When Sandra Bland was found dead in her jail cell, police said it was a suicide. But now they're being accused of a conspiracy to cover up her death - and this affects every single one of us
The internet is supposed to be making the world smaller. News breaks faster, contact is quicker, and the globe feels united with the help of a hashtag (or two). But when it all happens behind a screen – when the people shouting are two dimensional, and when their voices are only as loud as a size 12 sans serif font, it’s not always easy to take it all in. And when it’s a news story that takes place 5,000 thousand miles away, there’s nothing to stop you shaking your head and just refreshing the page. After all, you tell yourself, there’ll just be something new in the morning.
But for Sandra Bland, there won’t be anything new. Because there won’t be another morning. The 28-year-old died in police custody on July 13th. And we all owe it to her to read her story.
WHO WAS SANDRA BLAND?
Sandra Bland was 28 years old. She had four sisters – three older, one younger – and she studied at the college of agriculture at Prairie View A&M University. She played in a band, worked as a summer counsellor and was about to start a new job working as a summer programme associate. She was single and sociable – in February, she and her sister went to a Maroon 5 concert, and at high school she’d been on the cheerleading squad. But Sandra followed recent events involving police brutality and racism with interest and frustration – vlogging about racial injustice on her YouTube channel, Sandy Speaks, and demanding change. ‘In the news that we’ve seen as of late, you could stand there, surrender to the cops, and still be killed,’ she said in one of her videos.
According to her friends and family, Sandra was happy and outspoken, and – although she was angry at the way many black people are treated by the American judicial system – unlikely to start a fight. As far as they were aware, she didn’t suffer from any other mental health issues, although in one YouTube video she filmed back in March, Sandra discusses PTSD and depression.
SO WHAT HAPPENED?
On July 10, Sandra was driving near her home in Prairie View, Texas, when she switched lanes and forgot to signal. She was pulled over by a state policeman, Brian Encinia, who asked her to put out her cigarette. Sandra objected – it’s not illegal to smoke in your own car in Texas – and in the series of events that followed, Encinia tried to forcibly remove the 28-year-old from her car. He said he was arresting her, but didn’t explain why. And when Sandra refused to get out, Encinia threatened her with his taser.
IS THAT IT?
Nope. That’s just the beginning. We know that Sandra eventually got out of her car because of a video that was released by the police. But the video seemed to have been edited, as cars appeared and disappeared haphazardly along the road, and the footage looked like it was looped. The police said that was due to technical issues – and released another video of the arrest. But by this point, videos from bystanders who had witnessed the arrest were being uploaded to the internet too. In one, Sandra says her head was slammed into the ground. Another eyewitness says Sandra was thrown onto the floor by an officer who had his knee to her neck.
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Sandra was taken to the county jail and put in a cell. When she eventually rang her sister, Shante, she said she was scared her arm was broken, and that she still didn’t know why she’d been arrested.
Then… silence. Until Sandra was reportedly found dead in her cell on July 13, and it was ruled a suicide. The sheriff in charge of the jail cell said that his officers checked on her an hour before her death, and that while she had refused breakfast earlier that morning, she had asked to make a phone call. Then, at 9am, they claim she was found hanged in her cell with a binbag.
OK, IS THAT IT?
Still no. The CCTV from the jail – which shows the corridor leading to Sandra’s cell – is missing nine minutes of footage, and doesn’t show the inside of her cell at all. The district attorney says that the camera was placed at the best angle available, and that the footage is missing because it stops recording after 15 seconds of undetectable movement.
But there are other questions surrounding her death, too. There are inconsistencies in her booking records – on one form it says Sandra is taking medication for epilepsy. On another form, it says she isn’t taking any medication at all. Similarly, on one form, it says she has never thought about killing herself. On another, it says she once tried to overdose after suffering a miscarriage.
And while the medical examiner ruled her death a suicide, the district attorney said it would be treated ‘just as it would be a murder investigation.’
‘There are many questions that are being raised here in Waller County,’ he said. ‘It needs to be a thorough and exhaustive review.’
WHAT’S ALL THIS ABOUT THE MUGSHOT PHOTO?
One conspiracy theory currently doing the rounds on Twitter reckons that Sandra’s mugshot photo could have been taken after she died.
Supporters of the theory say that the way her hair falls backwards suggests she was lying on the floor – which matches the colour of the photo’s background. Citing the fact that the muscles in Sandra’s face appear to be gravitationally pulled back too, fans of this theory claim that the way her shoulders are straight (rather than sloping downwards) could also be indicative of a person who is flat out on the ground. There’s also the fact that she’s wearing an orange jumpsuit – while most other inmates at the jail have their mugshots taken in the clothes they’re arrested in.
And finally, there was initially only a photo of her taken from the front. Waller Country Sheriff’s department have now released the second mugshot – taken from the side – but it’s very dark, and the quality too poor to make out many details.
BUT THERE’S A NEW VIDEO?
There is indeed a new video. Released by the jail in a bid to counteract the claims that Sandra Bland could have been dead before she arrived at the police station, the video shows Sandra entering the station calmly, walking through the jail reception and entering a separate room to change her clothes and filling in forms.
The police are hoping that this new footage will quash the conspiracy theories about the above photo.
WHY DO WE CARE?
Well, we care because a 28 year old died, and that’s always going to be devastatingly sad.
We care because when a black man walks down the street with his hood up, people look at him in fear, but when a white man does the same thing, people assume he’s just cold.
We care because racism is prevalent in America and the UK. According to a 2013 study, black people in England and Wales are three times more likely to be arrested than white people, and six times more likely to be stopped and searched. So whatever the cause of Sandra’s death may be, it’s important to ask questions about whether the same events would have occured if a white woman had been driving the car.
And we care because if Sandra did admit to an earlier suicide attempt, and if she did kill herself on July 13, then that absolutely should have been prevented, and it’s a lesson in how seriously police need to take mental health issues.