Three days later, the woman wielding the cellphone — a 28-year-old recent transplant named Sandra Bland who had been pulled over for failing to signal a lane change — would die in jail, her death ruled a suicide. The trooper, Brian Encinia, would later be fired and charged with perjury, though the charge wouldn’t stick. And his dashboard-camera footage of her arrest would play for weeks on national news shows.
But until a Dallas news station obtained and aired the cellphone clip Monday night, no one had seen Bland’s own view of that tense moment in July 2015 — including her family and the attorney who represented them in civil court.
Now, Bland’s family is alleging that the Texas Department of Public Safety purposely withheld the video, raising fresh questions about official misconduct in a case that became a linchpin of the Black Lives Matter movement, sparking nationwide protests and demands for police accountability.
“Open up the case, period,” Bland’s sister Shante Needham told WFAA, which unearthed the video in partnership with the nonprofit Investigative Network.
Officials with the Texas Department of Public Safety denied those claims and say the cellphone video was included in a large batch of evidence given to the Bland family’s attorneys. “The premise that the video was not produced as a part of the discovery process is wrong,” the department told the ABC affiliate in a statement. “A hard drive containing copies of 820 Gigabytes of data compiled by DPS from its investigation, including the dash cam videos, jail video footage and data from Sandra Bland’s cellphone, was part of discovery.”
But Cannon Lambert, the Bland family’s attorney, said that’s not true.
“I’ve not seen it,” Lambert told a WFAA reporter of the cellphone recording. “If they had turned it over, I would have seen it."
Bland was pulled over by Encinia on July 10, 2015, in Waller County, Tex., which is about 50 miles northwest of Houston. The native of Naperville, Ill., had recently moved there to take a job at her alma mater, Prairie View A&M University, where she’d worked as a camp counselor, studied agriculture and joined a sorority.
Bland’s roadside exchange with the trooper quickly turned heated after Encinia demanded she put out a cigarette and she refused. Encinia’s dash-cam footage, which was released later that month, showed the trooper escalating the situation until Bland left her car under threat of the Taser and was eventually arrested.
Three days later, she was found dead in the Waller County Jail. Officials ruled the cause suicide by hanging, but Bland’s family cried foul and civil rights activists quickly took up the cause. Bland’s name became the latest byword for police misconduct.
In his probable cause statement, Encinia said he’d instructed Bland to leave her car to conduct a safe traffic investigation, and he told investigators that “my safety was in jeopardy at more than one time.”
But a grand jury later found the trooper had lied, ruling instead that he “removed Sandra Bland from her vehicle because he was angry she would not put out her cigarette.” The jury recommended perjury charges, which were filed in January 2016; Encinia was fired later that year.
The grand jury recommended no criminal charges in connection with Bland’s death, however, and prosecutors dropped Encinia’s perjury charge in 2017 in exchange for him giving up his credentials and agreeing never to work as a police officer again.
Bland’s family sued the Texas Department of Public Safety and Waller County, and reached a $1.9 million settlement.
But her family said it never had a chance to review Bland’s own footage from the arrest during those proceedings.
In the cellphone video, Bland leaves her car after Encinia pulls his Taser, saying, “Wow. Wow. . . . You’re doing all of this for a failure to signal?”
The trooper then orders her to “get off the phone!” Bland responds that “I have a right to record” before apparently acceding to his demands and turning off the cellphone.
“The video makes it abundantly clear there was nothing she was doing in that car that put him at risk at all,” Lambert, her family’s attorney, told the Associated Press on Monday.
Encinia’s attorney argued otherwise, telling the AP that the newly released video doesn’t show anything more than the dash-cam footage already did.
There’s also disagreement about whether the cellphone video was included in discovery in the Bland family’s civil trial. The footage was mentioned in an investigative report, WFAA reported, and special prosecutor Darrell Jordan told the station he had the video for grand jury proceedings. The Texas Department of Public Safety told the AP it had also given the video to an Austin-area TV station in 2017 as part of a records request.
But Lambert insisted he had never seen it, telling the AP human error on the part of the investigators could be to blame. Bland’s sister had a more sinister take.
“We also know they have an extremely, extremely good coverup system,” Needham told WFAA.
Needham argues that the cellphone footage offers more proof that Encinia should face criminal charges over the encounter.
The clip “not only shows that [Encinia] lied,” Needham told WFAA, “but that he really had no business even stopping her, period. And at the end of the day, he needs to go to jail.”
One state representative from the area has already promised a new probe into whether the video was properly shared.
“It is troubling that a crucial piece of evidence was withheld from Sandra Bland’s family and legal team in their pursuit of justice,” state Rep. Garnet Coleman (D-Houston), who sponsored a bill named after Bland that increased resources for mentally ill inmates and added new police accountability measures, said in a statement. “As Chair of the House Committee on County Affairs that looked into the death of Sandra Bland, I will make sure that the Committee will also look into how this happened.”
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