As you may recall, last July a White Texas state trooper pulled over Sandra Bland, a Black woman, on bogus grounds and became enraged when she refused to stop smoking a cigarette (“Sandra Bland and Smoking While Black”). Based on video evidence of the encounter, the trooper was indicted this week on charges of perjury, a misdemeanor. The county judge still needs to issue a warrant for the officer’s arrest so the case can proceed through the judicial system.
Within three days of her arrest, Sandra Bland sadly and unnecessarily died on July 13 in her Texas jail cell from a reported “suicide.” A grand jury investigating her jailhouse death failed to bring indictments against any of the jailers. This was despite evidence that the jailers clearly did not follow required basic protocol for a detainee about whom they had health concerns.
During just the past decade an estimated 4,200 people in Texas have died while in police custody or incarcerated. At the national level no accurate governmental database currently exists to document how many people of color die in police custody. This stems in part by lack of enforcement of iterations of the ‘‘Death in Custody Reporting Act.” This Congressional bill has seen a number of revisions over the years but essentially depends on the states to accurately collect data and report it to the Feds. This somewhat voluntary system has yet to yield valid information.
The U.S. Department of Justice attempts to compile data just on numbers of people who die while in the custody of local jails or state prisons, not necessarily those who die due to the actions of police. In 2012, for example, the DOJ reported that 4,309 inmates died across the U.S. while imprisoned. Between 2000 & 2012 local jails alone averaged 900-1,000 inmate deaths annually.
The Black Lives Matter social justice movement and continuing national attention to racial injustices has put the spotlight on the cozy relationship between county prosecutors and local police. Without this movement’s pressure it is unlikely that this rural county in Texas with a known history of racism would have bothered to investigate any aspect of Bland’s arrest and death. Only now is the nation attending to its colonial legacy: According to the 1705 Virginia Slave code, the death of a Black person by a White would be as if it “had never happened.” In the end, these charges against the state trooper in the case of Sandra Bland are a relative judicial slap on the hand if carried out to the maximum in comparison to the actual criminality of the officer in arresting Bland in the first place.