Jaeah is a former reporter at Mother Jones. Her writings have appeared in The Atlantic, the Guardian, Wired, Christian Science Monitor,Global Post,Huffington Post,Talking Points Memo, and Grist. She tweets at @jaeahjlee.
The county prosecutor says the 28-year-old black woman's case is "being treated just as it would be a murder investigation."
Jaeah LeeJul. 21, 2015 6:47 PM
Note: The Texas Department of Public Safety has re-uploaded the video above, in response to questions about glitches in an earlier version.
On Tuesday, Texas officials released a police dash cam video showing the July 10 arrest of Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old black woman from Illinois who died three days later in a Waller County jail cell, in a case ruled a suicide by local authorities. The footage shows Texas state trooper Brian Encinia aggressively confronting Bland after pulling her over for a traffic infraction and ordering her out of her car. "I'm going to drag you out of here," he says, reaching into Bland's vehicle. He then pulls out what appears to be a taser, points it at her and yells "I will light you up!" After Bland emerges, they walk out of the frame where the argument continues and Encinia eventually forces Bland to the ground violently as she continues to protest the arrest. (The confrontation can be heard on the police footage, and was already seen widely since late last week, after a different video recorded by a bystander appeared online.)
By Tuesday night, questions were swirling on social media about what appeared to be glitches in, or possibly edits to the dash cam video; a spokesperson for the Texas Department of Public Safety told the Guardian that he did not have an immediate explanation for the inconsistencies.
In a press conference on Tuesday, the director of the Texas Department of Public Safety said that Encinia failed to "maintain professionalism" throughout his interaction with Bland, and that he has been taken off the street and placed on administrative duty for duration of the investigation into Bland's death. In answer to a reporter's question, Texas state Sen. Royce West said that the dash cam footage showed that Bland should not have been taken into police custody.
The subsequent death of Bland has continued to raise troubling questions since she was found hanged on the morning of July 13. A medical examiner report and the county sheriff's office ruled her death a suicide, but during the three days Bland spent in jail, Bland's family members said they spoke to her on the phone about posting bail, and that a suicide seemed "unfathomable." An hour before she was found, Bland had asked to use the phone again, county officials said.
On Monday, officials in Waller County released additional details about the morning Bland died, including surveillance video footage showing the hall outside of cell 95, where Bland was held. Citing interviews with family members and with the bail bondsman who was among the last to speak with Bland, Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis said it is "too early to make any kind of determination" and that "this investigation is still being treated just as it would be a murder investigation," signaling that he had not ruled out any motives and would explore all leads and evidence, including videos, fingerprints in her cell, and the plastic bag found around her neck.
The Texas Rangers are currently leading the investigation into Bland's death, with the FBI overseeing the process. The family's attorney has also asked the US Department of Justice to open a federal investigation. Mathis said he will take the case to a grand jury, which is expected to be impaneled in August.
Bland's death, which comes amid heightened public scrutiny over race and policing in America, is the latest episode in Waller County's longhistoryof racial strife. For family and friends, news of Bland's death was sudden and unexpected, and it has raised questions about potential foul play, conditions at the jail, and the circumstances that led to her arrest. Bland herself often spoke out about police brutality, as chronicled in videos she posted on her Facebook page.
On the day she was jailed, Bland had been driving to to start a new job in Prairie View, Texas, where she had attended a historically black college. She was pulled over by Encinia for an improper lane change. The Department of Public Safety said Bland had been uncooperative and that she kicked Encinia, according to the Houston Chronicle. A bystander's video capturing the arrest shows Bland being held down on the ground by an officer, shouting, "You just slammed my head into the ground. Do you not even care about that? I can't even hear!"
According to the Los Angeles Times, Cannon Lambert, an attorney for Bland's family, said the dash cam footage "doesn't give us any more understanding of what actually happened to her," and that the jail surveillance footage offered no insight into her death.
The sheriff overseeing the jail where Bland died had previously been accused of racism. But that's not all.
Jaeah LeeJul. 17, 2015 6:00 AM
Around 9 a.m. on Monday, Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old from Illinois, was found not breathing in a Waller County, Texas jail cell, where she was declared dead shortly thereafter. At a press conference on Thursday evening, Waller County officials said that while the investigation is ongoing, preliminary evidence showed Bland had hung herself using a plastic bag that lined a trash can in her cell, and that prior to her death she had asked to use the phone to call her family. Over the weekend in jail, Bland had been in contact with family members to try and post bail, county officials said. The news of Bland's death, which the county sheriff's office attributed to "self-inflicted asphyxiation," has raisedquestions about how a woman who'd been driving through the area to start a new job wound up dying in custody, as well as suspicions about foul play.
