Questions Remain Unanswered in the Death of Sandra Bland Amidst Allegations of Attempted Suicide

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Sandra Bland
Sandra Bland

The case of Sandra Bland is still unresolved, as questions regarding the circumstances surrounding her arrest and her death remain murky. Now, jail officials claim the woman admitted to a past suicide attempt.

On July 10, Bland, 28, was stopped by a Texas state patrol officer in Waller County for an alleged failure to use her turn signal.  This occurred five days before the metro Chicago native was to begin her new job at her alma mater, Prairie View A&M University.  The officer allegedly arrested her for assaulting him, and took her to the county jail in Hempstead.  On July 13, Waller County officials claim she was found dead in her jail cell and concluded her death was a suicide by hanging.

The Guardian reported that Bland stated upon her arrival to the jail that she attempted suicide last year, but that she was not suicidal.

In a handwritten screening questionnaire she completed an hour after her arrest, Bland allegedly checked the “yes” box in response to the question, “have you ever attempted suicide.”  According to officials, Bland provided details to the following followup questions: “When? 2014; Why? Lost baby; How? Pills.”  In addition, the death of Bland’s godmother was recorded in response to a question concerning recent losses.

In contrast, on another form prepared by a different officer nearly three hours later, Bland reportedly provided 2015 as the year of her suicide attempt, and allegedly answered “no” to the questions, “have you ever been depressed? do you feel this way now? have you had thoughts of killing yourself in the last year”? However, the year of the suicide attempt is stated as 2015.

The family, not unlike many throughout the Black community, suspect foul play in her death, and note that Bland was not diagnosed or treated for clinical depression or PTSD.  The family, stating it is “unfathomable” Bland would take her own life, initiated their own independent autopsy, the results of which have not been finalized.

In the 52-minute dashcam video of the arrest which was released, the officer orders Bland to put out her cigarette, then threatened to Taser the woman.  Bland is heard complaining of pain due to the officer slamming her head on the ground, and she mentioned she had epilepsy.

Arturo Garcia at Raw Story wrote that Selma director Ava Duvernay concluded it is obvious the video was doctored.

“I edit footage for a living. But anyone can see that this official video has been cut,” DuVernay tweeted, also referencing an article by Ben Norton, who said a man seen in the video disappeared, reappeared and disappeared yet again. Norton also noted looped footage of vehicles passing by.

“Someone clearly cut footage out and looped part of the video in order to correspond with the recorded audio of Texas state trooper Brian Encinia speaking,” Norton said. “Who exactly edited the footage is unknown, but the video was recorded by police and released by the Texas Department of Public Safety.”

As reported on NPR’s All Things Considered, the Sandra Bland case has raised issues regarding the rights of citizens during traffic stops.

“I am not aware of [anything] that would give the officer the legal authority to ask you, to tell you, to command you to put out a cigarette,” said Seth Stoughton, assistant professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law, and a former police officer.  “An officer, just like anyone around you, can make personal requests, non-binding, non-mandatory, and you can agree or not. An officer also has some added authority though to issue orders, commands, that he can enforce, backed up by physical violence if necessary.”

Stoughton offered that police have the authority to command someone to remain in or get out of a car at a traffic stop.  He also said that citizens have broad first amendment rights to protect the type of speech, even cursing, that Bland is heard using in her exchange with the officer.  However, a motorist crosses the line when he or she fails to obey orders.  The law professor suggested that the officer failed on several counts, with his dismissive attitude in responding to her irritation, failing to connect with her, stripping her of her power, and exacerbating the situation in the process—all “an example of lawful policing that is not good policing,” Stoughton continued.

“I’m infuriated and everybody else should be infuriated as well,” said Sharon Cooper, Sandra Bland’s sister, of the arrest.

The Huffington Post reported that Cooper, who spoke at a press conference at DuPage African Methodist Episcopal Church in Chicago on Wednesday, said after watching the video she concluded the officer’s actions were unnecessary, attributing his behavior to a bruised ego.

“I simply feel like the officer was picking on her,” Cooper said. “Not once did he ever say he felt threatened, but when you tell me you’re gonna ‘light me up,’ I feel extremely threatened and concerned and I’m not gonna get out my car.”

However, USA Today reports that officials claim the video is unedited.

Further, the arrest and subsequent death of Sandra Bland has further exposed divergent attitudes towards law enforcement and the proper treatment of based on race.  Appearing on Don Lemon’s CNN show on Wednesday night, former NYPD detective Harry Houck created a stir when he blamed Bland for her own arrest, as Mediaite reported. Houck angered panelists Marc Lamont Hill and Sunny Hostin when he said Bland should have deferred to the officer, suggested the police officer did not overreact, and labeled the deceased woman “arrogant from the very beginning.”

“Even if [the officer] de-escalated that whole situation,” Houck declared, “she would have kept coming at that officer the way she did.”  He added, “She just wanted to be uncooperative. She had a problem with the officer, she had a problem with being stopped, she didn’t like the fact that she was being stopped. Her whole arrogant attitude.”

Houck denied the incident was a racial issue, to which Hill responded tongue-in-cheek, “…because this happens to white women all the time.”

Meanwhile, Sandra Bland’s funeral is planned for Saturday in Chicago. But many questions still remain, and we do not know how Sandra Bland died.

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