AUSTIN (KXAN) — Cell phone video from a 2015 traffic stop sparked a tense hearing at the State Capitol four years later.
Friday morning, leaders of the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Texas Attorney General’s Office answered tough question from state lawmakers, led by Chair of the County Affairs Committee, Garnet Coleman, D-Houston.
The day ending with a flurry of back and forth about who knew what, when, and DPS Director Steve McCraw pledged to change policy about how information is released from the Department.
Sandra Bland was found dead in her Waller County jail cell in July 2015. Three days earlier she was arrested at a traffic stop — the original violation was the failure to use a turn signal — which returned to the spotlight after cell phone video was reported, showing the confrontation from Bland’s perspective.
McCraw told the committee the video was available to people who asked in 2015 and argues with accusations that they tried to hide the video.
The Committee Chairman Friday accused DPS of a “data dump” that could have made the video difficult to find.
“If for some reason you didn’t get it, I apologize for that,” said McCraw. “I apologize that you didn’t understand it. Because you did get it.”
“What?” asked Coleman.
“Yes you got it,” said McCraw.
The DPS Director, and to his right, his general counsel, Phillip Adkins, told the panel Friday morning they sent Bland’s cell phone video to her attorneys and lawmakers who asked for it.
DPS staff points to this letter from October 2015, showing the cell phone data was sent on a thumb drive by certified mail to Bland’s Chicago based lawyers. The Bland family and lawyers say they never saw it.
Chair of the County Affairs Committee and author of the Sandra Bland Act, Garnet Coleman criticized what he’d received from DPS while he was investigating the case himself. Coleman claims the disk he got was too much of a large, confusing, maze of data to adequately find specific evidence.
“Is this how you normally give things to people sir,” asked Coleman.
Adkins said, “Absolutely.”
“You normally just dump data?” asked Coleman.
“We don’t dump data,” said McCraw.
“Sir you did,” said Coleman. “I can give you the disk.”
“If you say we did then we did,” said McCraw.
“It’s possible. Very possible then. That no one would have known that you all were producing a video that was relevant to the crux of the allegations in the case,” said Rep. Shawn Thierry, D-Houston.
At the end of the hearing, DPS leaders agreed that from now on, they’ll present information discovered in cases like this — in a more organized way, such as providing an index — and, will follow up to make sure everyone gets what they’ve requested.
KXAN reached out to Bland’s attorneys yesterday to ask if they received the video on that thumb drive in 2015 — there received no response yet. Bland’s mother was at the hearing but chose not to comment.
In response to Coleman, DPS released an email from DPS director Steve McCraw sent to Rep. Coleman late Friday afternoon.
McCraw addresses the so-called “data dump”, saying that voluminous amount of data was actually information Coleman’s office requested on two-million DPS traffic stops.
Also, this morning Coleman criticized DPS, saying it wasn’t enough to only provide him the Texas Rangers report back when he was looking into the case. McCraw disputes that by showing their communication with Coleman’s office in 2017.
A DPS email asks if Coleman wants to see exhibits like witness statements, photos and videos. The email shows Coleman’s office responded saying he only wanted theTexas Rangers report.
Coleman for his part, says DPS should be more forthcoming with handing over this kind of evidence and that he shouldn’t have to specifically ask for each item. He says he plans to have another hearing on the issue.
“We provided this voluminous amount of data to your office in the specific format that you had requested,” McCraw’s email stated in part. “Your chief of staff/general counsel responded to our offer to provide the exhibits by clearly stating that you ‘just [wanted] the report.”
Watch the full hearing on Sandra Bland’s cell phone video below:
Officials with the Attorney General’s Office testified that they believe the full download of Sandra Bland’s phone included all the content on her phone.
That downloaded collection was turned over on a thumb drive to the attorneys for Sandra Bland’s family during the civil litigation by Waller County, they said.
Rep. Thierry clarified that the collection of downloaded data from Bland’s phone was not indexed.
”Perhaps they were never told that there was a video that was very relevant to the subject matter (of the civil litigation),” she said.
Chairman Coleman ended the questioning of the officials from the Attorney General’s Office by saying the committee will call on Waller County to testify at a later date.
Before the dashcam footage of Bland’s arrest was released, investigators asked her family if it was okay to release it.
When asked if the Department of Public Safety told the Bland family that the cell phone existed, DPS Director McCraw said he didn’t know.
“I don’t know that we didn’t but I don’t know that we did,” he said.
Bland’s cell phone was returned to her mother two years after her death when the criminal investigation wrapped up.
DPS General Counsel Adkins said he believed that while all the evidence in the criminal case was under protective order from being released to the public during the civil litigation, he didn’t see why the family wouldn’t be given that information.
DPS general counsel Adkins said during the discovery process for the civil litigation, Waller County sent a thumb drive containing the cell phone video to the attorneys for Sandra Bland’s family in Oct. 2015.
Chairman Coleman was not convinced.
“We’re going to call them next,” he said. “We’re going to have another hearing. Now I know we have to.”
“We need to find out why the (Bland family) attorney is saying he didn’t know about it,” Rep. Shawn Thierry chimed in.
In response to a question from Rep. Alex Dominguez about public policy, DPS director Steve McCraw responded, “transparency works for us.”
“Every trooper has a body camera and it’s very important to get that perspective,” he said. “It’s not just about holding ourselves accountable.”
He said body camera footage has also helped troopers quickly dispel false accusations against them in the past.
He also said when the dashcam video was released to the public, investigators had not yet accessed the video on Bland’s cell phone. Officials obtained a search warrant for the phone because Trooper Brian Encinia could be heard in the dashcam footage talking about it.
When Rep. Sheryl Cole asked the legal counsel why the cellphone video was exempt but the dashcam video was released, Adkins began describing the video.
“The audio is identical to the dashcam video,” Adkins said. He said it was 39 second-long and just showed a different perspective from the dashcam.
Chairman Coleman interrupted to explain the dashcam was not the video in question.
“We all saw the dashcam video,” he said. “They’re just trying to confuse the issue.”
In a heated moment, Chairman Coleman demanded several times to know if he was provided the cell phone video in a disk of evidence given to him from the Department of Public Safety.
“I don’t believe that it was,” Adkins responded.
Phillip Adkins, general counsel for the department of public safety told lawmakers the cell phone video was provided to the attorneys for Sandra Bland’s family during the civil suit in October 2017.
When questioned, he admitted the video was under a protective order and they were not allowed to show the video to anyone during the course of the civil suit.
At 8 a.m. Friday, Chairman of the Texas House County Affairs Committee Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, will call leaders of the Department of Public Safety and the Attorney General’s Office to answer questions about cell phone video from a highly-scrutinized 2015 traffic stop.
In July 2015, Sandra Bland was pulled over by DPS trooper Brian Encinia. The traffic stop escalated and Encinia arrested Bland. Three days later, she was found dead in a Waller County jail cell. Jail officials say she committed suicide.
Encinia’s dash cam video of the incident was released in 2015 and showed him holding a stun gun as he ordered Bland to get out of the car, saying: “I will light you up. Get out now. Get out of the car.” Encinia was later indicted on a perjury charge but the charge was dropped after he agreed to give up his law enforcement license.
Video made public this month shows the incident from Bland’s perspective. She recorded her encounter with Encinia with her cell phone.
Rep. Coleman told KXAN the goal of Friday’s hearing is to find out details about how the video was released.