After Sandra Bland’s death in the Waller County jail became a national scandal, former Texas Department of Public Safety trooper Brian Encinia struggled to justify her ugly roadside arrest.
While Encinia had only stopped Bland for a simple traffic violation outside the Prairie View A&M University campus in July 2015, he swore to officials that the encounter escalated because he feared for his life. In interviews with the agency’s internal investigators, Encinia gave a rambling, gobbledigook explanation about a baseless hunch that Bland might have hidden drugs or weapons. “I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know what was wrong,” Encinia said. “I didn’t know if a crime was being committed, had been committed or whatnot.”
Dashcam video the department released shortly after the arrest, which showed Encinia boiling to a rage after Bland asked why she had to put out her cigarette, undercut his story. The cell phone video Bland recorded of her own arrest that surfaced this week renders the trooper’s account even more unbelievable. The fact that almost nobody, including Bland’s family, knew of the video’s existence until nearly four years after her arrest illustrates how the high-profile case continues to erode trust in law enforcement.
The 39-second video, obtained by veteran investigative reporter Brian Collister and aired in a WFAA segment Monday night, starts as Encinia orders Bland out of her car. The trooper, who was later fired and indicted for lying about the arrest in his police report, looks toward the camera as he pulls a Taser off his belt, flashing a look more consistent with seething anger than fear as he points the weapon at Bland and barks, “I will light you up!”
The attorney for Bland’s family, which in 2016 settled their wrongful death lawsuit against the state and Waller County for $1.9 million, claims officials never revealed the existence of the cell phone video during the case. In 2017, prosecutors dismissed the misdemeanor perjury charge against Encinia in exchange for his promise to never again work in law enforcement. Bland’s family has called for officials to reopen the case in light of the new video.
In an emailed statement to the Observer, the Department of Public Safety (DPS) insisted the footage is “not newly discovered evidence.” The office of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, which litigated the lawsuit the Bland family filed a month after her death, maintains that it complied with all discovery obligations during the case. “No videos related to this case were concealed,” wrote Paxton spokesperson Marc Rylander. “The video from Ms. Bland’s cell phone is not newly discovered evidence, and it has been treated as public information to be made available upon request to the Texas Department of Public Safety.”
Indeed, the cell phone video would have been publicized long ago if not for another troubling wrinkle. In September 2017, months after prosecutors dropped the criminal case against Encinia and a year after the Bland family settled their lawsuit, Collister dug up the video through public records requests, yet he says KXAN, the Austin TV station he worked for at the time, wouldn’t run it. Collister claims the station’s news director, Chad Cross, didn’t think it was newsworthy. “Essentially, he said, ‘What’s new about that?’ He said it didn’t do anything for him,” Collister told the Observer.
Cross declined to comment when reached by phone on Tuesday. Eric Lassberg, the station’s vice president and general manager, denied that the story was ever spiked. “KXAN is unaware why Brian Collister has waited this long to report on the Sandra Bland cell phone video,” Lassberg said in an emailed statement. “We directed Brian to work toward a story with the video, but it did not come to fruition before his employment ended.”
Collister, who left the station in January 2018 to start his own nonprofit news organization, says he planned to incorporate Bland’s cell phone video into a larger investigation on racial profiling by state troopers until he realized her family had never seen the footage. Late last year, he traveled to Chicago to show Bland’s family and their lawyer the video in person. They were astounded by what they saw.
Advocates for criminal justice reform hope the striking new perspective on Bland’s encounter with state police spurs Texas lawmakers to finally pass legislation ending the kind of contempt-of-cop arrest that landed her in jail in the first place. Last legislative session, police groups killed a major provision of the Sandra Bland Act that could have prevented similar arrests. This session, law enforcement groups have continued to oppose measures limiting arrests for people charged with petty offenses that aren’t punishable by jail time, arguing that cops need the discretion to follow their gut, like Encinia did. As one former Houston cop told a House committee last month, “There have been times that I have arrested folks on traffic violations because I knew, the hair stood up on the back of my head, the kid in the back seat wasn’t right.”
The never-before-seen video of Bland’s arrest also highlights the need for deep, continued skepticism of what police say after a violent encounter — even after a case has been in the media spotlight for years, even after it results in a grand jury indictment or the firing of an officer and a hefty legal settlement. Even after lawmakers have already passed a bill named after the victim.
On Tuesday afternoon, state Representative Garnet Coleman, the Houston Democrat who carried the Sandra Bland Act in 2017, called for a legislative hearing before the end of the session this month to question DPS and the AG’s office “in light of the new evidence in the Sandra Bland case.” Later in the evening, not long before the Texas House advanced a bill limiting arrests over traffic violations, a small group of activists gathered inside the Capitol rotunda, demanding that lawmakers do more to protect Texans from warrantless arrest.
“Sandra Bland didn’t do anything but ask questions, but she did it as a black woman,” said Fatima Mann, an Austin activist who organized the rally. “Sandy continues to speak,” Mann said, a nod to both the newly discovered footage and the Facebook video diaries Bland recorded in the months leading up to her death. “She continues to show us why we shouldn’t trust this system.”