How one reporter got the Sandra Bland cell phone video

Video still courtesy of Investigative Network.

In June 2017, Brian Collister was a lead investigative reporter for KXAN, a Nexstar-owned NBC affiliate in Austin, Texas. He had covered Sandra Bland’s 2015 traffic stop in Waller County, an incident that sparked protests across the US and calls for increased police accountability. After all the open cases around the incident had wrapped up, he decided to file a records request to the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS).

“When a huge story happens like this, you can’t get records usually until all civil and legal cases are closed,” Collister says. “So, mark your calendar with monthly reminders to check status. When all is closed, fire off open records requests for everything and you may get a great scoop.”

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In September of that year, following a series of records requests, Collister got his scoop: a 39-second video shot by Bland on her cell phone during her traffic stop. The video, which Collister obtained that month, captures Brian Encinia, a state trooper, drawing a stun gun on her at close range. “Get out of the car!” he shouts. “I will light you up!” Encinia tells her to get off the phone. Bland says “I have a right to record” before apparently complying with the demand. Bland was later taken into police custody and was discovered hanging from her jail cell three days later. Her death was ruled a suicide. Following the arrest, Encinia told investigators he feared for his safety during the traffic stop, according to The Associated Press. The Bland family’s attorney told the wire service that the video contradicts that narrative.

“Literally if you’ve seen that clip you feel like you’re looking at this guy through her own eyeball,” Collister says. But his station wasn’t so enthusiastic about the video. “I showed it to my news director at the time at KXAN and he didn’t think it was newsworthy at the time,” Collister says. He left KXAN a few months later, but filed a second request for the same video clip; he left the first copy at his former station.

 

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In June, Collister announced his own nonprofit newsroom, Investigative Network, which he aspirationally refers to as “the Propublica of video.” He amassed a group of journalists based in Austin to do investigative journalism that they plan to license out to news organizations.  

Investigative Network’s first project, Collister decided, would be making the Bland video public. He says the video is part of a larger documentary project about racial profiling, but Investigative Network decided to release the excerpt when he realized even Bland’s family members hadn’t seen the footage.

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“We started talking to [Bland’s] family members last fall,” Collister says. “We discovered that the lawyer and the family were like, Where the hell did you get that? That’s how we realized that, according to the family, it has been withheld from them in discovery in the federal lawsuit.”

Collister brought the video to WFAA, a Tegna-owned ABC-affiliate. The station aired the clip Monday evening, and has since been picked up by virtually every major news outlet. WFAA’s report notes that Bland’s family has called for the criminal investigation into Bland’s arrest and death to be reopened.  

In a statement to the AP, the Texas DPS disputed claims that the video had not previously been released, saying it was given to attorneys representing Bland’s family in a hard drive. The department also said the video was publicly released in 2017 when it was released to an Austin TV station. DPS did not respond to a request about whether that station was KXAN, Collister’s former employer.

KXAN also provided CJR a statement, in which it disputes Collister’s account of how the station handled the video. “We directed Brian to work toward a story with the video, but it did not come to fruition before his employment ended in January 2018,” KXAN Vice President and General Manager Eric Lassberg writes. “The station does not have possession of the video.” A story about the video’s release by KXAN does not mention Collister.

Collister says the Investigative Network, which he used his savings to start, has more stories of national interest in the pipeline. He hopes upcoming stories will help the organization land funding and even launch bureaus in other cities. At present, Collister and two photographers who are also editors are the only paid reporters, but he hopes that will change in the future. “We’re going to use the nonprofit funding model to get up and running,” he says, “and then we believe we will find sustainability in the revenue generated in the licensing fees from the video platforms.” He adds, “We’re trying to make docu-journalism, something that looks and feels like Netflix but has journalistic standards, accountability questions, a storyteller.”

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Justin Ray is the digital media editor of Columbia Journalism Review. Follow him on Twitter @jray05.