What Happened to Sandra Bland?

The Waller County District Attorney says Sandra Bland’s death was a suicide, but her friends and family aren’t buying it.

By Alain StephensJuly 20, 2015 4:33 pm

Sandra Bland was pulled over for a traffic infraction by a state trooper in Waller County, Texas two Fridays ago. Three days after the arrest, the African-American woman was found dead in her cell. The Waller County District Attorney says everything points to a jailhouse suicide. Despite that official declaration, the case is drawing the attention of investigators. The series of events that lead to her death raise questions around racial profiling, police brutality and potential suicide. St. John Barned-Smith is a reporter for the Houston Chronicle, he’s been following the story.

It’s been eight days, and there are still a lot of questions that have not been answered yet, says Barned-Smith.  Even with the official declaration, there are many factors why skepticism still surrounds the account of what happened. “The national dialogue that sprung up in the last year over interactions between the African-American community and law enforcement, which has left several people dead, including high profile cases like Eric Garner or Michael Brown,” Barned-Smith says.

In Bland’s case, the video that surfaced raised a lot of questions from the public. She was initially arrested for assaulting the state trooper that pulled her over for failing to signal a lane change. According to the trooper, he gave her a written citation and then Bland became “uncooperative” and kicked him. At this point, she was transported to the Waller County jail, Barned-Smith says.

Last Friday, the Department of Protective Services issued a statement saying that the involved trooper had violated procedures and the department’s courtesy policy. But Barned-Smith says it’s not entirely clear what those violations are, Barned-Smith says.

Day three of Bland’s stay at Waller County Jail is still a bit of a mystery, says Barned-Smith. The DA said in a press conference that there is a camera in the jail, but it doesn’t show the inside of the jail cell.

The lack of surveillance is surprising, Barned-Smith says. In the last five years there have been about 140 deaths ruled as suicide in county jails alone. “By [ruling deaths] suicides, we’re talking about the official explanation of it,” he says.

The Bland case is getting so much attention because of the testimony of her friends and family, but also it reflects the larger climate of the situation. Bland was described as a “confident, vibrant woman” who was not the “kind of person that would commit suicide,” says Barned-Smith. She was also set to start a new job at Prairie View A&M, which was her alma mater.

There’s immense outrage over Bland’s death on social media and elsewhere, spurring hashtags like #JusticeForSandy and #WhatHappenedToSandraBland. As the conversation proliferates, the investigation continues.
Bland, like others in support of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, was very open on social media about the racism African-Americans face living in America. In one of her “Sandra Speaks” videos, Bland said, “We can’t help but get pissed off when it’s clear in situations that black life didn’t matter…. In the news that we’ve seen as of late, you can stand there, surrender to the cops, and still be killed.”