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What happened to Sandra Bland?

This is horrible.

Sandra Bland

There are big questions about the final hours of Sandra Bland’s life. The official story is that the 28-year old committed suicide by hanging herself in a Waller County jail cell. Her family doesn’t buy it.

Bland, a black woman who graduated from Texas Prairie View A&M and had recently accepted a new job at the university, didn’t seem to her friends and family to be a suicide risk. And as ABC 7 in Chicago reported (Bland was originally from nearby Naperville), many have disputed the official story. “The Waller County Jail is trying to rule her death a suicide and Sandy would not have taken her own life,” longtime friend LaNitra Dean told the station. “Sandy was strong. Strong mentally and spiritually.”

We don’t know what happened in Bland’s cell, but we know that her initial encounter with police was contentious. Bland was pulled over Friday after she failed to signal a lane change. According to the Chicago Tribune, officials said Bland was about to drive off with a warning before she kicked the officer.

A bystander who observed the incident on University Drive in Prairie View filmed the arrest. It’s not easy to watch.

In the video, we see Bland in the prone position while a deputy pins her to the ground. She screams to the witness and asks the policemen why they’re hurting her. (According to police brutality activist Shaun King on Twitter, the witness says that Bland was pulled out of the car through her window.)

It’s unclear what danger the officers arresting an unarmed woman felt that they were in. Usually, failing to signal a lane change isn’t an offense that ends in handcuffs. (She was ultimately arrested for “assault on a public servant,” though the details of her alleged assault are similarly unclear.) It does, of course, come on the heels of other incidents in which police have deployed surprising amounts of force against Texans — particularly Texans of color — in recent months. In fact, police killed a man during a routine traffic stop similar to Bland’s.

[…]

The Texas Rangers are investigating Bland’s death now, and it may not end there. A Change.org petition launched Thursday morning urging the U.S. Justice Department to take over the investigation already has 5,000 signatures, and the DoJ has demonstrated a willingness to investigate situations like this in other high-profile deaths involving black citizens and the police.

In the meantime, #SandraBland has become a trending topic on Twitter, and that seems to have changed the way her death is being discussed in Waller. Yesterday, Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis told ABC 7, “I do not have any information that would make me think it was anything other than just a suicide.” Today, speaking to KPRC in Houston, he was more thoughtful:

“I will admit it is strange someone who had everything going for her would have taken her own life,” he told NBC station KPRC in Houston. “That’s why it’s very important a thorough investigation is done and that we get a good picture of what Ms. Bland was going through the last four or five days of her life.”

“If there was something nefarious, or if there was some foul play involved, we’ll get to the bottom of that,” Mathis added.

There are a lot of eyes on Waller County right now, and someone will hopefully find the truth.

The Trib adds some details.

An autopsy classified the death as suicide by hanging, Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences spokeswoman Tricia Bentley told The Post, and the sheriff’s office statement said it appeared to be from “self-inflicted asphyxiation.”

“The family of Sandra Bland is confident that she was killed and did not commit suicide,” Bland’s family said in a statement sent to the Tribune by the law firm they hired. “The family has retained counsel to investigate Sandy’s death.”

At the press conference, another of Bland’s sisters said that the two had a telephone conversation after Bland was taken into custody. Shante Needham said Bland was “very aggravated,” and thought she had broken her arm, according to the AP.

The Texas Rangers, an investigative arm of the state’s Department of Public Safety, are investigating the death. Additionally, the Department of Public Safety said it has asked for the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s assistance.

“At this time, the joint investigation by the Texas Rangers and the FBI is ongoing,” the release stated.

Shauna Dunlap, a spokeswoman for the FBI’s office in Houston, told the Houston Chronicle in an email that the agency would be “monitoring the local investigation until it is complete.”

“Once the local process takes its course, the FBI reviews all of the evidence and if warranted could pursue a federal investigation,” she wrote.

[…]

In his Facebook statement, Mathis, the district attorney, said his office “is actively consulting with and monitoring the investigation being conducted by the Texas Rangers into Ms. Bland’s death. Once the investigation is complete the matter will be turned over to a Waller County grand jury for any further proceedings deemed appropriate by them.”

