Why would a woman with a promising new job kill herself after she was arrested over an argument for a minor traffic violation? That's the question on friends and family members' minds after police said Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old black woman, killed herself in a Texas jail cell on July 13.
Months later, on December 21, a grand jury decided not to indict anyone in her death, but special prosecutor Darrell Jordan said jurors will reconvene in January to discuss other aspects of the case.
The mysterious death came after police pulled Bland over for failing to signal when changing lanes and arrested her, they claim, for allegedly assaulting a cop. Three days later she was found dead in her jail cell, in what officials — citing video evidence and an autopsy report — have called a suicide.
But family, friends, and social media activists do not believe the story. In August, Bland's family filed a lawsuit pinning her "wrongful death" on the Texas trooper who pulled her over and various Texas agencies.
Some of the distrust is based on the circumstances of Bland's death — but, more broadly, the skepticism shows some of the wider distrust built up toward law enforcement over the past year of protests against police brutality.
Bland was pulled over for not signaling when changing lanes
Bland, a Chicago native, went to Texas to take a job as a student ambassador to the alumni association at Prairie View A&M University, a historically black university from which she graduated in 2009.
On July 10, a Texas trooper, Brian Encinia, pulled over Bland for allegedly failing to signal while changing lanes. A dashboard camera from the police car recorded the stop.
The video shows the stop was calm at first, but it escalated once the trooper asked Bland to put out a cigarette. Bland asked, "I'm in my car. Why do I have to put out my cigarette?" The trooper responded by asking her to get out of the car. When Bland didn't comply, Encinia opened her car door and attempted to pull her out. When that didn't work, Encinia pulled out his stun gun, aimed it at Bland, and said, "I will light you up." At that point, Bland got out of the car.
Encinia then arrested Bland off-camera. Bland can be heard insulting Encinia, and complaining that he was treating her roughly. Encinia said — again, off-camera — that Bland was resisting arrest. A female trooper apparently joins Encinia sometime during the arrest, and helps him.
"You just slammed me, knocked my head to the ground," Bland told Encinia. "I got epilepsy, you motherfucker."
"Good," Encinia said. "Good."
Encinia can be heard telling another trooper in the video that Bland "started yanking away, then kicked me, so I took her straight to the ground." The dashcam video and another video of the arrest taken by a bystander never show Bland attacking Encinia, although it may have happened off-camera.
Investigators, whom the FBI is now aiding, found the trooper who pulled over Bland "violated the department's procedures regarding traffic stops and the department's courtesy policy." Authorities didn't provide additional details, including what policy the trooper violated.
Bland died in her jail cell, and police said it's a suicide
After the arrest, Bland was taken to the Waller County jail, allegedly for assaulting Encinia. She was found dead in her jail cell on July 13. Officials claim the death was suicide by hanging with a plastic bag.
The Harris County medical examiner claimed Bland's death was a suicide in an initial autopsy report, finding signs of a hanging and cutting scars but not the types of injuries that would suggest a violent struggle prior to a murder.
The lawyer for Bland's family told MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell that Texas officials had deemed the autopsy defective, and that officials wanted to conduct another autopsy. But Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis told Chicago-based WGN-TV that officials only wanted to run more tests to see if Bland had swallowed a large amount of marijuana before her death.
County investigators are looking into the death as thoroughly "as it would be in a murder investigation," Mathis said at a news conference, according to the Associated Press's Michael Graczyk. "It is very much too early to make any kind of determination that this was a suicide or a murder because the investigations are not complete," Mathis said, later adding that the case will go to a grand jury.
On July 27, Mathis announced that a special, independent committee will oversee the investigation into Bland's arrest and death. The group will be headed by Lewis White and Darrell Jordan, both of whom are criminal defense attorneys and have previous experience as prosecutors, the Houston Chronicle's Leah Binkovitz reported.
Bland may have had a troubled history. In a recent Facebook post, Bland said she was dealing with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. And she told jailers that she previously attempted suicide with pills after she lost a baby, according to booking documents.
Video released by local officials also shows a period of 90 minutes in which no one appears to go in or out of Bland's cell prior to her death. But the footage doesn't show the inside of Bland's cell or her cell door. Officials turned over hard drives of the footage to the FBI to determine if there are signs of manipulation, Brian Cantrell, head of the sheriff's department criminal investigation division, said at a press conference.
