A new video that has emerged this week is raising new questions about the fate of Sandra Bland, a black woman whose death in a Texas jail cell following a July 2015 traffic stop sparked national Black Lives Matter protests, and added fuel to ongoing discussions about the ways black men and women are treated by police officers.
Bland, a 28-year-old woman who had recently moved to Texas from Illinois, recorded the 39-second video on her cell phone after she was stopped for a traffic violation on July 10, 2015. The video had never been released publicly until May 6, when it was reported on by Dallas’s WFAA news station and posted online by a journalism nonprofit called the Investigative Network.
The video begins with Texas state trooper Brian Encinia yelling at Bland to get out of her car as he points a stun gun at her.
When Bland asks the officer to explain why she is being treated so aggressively, Encinia continues to demand that she get out of the car.
“I will light you up!” Encinia yells while holding the stun gun.
“Wow, you’re doing all of this for a failure to signal?” Bland responds. When she leaves the vehicle, Encinia then demands that she put down her phone, as Bland counters that she has a right to record. The video ends with Bland appearing to end the recording.
Encinia claimed that he feared for his safety during the encounter, initially saying that he ordered Bland out of her car because he worried she would reach for something. Bland was arrested and charged with resisting arrest and assaulting an officer; Encinia claimed that Bland kicked him, but the encounter was not captured on video.
Bland was found dead in a Waller County jail cell three days later, and authorities ruled that she died by suicide, a finding that continues to be disputed by Bland’s family and some activists. Encinia was later charged with perjury for allegedly lying about the reason why he ordered Bland out of her car.
Bland’s death, which came in the first years of the growing Black Lives Matter Movement, drew national attention, and racial justice advocates argued that her death highlighted the ways that black women are exposed to police violence.
For Bland’s family, the video has spurred new questions and a desire for a new investigation, and the family says that the footage proves that Bland was not posing a threat to the officer as she sat in her car. “Open up the case, period,” Shante Needham, Sandra Bland’s sister, told WFAA after seeing the video.
The new cellphone video raises questions about what information was released after Bland’s death
Prior to Monday, the only known full video of Bland’s arrest was a dashcam video from Encinia’s vehicle that was released days after Bland’s death. But the discovery of the video recorded by Bland has fueled questions of whether there’s more evidence that has not been disclosed.
In the days after Bland’s death, Encinia’s report of the traffic stop, and his claims that his “safety was in jeopardy at more than one time,” largely shaped how police approached their initial investigation.
Attorneys who formerly represented Bland’s family say that they were not given access to the cellphone video that countered Encinia’s claims, video that they say would have been useful in the family’s civil lawsuit against the Texas Department of Public Safety and the 2016 perjury case against the officer.
“If the video showed that he had no basis of being in fear of his safety, and he lied about that, then you would think they would be using that video,” Bland family attorney Cannon Lambert told the New York Times on Tuesday.
Encinia was the only person to stand trial in connection to Bland’s death; none of the guards at the jail faced charges. Because grand jury records remain sealed, it is unclear if a grand jury was ever shown Bland’s cellphone video.
Local authorities counter that the video was given to the family as part of the discovery process in their civil case. But the family maintains that they never received the video, and were still unaware of its existence when they settled a wrongful death lawsuit for $1.9 million in 2016.
WFAA notes that the cellphone video was mentioned in an investigative report looking into Bland’s death but that the reference to the video comes 60 pages into the document.
In 2017, the perjury case against Encinia was dropped after he agreed to never work in law enforcement again.
That same year, the Texas legislature passed the Sandra Bland Act, which included new guidance for how officers should avoid escalating police stops, guidance around diverting people who are in need of mental health services away from county jails, and required that an independent law enforcement agency investigate local jail deaths.
Bland’s cellphone video isn’t the first time important details about a high-profile police incident came to light years later
The release of new footage has reignited the controversy over Bland’s arrest, leading local politicians and Texas-based presidential candidates like Beto O’Rourke and Julián Castro to call for a new investigation into Bland’s case. But the fact that it took nearly four years for the footage to come out also fits into a larger conversation about what information is—and is not—released in the wake of controversial incidents involving police officers and black citizens.
Bland’s cellphone video is just the latest to raise questions about this.
Fact that never before seen evidence/videos/docs only become public years later in even the most high profile cases -Oscar Grant, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland- underscores need for deep skepticism about police narratives of every use of force incident https://t.co/UuXdkc2vLW— Wesley (@WesleyLowery) May 7, 2019
The woman who said Emmett Till came onto her lied about what he said. The officer who killed Oscar Grant lied about what he did. The police withheld video of Sandra Bland that tells a different story.— Clint Smith (@ClintSmithIII) May 7, 2019
There’s a long history of black ppl being killed based on someone else’s lie.
At the beginning of May, California news outlets reported on the existence of a 10-year old report that shed new light on the controversial 2009 transit police shooting of Oscar Grant, a 22-year old black man. They found that in the moments before Grant was shot by then-BART officer Johannes Mehserle, a second officer had drastically escalated the police encounter.
The report noted that while Mehserle was the one who shot Grant (the officer claimed that he meant to use his Taser), another officer named Anthony Pirone “started a cascade of events that ultimately led to the shooting,” events that included him punching Grant and kneeing him in the face, calling Grant the N-word, and lying about his actions in subsequent police reports.
The report highlighting Pirone’s behavior was only released in the wake of a California police records transparency law that went into effect this year, a law that local police departments and unions have strongly opposed.
And in 2017, years before the new information was released in Grant’s case, a different video offered new evidence about the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown, a black 18-year old in Ferguson, Missouri. As Vox’s German Lopez noted at the time, this video appeared to show Brown engaging in some sort of transaction at a convenience store hours before police said he committed a strong-arm robbery at the same spot. The video led to local protests and reignited claims that officers had refused to release information that countered their official account of the shooting.
Taken together, the fact that new information in these cases is being released years after officers have gone through the legal system highlights a concern long held by police reform advocates. It’s a concern that was also strongly voiced in the wake of revelations about the alleged coverup of the 2014 Laquan McDonald shooting in Chicago: that in cases revolving around police misconduct, it can often be difficult—if not impossible— for the public to get fully transparent information about an officer-involved shooting or use of force incident from the departments implicated in these incidents.
This is largely due to the fact that these incidents occur in a system where officers and prosecutors are tasked with investigating their own peers while having significant control over what information makes its way to citizens.
As a result, without that information or bystander videos, it becomes all too easy for an officer’s account to shape early narratives of what happened, which in turn incentivizes some officers to lie about how an incident occurred. That it has taken years to get key pieces of information in high-profile nationally watched cases like those of Bland, Brown, and Grant—and the fact that this information has come from independent investigations and not the law enforcement agencies themselves— raises questions about what goes unnoticed in policing cases that attract far less attention.
In Bland’s case, it is possible that the revelations will lead to a new investigation, though it is unclear exactly what that investigation could do at this point.
“It is troubling that a crucial piece of evidence was withheld from Sandra Bland’s family and legal team in their pursuit of justice,” Texas state Rep. Garnet Coleman, said in a statement after the WFAA investigation was published, adding that his committee will look into the matter. “The illegal withholding of evidence by one side from the other destroys our legal system’s ability to produce fair and just outcomes.”
“[The video] not only shows that [Encinia] lied, but that he really had no business even stopping her, period,” Needham, Bland’s sister, told WFAA. “And at the end of the day, he needs to go to jail.”