Texas Politics

Lawmakers accuse Texas officials of withholding evidence after Sandra Bland’s death

Texas officials defended their handling of evidence during a House hearing Friday in light of newly unearthed footage of Sandra Bland’s 2015 arrest that sparked scrutiny nationwide.

The 39-second video recorded on Bland’s cellphone provides a different perspective of her July 10, 2015, traffic stop with Trooper Brian Encinia, that was previously believed to only be documented on dash cam footage from Encinia’s patrol vehicle. Bland, a black woman who was 28 years old at the time, was found hanging in a cell in the Waller County jail three days after her arrest. Her death was ruled a suicide.

Officials from the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Office of the Attorney General beat back accusations from lawmakers that their offices had operated with a lack of transparency.

“The Department of Public Safety has not illegally withheld evidence from Sandra Bland’s family or her legal team,” said Phillip Adkins, the Department of Public Safety’s general counsel.

The footage obtained by the Investigative Network has spurred calls for a renewed investigation, and shows Bland questioning why she’s being arrested as Encinia wields a taser and shouts at her to put the phone down.

“You light people up for filming?” Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, asked. “It really does show a totally different circumstance — totally different — than the dash cam.”

Adkins said the video had been shared with Bland’s lawyer by Waller County attorneys in 2015 and with the Austin television station KXAN-TV in 2017. Steven McCraw, director of the Department of Public Safety, said the video was described in detail in a Texas Ranger Report of Investigation.

The footage’s description in the report, which Adkins read aloud during the hearing, notes that a ranger examined the data extracted from Bland’s phone, and “found Bland was able to activate the video recording function of her phone during the traffic stop with Trooper Encinia. The video recording depicted Trooper Encinia reaching into the car, and then removed his taser from his holster while he ordered Bland out of the vehicle. The recording lasted approximately 39 seconds.”

Coleman, chairman of the House Committee on County Affairs that also held hearings in 2017 investigating Bland’s death, pushed back on the accuracy of the description, and said it was “far and away different” from Bland’s footage.

“I think it’s an accurate description of the video,” Adkins replied.

“I don’t have lying eyes, sir,” Coleman later said.

The hearing, which lasted nearly two hours and drew lawmakers outside of the committee, grew heated as Coleman accused Department of Public Safety officials of providing a “data dump” of evidence from Bland’s case on four CD-roms that he said was difficult to navigate. Coleman said he wanted everything related to the Bland case to be delivered to him.

“I apologize that you didn’t understand it, because you did get it,” McCraw said.

Representatives from the Attorney General’s Office also said that Bland’s cellphone data that was shared with her family’s attorney, Cannon Lambert, was not indexed. Lambert told the Star-Telegram’s media partners at WFAA that he hadn’t seen the video until an Investigative Network reporter showed it to him.

Per a suggestion by Rep. Jon Rosenthal, D-Houston, McCraw said going forward the Department of Public Safety will institute new policies that ensure clear communication and that an index of evidence is provided to those requesting it.

“It matters so much in this particular case that we have all the information at our hands so that we can make a decision and resolve the issue expeditiously,” said Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth.

Sandra Bland’s Mom
Geneva Reed-Veal, the mother of Sandra Bland, listens to Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, after a House committee hearing grilling Texas officials over newly released cellphone footage of Bland’s 2015 arrest. Tessa Weinberg tweinberg@star-telegram.com

Sitting in the third row, Sandra Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, listened intently throughout the hearing, taking notes on a yellow legal pad. Reed-Veal, who didn’t testify, said she appreciated being able to witness the hearing for herself.

“I saw a lot of discrepancy here. But what I will not do is comment prematurely. Just as folks were represented by their counsel, I’m going to have to share some things with mine,” Reed-Veal said after the hearing.

Coleman, who worked to enact a law named after Bland that includes addressing how law enforcement interacts with people with mental health issues, said he plans to hold additional hearings.

Encinia was fired and charged with perjury, although the charged was later dropped in exchange for Encinia agreeing to never work in law enforcement again.

“The video makes it abundantly clear there was nothing she was doing in that car that put him at risk at all,” Lambert, the attorney who negotiated a $1.9 million civil settlement for the Bland family, told the Associated Press after he saw the cellphone video earlier this month.

Darren McCarty, deputy attorney general for civil litigation, and Nichole Bunker-Henderson, associate deputy attorney general for civil litigation, from the Attorney General’s office, and Jason Hermus, felony chief from the Dallas County Criminal District Attorney’s Office, also briefly testified.

Coleman said he wasn’t afraid to issue subpoenas, and plans to keep pursuing the issue.

“What you sat through today was the beginnings of an investigation,” Coleman said. “I don’t need somebody else. I have that authority.”

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