Still, family and friends said Bland was doing well. "I talked to her Friday [July 10], and she was in good spirits," LaVaughn Mosley, Bland's friend, told KHOU-TV's Alice Barr. "Although she was incarcerated, she was in good spirits. She was looking forward to posting bond Saturday and getting out. So you don't go from that to hanging yourself."
The region also has a history of racial tensions. In 2008, Sheriff Glenn Smith was fired from his job as police chief in Hempstead, which is in Waller County, by the city council after accusations of police misconduct against African Americans, according to the Houston Chronicle's Eric Hanson. Smith said the termination was politically motivated.
Bland's family's testimony, prior accusations of racism against the Waller County sheriff, and investigators' findings about the traffic stop have fueled skepticism about the case, leading the family to demand an independent autopsy, and a Change.org petition asking for the Department of Justice to step in. But even if Bland's death was a suicide, there's mounting evidence that the jail still failed her.
The Waller County jail failed to enforce several policies meant to prevent suicides
There's still much debate about whether Bland's death was a suicide. But we do know that the jail failed at several points to evaluate Bland's mental health, and suicides in local jails are common and often difficult to explain.
In Bland's case, the jail appeared to violate several policies. According to the Waller County sheriff's office, jailers didn't receive two hours of mental health training in the past year, and they didn't complete a visual face-to-face observation of Bland for more than 60 minutes. And the Texas jail oversight commission found that the jail should have conducted — but didn't — a court-ordered mental health exam once Bland indicated she tried to kill herself before, the Texas Tribune's Terri Langford reported.
That's particularly concerning because the suicide rate in local jails is nearly 3.7 times the national rate. In 2013, the rate in local jails was 46 per 100,000 inmates, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. But the rate among the US population was 12.6 per 100,000 people, according to the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention.
The high suicide rate in part reflects who's typically in jail, Nancy La Vigne, director of the Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center, explained. Incarcerated populations tend to have a much higher rate of mental health issues — diagnosed and undiagnosed — that can lead to suicide. "They're detained, conceivably, as a threat to themselves or others," she said. "A lot of police officers don't know of, aren't aware of, or perceive a lack of accessibility to resources or places in the community where they can take people who are not criminals per se but are disruptive and combative based on their mental illness. And instead they take people to jail because that's the easy thing to do."
But in some cases, people kill themselves in jail without a history of mental health issues, even sometimes when they're being held on minor charges. Why would jailed people kill themselves in this kind of situation? The Washington Post's Radley Balko talked to Lindsay Hayes, project director of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, to find out:
The mere trauma of sitting in a jail cell can be overwhelming, and this is particularly true for someone who has never been in one before. And that could explain the suicides by people who aren't facing serious charges.
"That it was an arrest for a minor crime may not matter. In fact a sense of injustice can only add to the emotional damage. Someone may be sitting in a cell for longer than they were supposed to be. So the walls start closing in. There's the uncertainty, of not knowing when you're going to get out. There's the loss of control. You're cut off from family and friends. And it's all beyond your control. That can be really difficult, especially for someone who hasn't experienced it before."
To address the high suicide rates, experts say jails could adopt better intake screening, better monitoring, and better access to mental health professionals. But many jails don't have the right policies or, when they do, take the measures seriously enough.
"There are certainly going to be cases in which a suicide is a complete mystery, where there were no risks present," Hayes told Balko, referring to jail suicides in general. "But most of the time, these suicides could have been prevented. If you peel back the onion, you usually find that there was unmentioned information that should have been discovered."
Still, the Waller County jail's failures and high rate of suicides in correctional facilities doesn't explain all of the anger and distrust surrounding Bland's case. For many, the issues go much further — rooted in a much deeper discontent with racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
High-profile police killings have fueled distrust against law enforcement
Since the deaths of black men like Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Eric Garner in New York City, and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, racial disparities in police use of force and the criminal justice system in general have received heightened attention. And in some cases — such as the police shooting of Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina — the initial police account greatly conflicted with what video footage later proved happened, fostering even more distrust in the police.
These concerns aren't necessarily new in black communities, which have complained about mistreatment by police for decades. But the high-profile police killings have brought mainstream media attention to the issue.
For example, black people were roughly 31 percent more likely to be pulled over than their white counterparts in 2011, according to a 2013 analysis by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. About 12.8 percent of black drivers were reportedly pulled over, compared with 9.8 percent of white drivers and 10.4 percent of Hispanic drivers.
This is only one of many examples of racial disparities in the criminal justice system. In the past year, much of the scrutiny of police has focused on disproportionate use of force and arrests: