said Luca was acting within the bounds of the law.
“The perception does look negative, but once you talk to the officer, once we reviewed everything . . . there were answers to what transpired,” she said.
James Douglas, president of the Houston NAACP, watched an edited version of the video and told the Chronicle that the officer was within his rights to ask White to get back in her car.
However, Douglas said, the officer started off on the wrong foot if he immediately threatened to use a stun-gun to get her to comply.
“He got impatient,” Douglas told the Chronicle. “This is obviously a police officer who needs some training on how to de-escalate a situation. And I would think it would be especially important in today’s climate.”
During Luca’s three years as a Metro Police officer, he has never been disciplined, suspended or put on probation, department spokesman Jerome Gray said. Luca was not placed on leave during the investigation and remains on duty with Metro Police, according to Gray.
“I think he showed restraint and patience during the incident,” said Bumpers, the police chief. “I think he just really tried and allowed her to calm down. He waited . . . while she was on the 911 call three minutes, I think, and that’s a long time.”
All Metro Police officers go through mandatory annual training that includes “de-escalation and crisis intervention” techniques, Bumpers said.
This incident will be included in future training, the police chief told the Houston Chronicle.
The department is “just asking the public to ensure that they comply with law enforcement and be respectful,” she said. “Because at the end of the day our concern is for the safety of our community.”
Last month, the fatal police shootings of two black men several hours and 1,200 miles apart, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Falcon Heights, Minnesota, reignited a heated national conversation about race and policing and also intensified a long-simmering debate over compliance, as one of the victims, a black school-cafeteria manager by the name of Philando Castile, was killed by an officer during a traffic stop.
“I always told him, ‘Whatever you do, when you get stopped by the police, comply, comply, comply, comply,’ “ his mother, Valerie Castile, told CNN on the morning after the fatal encounter. “Comply - that’s the key thing in order to try to survive being stopped by the police.”
She added: “My son was a law-abiding citizen and he did nothing wrong. I think he was just black in the wrong place.”
The two July shootings triggered demonstrations across the country, with protesters calling for an end to police brutality and for sweeping police reform.
The newly released video of White’s arrest in March is “just shocking,” said her attorney, Fertitta.
“I’m as pro-law-enforcement as they come, but that’s not good police conduct,” he told the Chronicle. “You can’t escalate a situation and then claim someone is ‘resisting arrest.’ That’s ridiculous.”
In an interview with The Post, he added: “This officer escalated the situation from a peaceful encounter over a traffic stop to this sort of confrontation that was completely unneeded. He should have just written her a traffic ticket. He never even started to write her a traffic ticket.”
Fertitta told The Post that he is working to get White’s charge dismissed so it does not affect her professional career.
According to her LinkedIn profile, White has a master’s degree in psychology. She previously taught sixth-grade math in the Houston Independent School District.
White did not immediately respond to a request through her attorney for comment.
Harris County District Attorney spokesman Jeff McShan confirmed Thursday that the prosecutor’s office had reached out to the officer to gather more information about the case and was reviewing the charge.
“They’re reviewing it,” McShan said. “That’s all we can say at this point.”
As news of White’s encounter spread, some likened the incident to the case of Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old Texas woman who was arrested after a minor traffic violation last year. Bland was found dead in her jail cell four days later, and her death - which authorities ruled a suicide - sparked protests around the country.
Ashton Woods, an organizer with Black Lives Matter in Houston, watched the video of White’s arrest on Wednesday and said the officer grabbing her wrist appeared to be “extremely problematic.”
“She was clearly fearing for her life because she was calling 911,” said Woods. “If she was in violation of something, they could have easily issued a citation. But when you’re pulling someone out of that car and clearly petrified . . . given everything that’s happened in the last two or three months, yeah, I feel for her.”
Woods said he planned to reach out to White.
“I thought about Sandra Bland,” Woods said. In his opinion, White’s case was not much different. “She just lived to talk about it, to be honest.”
The Houston Chronicle contributed to this story.