On July 9, Sandra Bland drove to Prairie View, Texas from Chicago, eager for a job interview at Prairie View A&M, the historically black college that was her alma mater. The 28-year-old woman, described as smart and generous, had expressed solidarity with BlackLivesMatter and the growing movement against mass incarceration and racially biased policing. Then she took a big risk: she was driving while black. Four days later, she was found dead in a county jail cell.
She was pulled over on July 10 by a white police officer, officially for failing to signal a lane change. She asked why he had pulled her over. He told her to put out her cigarette. When she questioned why, he demanded she get out of the car, threatened her with a stun gun, reached in to pull her out of the car and handcuffed her, pushing her down to the ground when she resisted and complained. She was driven to the county jail in Hempstead, a jail run by Sheriff R. Glenn Smith. A decade ago, the New York Times reports, Smith was sued by the only full-time black officer on the force for dismissing him after he complained about his supervisor’s racial slurs. He was suspended in 2007 for pushing a black man he said had spit on him. He was fired in 2008 after complaints about intrusive searches of African Americans in public. He was elected sheriff months later.
Pulled over for not signaling a lane change, Bland was charged with a felony for assaulting a police officer and hit with a $5,000 bond. She spent three days in jail, finally arranging the money needed for a bondsman. She was found dead in her cell. Her death was ruled a suicide, a finding that her family disputes. How could a young woman, excited by the prospect of a new job, finally arranging to get out of that cell, choose to hang herself?
Waller County, an hour out of Houston, has an infamous history of racism. The Times reports on a study by the Equal Justice Initiative that found blacks were lynched after Reconstruction more frequently than in almost any other county in the state.
No official is defending the trooper’s behavior when he pulled Sandra Bland over. He has been placed on administrative leave with pay while an inquiry goes forth. The Hempstead mayor says he was “very, very upset” with what he saw on the videotape of the incident that was captured by a camera in the trooper’s car.
U.S. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch noted that Sandra Bland’s death highlights the fears of African Americans when they come into contact with the police. “Many minority communities,” she said, “for so long have felt that law enforcement was coming in to essentially enforce laws against them, not to protect them.” Over 300,000 have signed a national petition calling on an independent Justice Department investigation of Sandra Bland’s death.
The fears Lynch alluded to are well founded. Sandra Bland’s is only the latest death. Across the country, more than two dozen others have died in police custody this year. As of July 26, police have killed, according to the Guardian, 657 people this year in the U.S. Nearly six of 10 (58 percent) were people of color. As William Boardman notes, U.S. police killed 59 people in the first 24 days of 2015, compared to the police of England and Wales, who killed 55 people in the last 24 years. Texas trails only California for the number of police killings.
We don’t simply need new cameras on police; we need a fundamental change of culture. Police forces should look like the communities they patrol. Police officers should live in those communities. Training must not only instruct police in the use of firearms, but in the mores of the community. And police cannot not be put in the position of an occupying force in desperately impoverished neighborhoods with massive unemployment and little hope.
Sandra Bland changed lanes without signaling. But that wasn’t her crime. Her crime was driving while black. The institutionalized prejudices and distorted practices that led to her death are unacceptable in a nation of equal justice under the law. Unacceptable and unaccepted.
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