Bland, who friends described as an outspoken critic of police brutality, was booked into the jail three days earlier, after getting pulled over in Prairie View by a state Department of Public Safety trooper. The trooper claimed that Bland was uncooperative and that she kicked him, at which point he arrested her for "assault on a public servant," the Houston Chronicle reported, citing a DPS spokesperson. A bystander's video purporting to capture the arrest, first posted by the an ABC affiliate in Chicago, shows a trooper holding a woman down as she shouts "You just slammed my head into the ground. Do you not even care about that? I can't even hear!"
Following her death, Bland's family members and supporters have spread her story on social media, organized protests, and petitioned for the US Department of Justice to investigate the case. One friend told reporters that Bland was "strong mentally and spiritually" and that she would not have taken her own life. On Thursday, Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis said investigators would review any evidence of stress that may have contributed to Bland's death, including a video she posted in March, in which Bland says she is suffering from "a little bit of depression" and PTSD.
Whether or not it was suicide, Bland's death comes amid an ongoing national conversation about race and criminal justice in America, and casts a spotlight on a county apparently rife with racial tensions. In 2007, Waller County Sheriff R. Glenn Smith was suspended—and eventually fired by city council members—while serving as police chief in Hempstead, a city in Waller County, following accusations of racism by community members. Less than a year after his firing, Smith was elected county sheriff. When asked about the accusations on Thursday, Smith said his firing in 2007 was "political," and denied that he was a racist.
The history of Waller County's racial tensions doesn't end there. In 2003, the Houston Chroniclereported that two prominent black county officials, DeWayne Charleston and Keith Woods, claimed they were the target of an investigation by the county's chief prosecutor because of their race. Charleston had been accused of keeping erratic hours and falsifying an employee time-sheet record, according to the Houston Chronicle. Charleston and Woods claimed the Concerned Citizens of Waller County was behind those accusations, and said that the group was conducting a Ku Klux Klan-like campaign against black officials:
Charleston, the county's first black judge, said a county grand jury has interviewed him, although he declined to elaborate. And Woods, the four-term mayor of Brookshire, is facing questions about his role in the last city election.
"I do believe race plays a big part in what DeWayne and I are facing," Woods said. "I feel that way because we're the ones obviously not being given the benefit of the doubt (when) we face contrary decisions by the district attorney."
Kitzman, 69, a retired state district judge, denies any racist implications in his interest in the two men. He says he's simply doing his job by looking into complaints brought to him by residents.
Houston Chronicle reporter Leah Binkovitz also pointed out that a disproportionately high number of lynchings have been recorded in Waller County. According to the advocacy group Equal Justice Initiative, the county saw 15 lynchings of African Americans between 1877 and 1950.
Bland's death has also raised questions about conditions at the Waller County jail, where in 2012, a 29-year-old white inmate named James Harper Howell IV, hung himself with the bed sheets in his cell. When asked about the 2012 death on Thursday, Smith responded that his staff had been monitoring inmates but that "these incidents occur in jails."
On Tuesday, a federal court ordered the release of video showing a June 2013 police shooting in Gardena, California (a city in southern Los Angeles County) in which an unarmed man, Ricardo Diaz-Zeferino, was killed and another unarmed man wounded. Previously, an internal review by the Gardena Police Department had concluded that the shooting was justified, and prosecutors in Gardena decided not to pursue criminal charges against the officers involved. In May, the City of Gardena agreed to pay $4.7 million to settle a federal lawsuit filed by the family of Diaz-Zeferino. But the newly released police dash cam footage, first posted by the Los Angeles Times, has raised questions about the events leading up to the fatal encounter—including the potential mishandling of a 911 call, an issue that has come up with other officer-involved killings.
The shooting occurred about 2:30 a.m. on June 2, 2013, after a bicycle was stolen from outside a CVS Pharmacy on Western Avenue. A police dispatcher mistakenly told officers that the crime was a robbery, which usually involves a theft using weapons or force, and officers headed to the area in search of two suspects.