He added: “Please allow us to do our jobs, and rest assured that Ms. Bland’s death is receiving the scrutiny it deserves.”

I certainly hope so. Everyone is watching, that’s for sure. You can click on that top link to see the video. There’s plenty of questions about what happened once Ms. Bland was in jail, but the questions begin with what happened at that traffic stop. How does someone get arrested – never mind carted off to jail – for failing to use a turn signal? Half of Houston would be incarcerated right now if the police here enforced that. And then there’s this:

Hempstead Police Chief R. Glenn Smith, who was fired last month by elected city officials, is now the Republican Party’s nominee for Waller County sheriff.

Smith easily won in a runoff Tuesday, defeating Joseph “Joey” Williams 801 to 544, and will face Democrat Jeron Barnett in the November election.

Smith, 49, blamed his dismissal on small-town politics.

“In my opinion some of them possibly had an agenda for somebody else who is running for sheriff,” Smith said Thursday.

However, some in the community say the dismissal stems from incidents involving police misconduct toward African-Americans.

[…]

Activist Herschel Smith said many Hempstead residents expressed concerns about police conduct. He said two incidents that sparked worries involved a mistaken drug raid and a strip search conducted on area youths by Hempstead police.

Link via Daily Kos and Mic. Glenn Smith is now the Sheriff of Waller County. Maybe the one doesn’t have anything to do with the other, but with all that’s been happening, now and forever, there’s no benefit of the doubt to accrue. Sandra Bland and everyone else deserves a real answer. See #WhatHappenedToSandraBland on Facebook for more.

UPDATE: Here’s the Chron story.

UPDATE: The Press has more.

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8 Comments

  1. Steven Houston says:

    An awful lot of people are rushing to judgement that she couldn’t have committed suicide, she was too strong or the circumstances were suspicious. There are so many possibilities for what happened that any rush to a specific conclusion is foolish, any demand to find a specific conclusion fraught with peril. Contrary to the opinion of some, the feds have scrutinized many deaths in the past and their conclusion was almost always perfectly aligned with what local investigators found, local grand juries surmised, and local district attorneys have ruled.

    That said, in my admittedly limited experience with such matters, no good ever came from kicking a law enforcement officer of any sort, EVER, never mind a Texas Trooper (though he wasn’t present when she allegedly killed herself). But all lives matter regardless of color so hopefully the investigation shows something that might help it all make sense, her stated depression and PTSD a possible start…

  2. Leigh Williams says:

    There’s no evidence that she kicked him. Do you routinely take the word of law enforcement officials who are filled assaulting a citizen at face value?

  3. matx says:

    The officer who arrested her has been put on desk duty because according to the news yesterday, there were at least a few instances he didn’t follow protocol during the stop / arrest. They didn’t enumerate them, but it has been widely reported he pulled Ms. Bland through her car window, so I am going to assume that is one thing that got him put on desk duty.

    The traffic stop turned into an altercation between two people. The officer was also responsible for escalating it, and he is supposed to be a professional when dealing with this stuff. Ms. Bland cannot have been the first person he ever pulled over to be uncooperative and he obviously did not arrest every single one.

    I have been pulled over in Houston and I couldn’t find my TDL – the officer let me rummage around in my big ass purse and even dump it out and check my glove compartment and between and under my car seats. I couldn’t find it even then, although it was in there. I just got my traffic citation, drove off and wasn’t even late to work: I didn’t get yanked out of my car and searched or hauled into jail, but if you think I don’t wonder what could have happened if I wasn’t a middle aged white woman, you would be wrong.

  4. Steven Houston says:

    Maxt, when an event becomes news on the scale of a case like this, DPS and other agencies often place someone on desk duty for their own safety. Just as it has been “widely reported” that Ms. Bland was the only one screaming (before she was removed from the vehicle) and likewise reported that she was non-compliant with his order to get out of the vehicle, further reported that she kicked him.

