Police say Sandra Bland was pulled over by a Texas officer Friday, July 10, for failing to signal before changing lanes. Three days later, she was found dead in her jail cell. Friends, family members, and activists have launched a campaign to challenge the sheriff's office's account that the 28-year-old black woman committed suicide, and to demand answers about how she died and who is responsible.
Details of Bland's life, and the insistence of people who knew her that she would not have killed herself — combined with a backdrop of well-documented police misconduct against African Americans — help fuel intense skepticism of the official version of events.
Why law enforcement's story isn't trusted by the public
Police say Bland, a Chicago native who had recently moved to Texas to start a job as a college outreach officer, assaulted the officer who pulled her over during a routine traffic stop, Chicago's ABC-7 reports. Waller County Sheriff's office has said an autopsy determined that she later died in jail from "what appears to be self-inflicted asphyxiation."
Bland's friends have told reporters that things were going well for her and that she wouldn't harm herself, but that's not the only reason the case has drawn national attention. The police account hasn't been widely accepted, in part because it comes in the wake of a string of high-profile cases of African-American deaths at the hands of police officers — cases in which it took video footage to draw attention to what was later deemed misconduct to help prove that the officers' accounts were dishonest.
Just to name a few: There's Walter Scott, who was shot in the back by a Charleston, South Carolina, officer as he ran away, unarmed; 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was just killed seconds after a Cleveland officer approached him at the park where he played with a toy gun; and Baltimore's Freddie Gray, , who was thrown into the back of a police van while shackled, and later died of spinal cord injuries. That's to say nothing of the police officers who were caught on camera hitting Texas woman Brenda Hardaway, who told them she was pregnant, the California highway patrolman who beat 51-year-old grandmother Marlene Pinnock, or the cop seen manhandling a bikini-clad teenage girl at a McKinney, Texas, pool party in a video that went viral because of the over-the-top response.
Combine those with the Justice Department's report on Ferguson, Missouri, that found written evidence of racism by police and court officers and documented a widespread pattern of discrimination against African Americans in the city, the more recently released outrageously racist text messages by San Francisco cops, and the mountains of evidence about the way racial bias affects police treatment of African Americans, and it's not hard to understand the widespread assumption that Bland's death involved foul play that officials are now working to cover up.
ABC 7 released video of her arrest, which shows one officer on top of her and several officers restraining her as she screams that she's been hurt and questions why they are being so rough. But there's not yet any jail cell footage that could explain what happened between this time and when she was found dead three days later.
The campaign for answers, and the investigations
A statement released by law firm representing Bland's family reads, "The family of Sandra Bland is confident that she was killed and did not commit suicide. The family has retained counsel to investigate Sandy's death." A relative has asked Twitter users to use the hashtag #JusticeForSandra "so that our family cam get justice for her."
Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis has acknowledged the concerns of those who say she would not have committed suicide and suspect that her death involved foul play by law enforcement authorities.
"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," he said.
An earlier statement from the sheriff's office statement said "any loss of life is a tragic incident," and announced that an investigation was being conducted by outside agencies, ABC 7 reports. A Change.org petition demands that the Department of Justice conduct an independent autopsy.