All too often, it seems like questionable behavior by law enforcement only comes to light when there's a video. So perhaps it's no surprise that Sandra Bland, a black woman who was found dead in her cell three days after being arrested following a traffic stop gone wrong, appears to have tried to record her encounter with a cop who threatened her with a taser.
Dashboard video camera footage released online by the Texas Department of Public Safety, captured the tense confrontation.
"Get off the phone!" the officer, Brian Encinia, told Bland after she got out of the car.
"I'm not on the phone. I have a right to record, this is my property," Bland responded.
"Put your phone down, right now!" Encinia ordered.
But did Bland actually have a right to record the encounter? Maybe not.
"There are narrow circumstances in which police can interfere with your right to record, and the fact that they are arresting you is one of them," said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union. "Without commenting on the specifics of this case, if a police officer is in the course of arresting a person it's legitimate for them to order the person to put down a device. But it's not legitimate for the police officer to ask you to put down a phone just for the purpose of prohibiting photography."
Generally, you do have a right to record the police as they carry out their official duties, said Stanley. The Department of Justice has even weighed in on this: "Recording governmental officers engaged in public duties is a form of speech through which private individuals may gather and disseminate information of public concern, including the conduct of law enforcement officers," it wrote in a 2012 letter to attorneys for the Baltimore Police Department.
That's one of the reasons why many of the videos of police conduct that make waves online have been shot by bystanders, such as the video of a Texas police officer pulling a gun on teenagers at a pool party or a South Carolina officer firing bullets into the back of a fleeing Walter Scott and killing him.
But when there are no bystanders or witnesses to record, the public is often left to rely on official accounts from law enforcement -- or from law enforcement recordings. In the Bland case, there's the dashcam footage, but that has limits: While the first part of the encounter is caught on screen, the bulk of what sounds like a physical altercation occurs off-screen -- caught only by audio.
That's one of the reasons the ACLU supports police wearing body-attached cameras, said Stanley.
But relying on police video sources also means accepting that those videos haven't been tampered with.
Apparent inconsistencies -- like car traffic repeating or vehicles suddenly disappearing -- in some parts the video of the Bland dashcam footage have already raised some questions from outlets, including NBC News, about whether it was edited.
"The purpose of bodycam videos is to increase public trust in the police. If there's a suspicion that video is being altered, that blows up that goal,' Stanley said.
The Texas Department of Public Safety told The Washington Post that the dashcam video was not edited but that some of the video had been "affected in the upload" to YouTube. "To eliminate any concerns as to the efficacy of the video DPS previously requested the FBI examine the dash cam and jail video to ensure the integrity of the video," spokesperson Tom Vinger said in a statement. "We are working to repost the dash cam video."
Bland was stopped for failing to signal while changing lanes, but the encounter became confrontational after Encinia asked her to put out her cigarette, according to the footage. In the arrest warrant, Encinia said he arrested Bland after she "began swinging her elbows at me and then kicked my right leg in the shin." But the video appears to contradict that statement.
“She never swung at me,” he said in the recording. “She was just flailing,
Bland was charged with assault on a public servant and died in Waller County Jail on July 13. Bland's death was classified as suicide by hanging, but her family and some members of the public are skeptical of that finding. The Texas State Rangers have launched an investigation with supervision from the FBI.
Encinia was placed on administrative duty on Friday, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety. The officer violated procedures during the stop, the agency said.
Read more on the case of Sandra Bland: