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Lawmaker Grills Department Of Public Safety Over Disclosure Of Sandra Bland Cellphone Video

A Prairie View street has been renamed after Sandra Bland.
Marjorie Kamys Cotera for The Texas Tribune
A Prairie View street has been renamed after Sandra Bland.

Tensions over the arrest and death of Sandra Bland boiled over during a Capitol committee hearing Friday morning in which lawmakers and state officials argued over whether the state intentionally withheld newly-released footage of the incident, shot with Bland’s cellphone, from lawyers for Bland’s family and lawmakers.

At one point during a two-hour hearing that was marked by heated back-and-forths, state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, the chair of the County Affairs Committee, called out members of the Texas Department of Public Safety over their actions concerning the 39-second video in which Texas state trooper Brian Encinia is seen shouting, “Get out of the car, I will light you up” as he pointed a stun gun at Bland.

Two DPS officials called to testify Friday claimed that their agency handed the video over to the family and their attorneys before the civil trial, and to KXAN-TV in Austin in 2017. Coleman accused them of burying the video sent to the family attorneys in a pile of documents — intentionally or not — making it hard to locate. At one point, Coleman needled them over whether the video was even on the thumb drive to begin with — a suggestion the officials vehemently denied.

The Investigative Network obtained and aired the video on Dallas TV station WFAA earlier this month. It shows a brief altercation between Bland, 28, and Encinia, who had pulled her over in Prairie View for not using her turn signal. After she refused to put out her cigarette, the trooper threatened to drag her out of her car and tase her.

Bland was charged with assaulting a public servant and died a few days later in the Waller County Jail; an investigation found that she took her own life.

The trooper later told authorities he felt his safety was in jeopardy. However, footage from his dashboard camera contradicted his account — a fact that DPS Director Steve McCraw acknowledged at the hearing — and he was later fired and indicted for perjury. That charge was dropped after he agreed to give up his peace officer’s license and never work as an officer again.

Bland’s cell phone video did not appear to show major details of the arrest that were not captured by the trooper’s dashcam video, though Coleman said Friday he believed the video illuminated something “very enlightening in terms of the action of the trooper.”

“He says, ‘I will light you up’ when all she’s holding is a cell phone,” Coleman said. “So you ‘light people up’ for filming?”

Lawyers for Bland’s family have accused DPS officials of withholding evidence and failing to turn over the video. The family did not testify Friday but previously said they never saw the video and have since called for the investigation into Bland’s arrest to be reopened.

Phillip Adkins, the DPS general counsel, said during the hearing that the video Bland recorded during the July 2015 traffic stop was provided to her family’s lawyers that same year. Coleman then questioned whether the family was allowed to keep the video, and why it wasn’t sent to lawmakers who had worked on legislation related to her arrest and death.

“I’m just surprised that I was never shown this video,” said Coleman, adding that he had previously requested data related to the case.

“We can’t know what it is that you want to look at —” Adkins began to say.

“Sir, we had all these hearings. You knew what I wanted to look at.” Coleman interjected. “You say that and that just doesn’t fit the circumstance.”

Questions persisted Friday about whether the video was easily obtainable in a thumb drive the state gave to the family’s lawyers.

Coleman said the large amount of information given to him amounted to a “data dump.” He said Friday that if the family attorneys were given the same type of file he was given, he understands why they may have overlooked the video.

“In that messy, data dump disk — was the video in that disk?” Coleman asked.

“I don’t know that it wasn’t,” Adkins responded.

“Do you think that’s an appropriate way to give information to a legislator?” Coleman retorted.

Toward the end of the hearing, two officials from the Texas Attorney General’s office admitted there was no index in the thumb drive handed over to Bland’s family attorneys during the trial — a revelation that might’ve explained why lawyers for the family said they hadn’t seen the video earlier.

“We are conceding it was not indexed,” said Nichole Bunker Henderson, the associate deputy attorney general for civil litigation. “That is my understanding.”

The family’s attorneys did not attend Friday’s hearing and Coleman said his committee would have to meet again to get to the bottom of the matter.

“We’re going to have another hearing,” he said. “Now I know we have to.”

Alex Samuels is a newsletters fellow for The Texas Tribune and a journalism senior at The University of Texas at Austin. Alex has worked for USA Today College since her sophomore year and has been a collegiate correspondent and their first-ever breaking news correspondent. She also worked as an editorial intern for the Daily Dot where she covered politics, race, and social issues.
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