Delayed release of Sandra Bland cellphone video incites testy hearing with Texas lawmakers

After the surprise discovery of new cellphone video in Bland's case, a state lawmaker on Friday directed the Department of Public Safety to "give me everything."
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A woman holds a poster bearing the portrait of Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old black woman who died in a Texas jail cell in 2015.AFP/Getty Images

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By Erik Ortiz

A hearing over newly released cellphone video belonging to Sandra Bland, the black woman involved in a 2015 traffic stop that preceded her death in a Texas jail, grew testy Friday as state lawmakers questioned top law enforcement officials about why it took more than two years before people knew of its existence.

Rep. Garnet Coleman, a Democrat who chairs the Legislature's County Affairs Committee and had sponsored a bill named after Bland meant to help jailed people with mental illnesses, grew frustrated as he described how the Texas Department of Public Safety previously "dumped" the related data to her case following requests for information, but failed to alert him to the cellphone video's existence.

"I tried to go in the disk you sent me, and I couldn't make heads or tails out of it," he said.

He implored the officials to be more forthcoming.

"Give me everything that you have related to the Sandra Bland case in a documented and cited form and bring it to me. Everything," Coleman said, adding, "If it's video, I want the video. If it's audio, I want the audio. If it's any depositions that you did with anyone that was involved in this, I want everything."

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Officials responded that "you'll have everything," and said they support implementing a new policy that provides information with an index or table of contents.

The 39-second cellphone video, which shows Bland's perspective when a state trooper pulled her over in July 2015 on the outskirts of Houston for failing to use her turn signal, was made public earlier this month — part of a records request by the Investigative Network, a nonprofit news organization, and Dallas station WFAA. Before then, the video had never been seen publicly.

Instead, there was only dashcam footage showing Trooper Brian Encinia attempting to drag Bland, 28, out of her car and threatening to use a Taser to "light you up" — an encounter that became a flashpoint in the Black Lives Matter movement. Bland was arrested and found dead in her jail cell three days later in what was ruled a suicide.

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Lawmakers on Friday noted that Cannon Lambert, an attorney for Bland's family, told the Investigative Network that the cellphone video was never provided as part of the discovery process in a civil case and that "if they had turned it over, I would have seen it."

Phillip Adkins, the general counsel for the Department of Public Safety, said at Friday's hearing that the agency "has not illegally withheld evidence" from Bland's family or their legal team and that the video she recorded was provided by Waller County attorneys to the family's attorneys in October 2015.

Lambert could not immediately be reached for comment Friday about whether he may have received the video, but inadvertently overlooked it.

Coleman said he plans to hold another hearing with Waller County attorneys.

In the aftermath of Bland's death, Encinia was the only official to be charged criminally in her case. Prosecutors said he lied in a sworn affidavit when he wrote that Bland had been "combative and uncooperative." A single charge against Encinia of perjury was dropped in June 2017 after the trooper agreed to never work as a law enforcement officer again.

Lawsuits against the state and the county jail have since been settled for almost $2 million in total.

But Coleman, whose Sandra Bland Act was signed into law in 2017, said Friday that the newly surfaced cellphone video could have changed the course of the investigation involving Encinia.

"I wish that he would have been prosecuted for more than just perjury after seeing that video," Coleman added.