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.
It seems the credibility of police in incidents where people are injured or die in their custody is lower now than at any point in recent history. That’s in part because often we accept one story from officials until a different one entirely emerges as the truth. When Sgt. James Brown died in the El Paso County Jail, police claimed that he experienced a medical emergency and was taken to a hospital where he died. That was until video evidence proved that police took no action to help Brown until he was already on the verge of death. The Baltimore police who held Freddie Gray in custody when he died in a police van claimed that his injuries were self-inflicted, but later the officers involved were indicted on homicide charges. Officials in Jasper characterized two officers brutally beating Keyarika Diggles as “unprofessional” before the awful video was made public.
The other reason that the relationship between police and the people they’re sworn to protect and serve has grown increasingly tense is that it’s involved a lot of dead civilians.
There have been 64 people killed by police in Texas so far in 2015, as of July 16. And of those killed by police in Texas, a disproportionate number of them are black. African-Americans make up just under 12 percent of the population of Texas, but they represent more than 20 percent of people killed by police.
The Guardian has an impressive searchable database of people killed by police in the U.S. in 2015, and it adds some context to those numbers. Most of the people killed are not unarmed, for example—of the 64 people killed in Texas so far this year, only 8 of them were unarmed. But those numbers are also illuminating in other ways: 26 of the 64 people killed in Texas are white, but only one of them was unarmed. Thirteen of them were black, and a total of four of them were unarmed. In other words, though only 3 percent of the white people killed by police were unarmed, a whopping 30 percent of the black people Texas police have killed so far this year have been unarmed.
In Texas, most unarmed people killed by police are killed by tasers, with gunshots a close second. But Jonathan Paul’s case could seem familiar to people following Bland’s story. Paul, who was arrested in March for throwing things out of a window, died in custody. A wrongful death lawsuit filed in May claims that Paul suffered injuries from detention officers who “are believed to have used excessive and undue force by physically restraining Jonathan Paul around the neck and compressing his airways, which caused him to stop breathing.”
Deaths in police custody aren’t exactly rare outside of Texas, either. Although Freddie Gray’s has garnered the most attention so far this year, he’s just one of 25 people in this country who died while being held by police. (72 percent of the people who die in police custody are people of color.) Several of the cases led to officers being fired, or even indicted.
These numbers provide some additional context for why what happened to Bland remains suspect to her friends and family. What we know for sure right now is that she was due to be released when she died, that she was about to start a new job, that she had been held and pinned to the ground by police during her initial arrest, and that she arrested in a county where the sheriff had been suspended for allegations of racism while serving in a previous position.
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.