A Texas grand jury announced Monday it would not bring any indictments related to the death of Sandra Bland, an African-American woman who was discovered hanged in her Waller County jail cell — although the special prosecutor in this case did indicate that “the case is still open” and the grand jury will reconvene in the future. Regardless of whether prosecutors could successfully try anyone involved with this case to conviction, however, there should be little doubt that Bland was the victim of massive governmental failures. It is likely that she would still be alive today were it not for errors by her arresting officer and her jailers.
Video of the arrest shows Trooper Brian Encinia rapidly escalating his use of aggressive tactics against Bland after she declines a request to extinguish her cigarette. Encinia initially pulled over Bland for failing to signal a lane change, and his encounter with Bland is uneventful at first. After he returns to her vehicle with a citation, however, he asks her “you mind putting out your cigarette, please?” Immediately after Bland declines this request, Encina begins to escalate.
His immediate response is to tell Bland to exit her vehicle. When she declines, he opens the door of her vehicle and threatens to physically remove her. Within 30 seconds of his request for Bland to put out her cigarette, Encinia is halfway inside the car in an apparent attempt to pull Bland outside. Within 45 seconds, he’s announced that Bland is under arrest. About a minute after his initial request, he draws his stun gun, points it at Bland and yells “Get out of the car! I will light you up! Get out!”
Later in the video, Encinia and Bland are off camera, but they can still be heard arguing as Encinia handcuffs her. At one point, Bland complains that “you’re about to break my fucking ribs.” At another, she tells him that she “can’t go nowhere with a fucking knee on my back.”
Encinia’s actions may have violated the Constitution. Though the Supreme Court held in 1977 that police may order suspects out of their vehicles as a safety precaution, the Court explained earlier this year that police stops “may ‘last no longer than is necessary to effectuate‘” the stop’s “mission,” which in this case was to cite Bland for failing to signal. Encinia’s rapid escalations extended this stop well beyond what was necessary to complete its original purpose.
Regardless of the legality of this stop, however, it is highly unlikely that his encounter with Bland would have led to an arrest if he had adopted a less aggressive tone. Indeed, he most likely could have simply given her the citation he had already written, waited for her to sign it, and ended the encounter. Bland would have never made it to the jail cell where she died.
After she arrived at the jail, however, she was most likely the victim of another failure of governance. Shortly after her death, there was some uncertainty about what led to her hanging. The Waller County sheriff’s office says that Bland was discovered “in her cell not breathing from what appears to be self-inflicted asphyxiation,” although the local district attorney’s office said that they were treating her death “like a murder investigation.”
There is significant evidence corroborating the claim that Bland’s death was a suicide, however. An autopsy determined that her cause of death was suicide by hanging, and intake forms Bland filled out at the jail indicate that she’d previously attempted suicide and that she was feeling “very depressed” on the day she was arrested.
This evidence, however, hardly exonerates the jail. Bland’s indication that she was depressed and had previously attempted suicide should have, at the very least, triggered safety protocols such as a requirement that she be subject to frequent face-to-face observations to ensure that she was not attempting to kill herself. Yet, a week after her death, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards issued a notice of non-compliance because “officers were not checking on inmates as frequently as they should be” and “not all jail staff had undergone an annual suicide prevention training required by their own suicide prevention plan.” This was at least the second time this jail was cited for non-compliance — it received a similar citation in 2012 after a 29 year-old man killed himself while incarcerated.
So it is likely that the jail failed to follow procedures intended to protect suicidal inmates. Had the jail complied with its obligations to suicidal inmates, or had Bland’s arresting officer not escalated a routine stop into an arrest, Bland could very well still be alive.