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.