Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Besieged Waller County officials release more tapes

By Terri Langford and Sophia Bollag, The Texas Tribune

Trying to dispel rumors that they covered up the real circumstances of Sandra Bland's death, Waller County law enforcement officials took the unusual step Tuesday of releasing video of her booking into jail after her arrest July 10.

The county has been deluged with death threats — and targeted in a cyber attack allegedly launched by the clandestine social activist group Anonymous — as rumors have gone viral on the Internet claiming Bland was dead at the time her mug shot was taken, well before she was found hanged in her cell on July 13 in an apparent suicide.

“You will see video here today that shows she was alive and well when the mug shot was taken," said Waller County Judge Carbett “Trey” J. Duhon.

The video, which documents the four-hour booking process and Bland's first appearance before a magistrate, was played for reporters in Hempstead as Duhon and Waller County Sheriff's Office Capt. Brian Cantrell explained what was happening.

"We're doing this because we've received death threats," Duhon said. “I wish it could have gone out earlier and maybe we wouldn’t be facing some of those threats.”

Duhon said county officials opted to release the booking video three days after Anonymous, a loose but dedicated network of computer programmers, released a video calling upon citizens worldwide to organize a "Day of Rage" on Aug. 8 for Bland.

“This county is being literally attacked. We are being cyber-attacked," Duhon said.

Worldwide outrage has poured onto social media outlets since Bland's death, the latest in a string of police custody deaths involving black Americans this year.

Bland, a 28-year-old African American woman from Chicago, was arrested July 10 outside her alma mater Prairie View A&M University, 50 miles northwest of Houston, following a traffic stop for an improper lane change. She was moving back to Texas to start a new job at the college on Aug. 3.

The Anonymous video highlighted what the group sees as inconsistencies in local officials' statements about the circumstances surrounding Bland's death. Anonymous has insisted Bland was dead at the time her mug shot was taken, a belief apparently shared by members of the public who have taken to social media since Bland's body was discovered.

As a result, Waller County offices and staff have been threatened and staff computers hacked, Duhon said. The county has shut down its telephone switchboards several times in the past week because of death threats.

“It is important that we release this information because we have received death threats against Waller County officials," Duhon said. "We have received threats against our facilities.”

Duhon said the threats reached such a level that by late Monday Waller County officials decided to release the jail booking video after discovering that they could make copies from the internal digital recording system that the jail uses. Earlier attempts to do so had failed, Duhon said.

“When it comes to correct information, social media cannot be relied upon," Duhon told reporters.

In the booking video, Bland is seen wearing a long dress waiting on a bench as she is handed off to jail officials for processing. Texas Department of Public Safety Trooper Brian Encinia, the officer who arrested Band, is seen signing Bland's arresting paperwork.

A dashboard camera video of Bland's arrest taken from Encinia's patrol car was released a week ago. In that video, Encinia can be seen losing his temper after Bland refuses to comply with orders to get out of her car and put out her cigarette.

Encinia arrested Bland on a charge of attacking a public servant, claiming Bland kicked him during the arrest. Three days after she was taken to jail, she was found hanged with a plastic trashcan liner used as a ligature. Encinia was reassigned to desk duties pending an internal DPS investigation of his actions. As of Tuesday, he remained employed, working at DPS regional office in Houston.

Although her death was ruled a suicide by the Harris County medical examiner's office, Waller County is investigating all possibilities for her death, including murder. The Texas Rangers and the FBI also are investigating Bland's death.

The booking video also shows Bland going into another room to change into a jail inmate uniform of orange scrubs, being issued a mattress, being led to a camera for her mug shot and having her fingerprints taken. Bland remained in jail for three days because she could not raise $500 needed to secure her release.

"I truly wish she had bonded out," Duhon said.

On the video, Bland is seen making a handful of phone calls, using the jail staff's telephone instead of the inmate phone system that would have billed the recipient of the jail call.

Capt. Brian Cantrell of the Waller County Sheriff's Office told reporters that jail staff felt sorry for Bland and let her use their desk phone. Cantrell said Bland spent 22 minutes on at least four calls. He said he did not know why she refused the inmate jail phone system, other than to speculate that she might have been trying to save the person on the other end money.

"It is absolutely without a doubt a tragic situation," Duhon said, adding Bland's family, who have retained a lawyer, were no longer communicating with authorities.

On Monday, Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis tapped two Houston lawyers — Darrell Jordan and Lewis White — to review evidence compiled in the wake of the Bland's death.

Also, a second outside team has been named to look at the policy and procedures of the Waller County Sheriff's Office, which manages the Waller County Jail.

"The only thing we expect to do is make suggestions as to how law enforcement can more effectively do their job without losing respect from the public," said Paul Looney, an attorney with offices in Hempstead and Houston. Looney helped form the group that will include former U.S. Rep. Craig Washington, Morris Overstreet, a former Texas Court of Criminal Appeals judge, JoAnne Musick, former president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association and civil rights attorney Randall Kallinen.

The group's first meeting is on Friday, Looney said and none of the members will be paid.

Looney's law firm lists Duhon as "of counsel" meaning that he works on some cases with Looney's law firm and vice versa but he rejected any notion that that connection represents any conflict of interest.

"There's some group that think it is," Looney said.  "They don't know me very well. I put it all together but I don't have a vote."

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.

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