Sandra Bland, age 28, lit a cigarette in her car.
On a sweltering Friday, July 10, she waited for the Texas patrol officer to return with her license and insurance card.
She had been stopped while en route from Prairie View A & M University, her alma mater, after completing new employee forms there. Next week would begin her new life working at the university after moving to the area from Illinois.
The officer, identified for the public as Brian Encina after much pressure, said that she had failed to use her turn signal in changing lanes. An ordinary traffic infraction, usually.
When the trooper returned to her vehicle, he demanded that she put out her cigarette, which she refused to do. It was her car, her cigarette, and smoking in one’s car is not yet a crime.
According to federal statistics, an African-American driver is 31 percent more likely to be pulled over for a traffic citation. Minority drivers are also significantly more likely to be searched and their cash seized than Caucasians.
According to Bland’s family attorney, Cannon Lambert, who viewed the trooper’s dash cam footage, the trooper demanded that Bland exit the car, despite the lack of probable cause for any offense beyond her minor traffic infraction. When Bland refused to get out, the officer escalated the show of force by threatening her with a taser.
Lambert said there was “no clear understanding why she had to get out of the car in the first place. It is a routine traffic stop.”
Bland, a Black Lives Matter activist, who had in the past posted videos expressing her concern over cases of police violence, now found herself the subject of an eyewitness video. As the witness began recording the scene with a camera phone, the trooper yanked her away from the vehicle and threw her forcefully to the ground.
With the officer’s knee pressed into her back, Bland said, “You just slammed my head into the ground. Do you not even care about that? I can’t even hear.”
According to the officer’s report, he had been about to issue a written warning when she kicked him, whereupon he arrested her for attacking a public servant.
She was taken to a jail in Hempstead which is near Houston, where she spent the weekend locked up in Waller county jail. Charged with assault on a public servant, which is a third-degree felony, she appeared in court Saturday, where her bond was set at $5,000.
Bland remained stuck behind bars, faced with having to pay bond and with the potential of a permanent criminal record. Her dream of a new life in Texas had turned into a nightmare.
On Monday morning, according to the sheriff’s office, Bland committed suicide by asphyxiating herself with a plastic bag.
Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis said at a press conference that Bland’s body was not discovered for up to 90 minutes, which contravenes guidelines requiring hourly checks.
“This investigation is still being treated just as it would be in a murder investigation. There are many questions being raised in Waller County, across the country and the world about this case. It needs a thorough review,” Mathis said. He added that the case would go to a grand jury.
Claiming that Bland “was very combative,” Mathis went on to say that “it was not a model traffic stop … and it was not a model person that was stopped.”
Waller County Jail had been cited for violations on three occasions since 2012, two of them for inmate suicides. Because of Bland’s death, Waller County Jail has been de-certified, with the Texas Commission on Jail Standards issuing a “notice of non-compliance,” citing issues with staff training and observation of inmates.
The trooper is on administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation. While Bland’s life history-abetted by DA Mathis’s “not a model person” claim-continues to be combed over by the media, the officer’s name has yet to be released.
Supporters of Bland staged a rally July 17 rally at the Waller County Sheriff’s Office and an online petition has been launched calling for the Department of Justice to take over the case.
Jeanette Williams places a bouquet of roses at a memorial for Sandra Bland near Prairie View A&M University, July 21, in Prairie View, Texas. | Pat Sullivan/AP