    As you say, it seems very unlikely that the trooper has treated many people in such a manner, either as the victim of an assault or for lack of cooperation. I suspect the trooper has never HAD to treat many people like that since most people being stopped for a traffic violation discuss the events in a reasonable manner, show their TDL and other paperwork, and are either given a warning or let go, some getting a ticket. Witness accounts so far tell us that Ms. Bland was screaming from in the car enough to bring her to the attention of others nearby, something that seems a bit excessive to begin with. Yelling at someone who has the legal authority to negatively impact you definitely escalates a matter, as does kicking that person.

    So for me, there are two separate things that need to be looked at in as much detail as possible: the death in the jail three days later which the trooper would have nothing to do with other than the initial arrest, and the events of the traffic stop that started with the trooper’s belief she did not signal, a perfectly legitimate reason for the trooper to interact with Ms. Bland, that ended up with her arrest. Jails are notorious for not following “best possible practices” because they are rarely funded to the level needed for such accommodations. A big issue with that though flies in the face of the family and activists claims that Ms. Bland was completely mentally stable and not a suicide threat. I’m curious as to what the jail’s intake staff base the decision to label her as possibly suicidal, other than the fact that she would (allegedly) fight with a DPS trooper. That will all come to light soon enough.

    Regarding the traffic stop, it is common knowledge that someone refusing to get out of their car for a trooper is going to get out of the car one way or another. The difference between your situation and one such as this (as alleged) is that you cooperated and presumably acted in a manner most would expect. I’m willing to guess that as you looked for your TDL, you verbalized what you were going to do and posed little realistic threat to the officer. Had you started screaming at him and acting in an unusual manner, that could easily have changed almost instantly. Given troopers are not particularly likely to pull people out of their car windows or throw them around without at least SOME provocation, both this trooper’s past record and his actions that day need to be scrutinized too. That doesn’t mean for one second that any of the activist allegations are credible or even likely but like any other accusation of misconduct, it needs to be examined.

  5. Ross says:

    Pulling someone over for failing to signal a lane change reeks of a pretext stop, given that approximately 0.005% of drivers in this state signal lane changes. Police are far too eager to force compliance with their orders, and a reasonable person would have inferred from the screaming that Ms. Bland was having some sort of mental issue, and needed either a few minutes to settle down, or the officer required some assistance from someone with mental health training.

    My going in assumption these days is that a police officer testifying in a trial is no more credible than anyone else, and may, in fact, be less credible, due to their propensity to lie to support their actions.

  6. Steven Houston says:

    Ross, pretext stop or not, as long as we keep such laws on the books, it allows our agents to use them as a means of checking license, insurance, warrants, etc. Ms. Bland’s family and supporters are extremely vocal about her not having any sort of mental issues or “bad day” when the cop pulled her over, but I concur with you that something was probably going on with her. I’m guessing the policy violations the DPS spokesman referred to was along the lines of having a supervisor come to the location when she started screaming or something, nothing from the other deputies at the location found in a quick look online.

    As far as trials are concerned, I’ve always withheld judgement until hearing the facts of a specific case rather than assume either side is going to lie, even if it is clear the accused fighting a ticket virtually always has a different account of what they are accused of doing than the cop. If you were predisposed to believing the officer before hearing the facts at some point, you probably made a terrible juror given the rules of the court, just as you would now, making assumptions beforehand.

    Regardless, the knee jerk assumptions made so far often discount logic and the experiences of most people being stopped by police (of any sort). The trooper wasn’t alone the whole time and the other deputies assisting him in arresting the woman came from a different agency which will likely yield more information as details come out. But given the sheer number of traffic stops across the state and how few result in any form of altercation with largely reasonable motorists and cops does make me question some of the comments being made via social media…

  7. Bill Daniels says:

    Based on the police history presented in the NBC Chicago story Kuff provided, I am disappointed that Prarieview would have even hired this woman to interact with impressionable Texas college students. Don’t universities have a background check?

  8. […] here for some background. I am sure that dashcam video will be all over social media later today. The […]