By Alan Bean
Over a month has passed since Sandra Bland died in a Waller County jail, the story shows no sign of disappearing. The incident sparked national outrage when video of Bland’s arrest showed state trooper Brian Encinia intentionally escalating the drama with a justifiably angry Ms. Bland, threatening to “light you up” with his taser, then, once she steps out of her vehicle, throwing her to the ground with so much force that she temporarily lost her hearing. Bland was then charged with assaulting an officer and hauled off to jail. But none of this would have attracted much attention if Sandra Bland hadn’t turned up dead three days later.
Questions abound. Why, a month after his bizarre display of criminally awful police work, has officer Encinia been returned to routine patrol work? Why hasn’t he been fired and charged with assault? Even Donald Trump was appalled by Encinia’s police work–and when the Donald thinks an officer’s behavior is appalling attention must be paid. Trump is an international authority on awful behavior.
People are still asking what really happened inside Sandra Bland’s jail cell? Did she really hang herself with a trash bag? And if not, what alternative explanations are on offer?
And questions have been raised about the men charged with investigating officer Encinia (District Attorney Elton Mathis) and Bland’s peculiar death (Waller County Sheriff, Glenn Smith). Can DA Mathis watch the video of officer Encinia’s aggressive, unprofessional and ultimately criminal treatment of Ms. Bland and conclude the DPS officer did everything by the book?
And what are we to make of Glenn Smith, the bellicose sheriff who, just this week, told a United Methodist Pastor in town to investigate the case to “go back to your Church of Satan.” Smith also had a tree cut down to ensure that protesters would feel the full force of triple digit heat. Can this latter day Bull Conner be trusted with the investigation of the Bland case?
Finally, why have the Democratic presidential candidates had such a tough time responding to the Sandra Bland tragedy? And why have the GOP candidates, with the exception of Mr. Trump and Rand Paul, ignored the story altogether? Might this reluctance to engage explain the anger of the Black Lives Matter activists who have disrupted some of Bernie Sanders’ campaign events and have recently turned their ire on Jeb Bush?
Bernie Sanders fans point to the Senator’s involvement in the civil rights movement in the 1960s, long before the Black Lives Matter folks were born. Its great that the senator cares about civil rights; but the Sandra Bland case is not your father’s Oldsmobile. The issues have changed and politicians, it would seem, have not.
Thus far, none of these questions have been answered satisfactorily, but enterprising journalists have shed some light on this case and this post will highlight some of the best work.
Sandra Bland’s purported suicide is a tough nut. Why would a woman in Bland’s position take her own life? On the other hand, why would anyone in the prison want to kill her, and if motive existed, why did the autopsy turn up no obvious signs of a struggle.
Radley Balko was so perplexed by these questions that he did a little digging into the vexed subject of jailhouse suicide and what he discovered may surprise you.
- The rate of jail suicides is about three times the rate of prison suicides. This seems surprising, given that people in jails are generally facing less serious charges, and less time incarcerated.
- In the mid-1980s, 3 out of four people who committed suicide in jail were facing nonviolent charges. That dropped to about 56 percent in 2006.
- Still, according to most recent data, about a fifth of people who kill themselves in jail are facing what the Bureau of Justice Statistics calls “minor charges.”
White people who have never been in trouble with the law are disproportionately likely to commit suicide in jail, Balko found, possibly because the experience is unexpected and difficult to process emotionally. The fact that, as in the case of Sandra Bland, jail inmates believe they are being treated unjustly actually increases the risk of suicide.
Balko also found that inmates who are treated with contempt by jail personnel are more likely to take their own lives.
None of this means that Sandra Bland did commit suicide; but the mere fact that suicide “makes no sense” doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. The phenomenon is little understood and requires more attention than it has received. But Balko doubts much will change in that regard:
The odd thing is, once it’s determined that these deaths were suicides and not lynchings or homicides, they seem to fade from the public interest. Perhaps suicide just isn’t as interesting. But it ought to bother us. People jailed for a short period of time over a minor offense shouldn’t become so despondent that they take their own lives. (For that matter, we shouldn’t be comfortable with people jailed for more serious crimes taking their lives, either.)
An excellent piece in The Atlantic delves into the racial history of Waller County. Should it matter that this part of deep east Texas is infamous for lynch-law and racial oppression? David A. Graham thinks it does.
Waller County was a beacon of Black progress and opportunity during Reconstruction, he points out, but the influx of European immigrants in the late 19th century and the advent of Jim Crow changed all that. Black residents may have retained a numerical majority, but voting suppression techniques such as “white-only primaries” left African Americans disenfranchised.
The fight to maintain white political supremacy goes on. In recent years, including the period when Sandra Bland was a student at Prairie View A&M, local officials ruled that students at the school had to vote in their communities of origin. Since the local historically black college is a big fish in a small electoral pond, this ruling determined whether Black Lives Mattered in Waller County and Sandra Bland was deeply involved in the successful struggle for voting rights. (All of this was undoubtedly on Sandra’s mind when Brian Encinia pulled her over and accounts for her adversarial stance).
In other words, we are dealing with an odd twist on the town-gown tension that exists in most college towns, only this time the educated college folks are Black and the hicks from the sticks are White. Listening to Sheriff Glenn Smith attempting to socialize with the Rev. Hannah Bonner will give you a good feel for the man’s capacities:
Yesterday, I wrote that the swift and decisive response of public officials in Arlington, Texas effectively defused a potentially explosive police shooting. It is becoming obvious that Waller County officials are reading from a very old script and that means the Sandra Bland story won’t be going away.