That’s only part of this tragic story.
Waller County prosecutors said Thursday that a preliminary autopsy found that Sandra Bland committed suicide, but they pledged to continue investigating the circumstances surrounding her controversial arrest by a state trooper as well as her death in a county jail cell.
“The pathological findings … conclude that the cause of death was hanging and the manner of death was a suicide,” Assistant District Attorney Warren Diepraam said at a news conference focused on the forensic findings so far. “The evidence that we’ve reviewed up to this point supports those findings … However this is an ongoing investigation.”
Prosecutors also confirmed that a screening test had revealed marijuana in the system of the 28-year-old Bland at the time of her death on July 13, and a catalogue of injuries that included some 30 healing cuts on her forearm that may have been self-inflicted two to four weeks before she died.
But Diepraam repeatedly stressed that none of the injuries found on Bland’s body was consistent with a struggle. Some relatives have disputed the notion that Bland committed suicide, a death that occurred against the backdrop of a growing national movement to end police violence against African-Americans.
“At this particular time, I have not seen any evidence that indicates this was a homicide,” Diepraam said.
After the district attorney’s office released details from the autopsy report, the sheriff’s office in the rural county west of Houston released its own statement, which said that Bland had never been placed on suicide watch. The sheriff’s office on Wednesday released intake forms showing that Bland had told police after her arrest that she had attempted suicide in 2014 with pills following a miscarriage and that she had previously struggled with depression.
At Thursday’s news conference, District Attorney Elton Mathis generally steered clear of discussing the jail’s handling of Bland. But asked by CNN a day earlier if the sheriff’s office should have taken more precautions, he said, “It does appear she indicated to the sheriff’s office she’d tried to kill herself at least once. From a commonsense standpoint, I would think that would be something that would of course be important by jail commission standards when assessing inmates for potential care once they come under the control of the jail.”
You can find a copy of the autopsy report here. Sandra Bland’s family is pursuing its own postmortem, and we’ll see what comes of that. Whatever the case, let’s be clear about a few things.
Sandra Bland should never have been in jail in the first place.
As the video of Sandra Bland’s arrest makes its way into homes and offices around the country, people are aghast that the failure to use a turn signal led to a woman’s arrest and, ultimately, her death by what officials have identified as suicide. People want to know if the officer’s actions—asking that Bland put out her cigarette and demanding that she step out of her car—were legal. But that’s the wrong question. Instead, we should be asking whether it was good policing.
As a former police officer, and now as a legal scholar who studies policing, I know the law is not a moral compass. An officer’s actions can be entirely lawful, and yet fail to meet the high standards that we should expect from our law enforcement professionals, our community guardians. When we focus on whether the police acted lawfully, we are missing the chance to ask whether they acted appropriately. As I watch the dash camera video of the traffic stop, I can’t help but think of the distinction between lawful policing and rightful policing.
It is right here that Encinia has an opportunity to alleviate some of the tension of the encounter. He could, for example, thank her for moving out of the way, but explain how important signaling is, especially near an intersection. He could let her know that he has written her a warning, not a ticket (a fact that does not become clear until much later in the encounter). He could try to connect with her on a personal level, perhaps by telling her that he’d hate to welcome her to Texas with a traffic ticket.
In short, he has a chance to engage with Bland in a way that reduces antagonism and builds goodwill. It isn’t hard, and can be summed up in three words: Receive, respect, respond. Receive what someone is telling you, respect their position, and respond appropriately.
But he doesn’t. Instead, Encinia is silent. A couple of seconds pass. Then he says, “Are you done?” Those three short words send a powerful signal: “What you said does not matter.” This is the first failure in this encounter. It is not a legal failure—there is no law that requires officers to meaningfully engage with people—but it is a failure nonetheless. It is a missed opportunity for good policing.
As you know, I agree with that assessment.
But let’s say you think the officer’s conduct was acceptable and the arrest was justified. In that case, Sandra Bland should not have been in jail for as long as she was.
