First things first: It’s still unclear how Sandra Bland died. The official story on the 28-year-old activist is that she committed suicide in Waller County jail after she was arrested on charges of assaulting a public servant. Bland was initially pulled over on suspicion of changing lanes without a signal, and died shortly before she was due to be released on bail. The story is still pretty murky, but in the days since her death made national headlines, we’ve learned a few things.
Bland’s Family Attorney Disputes The Justification For Her Arrest
The dashcam footage from Bland’s traffic stop has yet to be released, though reports say that it could be made public Tuesday. In the meantime, we know two conflicting stories surrounding Bland’s arrest — one from the police who arrested her, and one from her family’s attorney.
The police account of what happens claims that, after Bland was stopped and asked to step out of her car, she became combative. The official report filed by the state trooper who arrested Bland claims that she swung her elbows and kicked him.
If that’s true, the attorney representing Bland’s family — who has seen the dashcam footage — says that the encounter wasn’t captured on camera. Instead, according to attorney Cannon Lambert, the footage shows an officer demanding that Bland put out her cigarette as he’s handing her a written warning, and then opening her car door and pointing a Taser at her. According to Lambert and a pastor in Baltimore who claims to have seen the footage, the recording does not show Bland attacking the officer at any point.
At a time when police credibility is perceived as low, and in a case where friends and family doubt the official story, a lot hinges on whether the dashcam video shows what the arresting officer claims happened.
The Investigation Into Bland’s Death Is Being Treated Like A Murder By The District Attorney’s Office
The top prosecutor in Waller County announced yesterday that the case would be investigated like a murder—a far cry from, “I do not have any information that would make me think it was anything other than just a suicide,” which is what District Attorney Elton Mathis said in the immediate aftermath of Bland’s death.
That statement doesn’t mean that the DA believes that Bland’s death was a homicide, necessarily — rather, it’s a reflection of how Mathis’ office plans to handle the investigation, which he says will include presenting findings to a grand jury.
The use of grand juries to determine whether or not to prosecute police has been criticized, especially in recent months as police violence has attracted more headlines. And the grand jury system in Texas—which recently underwent a change in how it operates—has come under fire itself in the way it potentially prejudices grand jurors in favor of police. As the Houston Chronicle reported last year, for example, grand jurors in Harris County would be tasked with literally seeing the world through a cop’s eyes before hearing evidence.
Grand jurors, whose duties include reviewing police shootings, play the role of police officer in the simulations by using a modified gun to shoot a beam at the screen.
The use of the shooting simulator, which was not widely known until a Houston Chronicle investigation, has prompted questions among defense attorneys and civil rights activists about whether it could prejudice grand juries. Harris County grand juries have cleared HPD officers in shootings 288 consecutive times.
At this point, it’s too early to tell what “investigated as a murder” really means—and whether that will have an impact on what Mathis’ office finds.
The Video From Near Her Cell Doesn’t Show Anyone Going In
As we stressed up at the top here, we don’t know what happened to Bland. Regardless of how unlikely her family considers that possibility to be, the official story could be accurate. And though new details that have emerged regarding the morning of her death have made some possibilities seem less likely, they don’t necessarily validate the official story that Bland committed suicide.
The New York Times reported on the Waller County sheriff’s office’s timeline of what happened, which included video from a hallway near her cell. (That video doesn’t show her door or inside of her cell.)
A Waller County sheriff’s official described a timeline for the jail cell of the woman, Sandra Bland, that started early in the morning of July 13, when she refused a breakfast tray around 6:30 a.m., until a jailer found her hanging shortly after 9 a.m. For about 90 minutes during that period, there was no movement by jail officials in the hallway leading to her cell, according to a video that the authorities released from a camera inside the jail.
Capt. Brian Cantrell of the Waller County Sheriff’s Office said that Ms. Bland replied “I’m fine” when a jailer was conducting rounds shortly after 7 a.m. and later inquired about how to make a phone call. But shortly after 9 a.m., a female jailer saw Ms. Bland hanging in her cell and summoned help. Other officers and emergency medical personnel tried unsuccessfully to administer CPR.
The death of Ms. Bland has set off protests and calls for a federal investigation from her relatives and supporters, who have sharply disputed the official ruling by the Harris County medical examiner that her death was a suicide. They said Ms. Bland, who was black, was a vocal opponent of police brutality, and they have requested an independent autopsy.
According to the LA Times, the videos will be analyzed by the FBI to ensure that the gaps in the tape, of which there are several, are a result of the cameras’ motion-activation process and not tampering. If that’s true, then we can conclude that it’s a lot less likely that anybody got into Bland’s cell that morning.
It’s worth noting that the question isn’t just if she was killed by someone in her cell or if she committed suicide. It’s also about what condition she was in at the time she was locked up, and how was she treated once she was in there. The answer is going to take some time to come out, but the attention focused on the case over the past week has made it seem much more likely that we will, in time, learn the truth — whatever it might be.
(Karen Warren/Houston Chronicle via AP)