The reason Sandra Bland was still in jail three days after being arrested was that she hadn’t posted the $5,000 bond that had been set for her by a Waller County, Texas judge. Posting that bond would have required Bland to come up with $500—10 percent of the full sum—in exchange for her freedom. According to a lawyer for the Bland family, they were working on securing the necessary funds when Bland was found dead in her cell on the morning of July 13.
If Bland had been able to pay her bail on the spot, she would have been released immediately following her arraignment, which took place on Saturday, July 11, the day after she was pulled over on a traffic violation and detained for allegedly assaulting a police officer. A representative for the Waller County Sheriff’s Office told me they could have processed Bland’s bail at any time Saturday or Sunday.
The point of bail is to make sure that someone who has been accused of a crime appears in court when the time comes for a judge to hear her case. The money acts as an insurance policy for the judicial system: If you show up for your court date, the money is returned to you. If you don’t appear, you have to pay the court the full amount of your bond. How much you’re required to pay in bail up front is supposed to be based on whether a judge or a magistrate considers a defendant a flight risk, and whether he believes the defendant to be dangerous.
In practice, the bail system is particularly hard on poor people, who frequently get stuck behind bars because they can’t afford to post bond, while those with greater means pay their bail and go home. According to one study, five out of six people in jail are there because they could not afford to pay their bail.
That’s a problem in a lot of jails, including and especially Harris County, where we continue to tolerate judges who lock up scads of people who haven’t been convicted of anything and aren’t a danger to anyone. It’s a nationwide problem, which we’re just beginning to talk about.
But suppose you think that $5K was a reasonable bail for the charge in question. In that case, we come back to the failure of oversight at the jail, which is a problem not just for Waller County.
When Sandra Bland was booked at the Waller County Jail, she told the staff she had attempted suicide before — a staff, it turns out, who had not been sufficiently trained on how to safeguard the well-being of inmates who are mentally ill, suicidal or pose a risk to themselves.
Three days later, the 28-year-old was found dead in her cell — an apparent suicide, according to a Harris County autopsy. Now, mental health watchdogs and advocates for criminal justice reform are sounding the alarm, saying Bland’s case spotlights deficiencies in jail monitoring and oversight that can sometimes have deadly consequences.
Had Bland’s jailers followed through on mental health training and complied with minimum state standards for inmate monitoring — including checking on her at least once an hour — they might have been better prepared to prevent her apparent suicide, mental heath advocates and criminal justice experts said. But they said the lack of sufficient mental health training for jail staff is widespread in Texas.
With an annual budget of about $1 million, the watchdog agency that sets standards for the state’s disparate network of 244 county and private jails employs four people to inspect those local lockups each year, and one inspector to respond to inmate complaints. The agency is chronically underfunded and understaffed, experts say, meaning citations for jails found out of compliance often come only after a tragedy.
The commission’s annual budget is, in many cases, one-third those of comparable agencies in other large states, The Texas Tribune has found. Its much smaller staff of inspectors, until recently, had to share motel rooms because of a limited travel budget.
“I think any advocate would tell you that the jail commission is not adequately resourced to do the kind of preventative inspections that we would like for them to do,” said Matt Simpson, a senior policy strategist at the ACLU of Texas.
The great irony here is that Texas is actually exceptional for having such a commission in the first place – most states don’t. It just doesn’t have the resources it needs to do the job, and as we’ve already discussed, that job is made harder by the presence of so many people who shouldn’t be in jail in the first place.
The system failed Sandra Bland in a lot of ways, and I haven’t even touched on any of the racial aspects of her case. I’ll leave you to find writers who are smarter and better informed than I am to tackle that subject, which deserves all the attention it’s getting. There are many things we must do to prevent future tragedies like Sandra Bland’s and ensure that we live up to our own ideals about everyone being equal. I’m just highlighting a few of the obvious ones.