Gardena police Sgt. Christopher Cuff saw two men riding bicycles east on Redondo Beach Boulevard. The men were friends of the bike theft victim and were searching for the missing bicycle. Mistaking them for the thieves, Cuff ordered the men to stop and put their hands up, according to a district attorney's memo written by a prosecutor who reviewed the police videos.
The Gardena killing is the latest in a string of high-profile police shootings captured on video, which have brought scrutiny on police tactics and procedures. With the Tamir Rice shooting in Cleveland, evidence emerged that the dispatcher who relayed the 911 call did not include potentially key details about the suspect, as Mother Jonespreviously reported. And according to a recent Washington Postdata investigation of police shootings of mentally ill suspects, "officers are routinely dispatched with information that is incomplete or wrong."
At least 28 students have been seriously injured—and one killed—in the past 5 years.
Jaeah LeeJul. 14, 2015 6:00 AM
A Louisville police officer is facing assault and misconduct charges after his alleged use of force at a middle school.
Over the past year, video footage from around the country of law enforcement officers killing citizens, many of them black, has brought scrutiny on policing in the streets. Yet, another disturbing police problem has drawn far less attention: Use of force by cops in schools. According to news reports and data collected by advocacy groups, over the past five years at least 28 students have been seriously injured, and in one case shot to death, by so-called school resource officers—sworn, uniformed police assigned to provide security on K-12 campuses.
As with the officer-involved killings that have been thrust into the national spotlight, government data on police conduct in schools is lacking. And while serious use of force by officers against school kids appears to be rare, experts also point to a troubling lack of training and oversight, and a disproportionate impact on minority and disabled students.
Here are some of the recent cases, which Mother Jones has looked into further:
Chokehold and a brain injury: In March, Louisville Metro Police officer Jonathan Hardin was fired after his alleged use of force in two incidents at Olmsted Academy North middle school: He was accused of punching a 13-year-old student in the face for cutting the cafeteria line, and a week later of putting another 13-year-old student in a chokehold, allegedly knocking the student unconscious and causing a brain injury. In April, a grand jury indicted Hardin on assault and misconduct charges for the chokehold incident, and his trial is pending. The Jefferson County Attorney's Office is also considering charges against Hardin over the punching incident, a spokesperson for the attorney's office told Mother Jones. Hardin's attorney declined to comment, citing the ongoing criminal litigation.
Beating with a baton: In May 2014, Cesar Suquet, then a 16-year-old high school student in Houston, was being escorted by an officer out of the principal's office after a discussion about Suquet's confiscated cell phone. Following a verbal exchange, police officer Michael Y'Barbo struck Suquet at least 18 times with a police baton, injuring him on his head, neck and elsewhere, according to the lawsuit Suquet's family filed against the Pasadena Independent School District. In its response to the incident (which was captured on videoaccording to court documents), the school district admitted that Y'Barbo struck Suquet but denied allegations of wrongdoing. Y'Barbo, in his response, denied striking Suquet on the head, stating that he acted "within his discretionary duties" and that his use of force was "reasonable and necessary." A spokesperson for the school district told Mother Jones that Y'Barbo remains on regular assignment including patrol.
Taser-induced brain injury: In November 2013, student Noe Nino de Rivera was trying to break up a fight at Cedar Creek High School in Bastrop County, Texas, when two officers arrived and told Nino de Rivera to step back. Within moments, one of the officers, Randy McMillan, tased the 17-year-old, who fell to the ground and hit his head. Nino de Rivera was taken to a hospital, where he "underwent surgery to repair a severe brain hemorrhage and was placed in a medically induced coma," according to the family's lawsuit against McMillan, Bastrop County, and the school district. The teen remained in a coma for 52 days, a family attorney told CNN. Attorneys representing the county said that Nino de Rivera had failed to comply with orders and that McMillan "used the reasonable amount of necessary force to maintain and control discipline at the school." In May 2014, a grand jury declined to indict McMillan, and that month he received a promotion. Three months later, the county agreed to pay Nino de Rivera's family $775,000 to settle the lawsuit.
Noe Nino de Rivera after he was hospitalized. Photo courtesy of the family
Shot to death: On November 12, 2010, 14-year-old Derek Lopez stepped off a school bus outside of Northside Alternative High School, near San Antonio, and punched another student, knocking him to the ground. Officer Daniel Alvarado witnessed the altercation and ordered Lopez to freeze, and then chased a fleeing Lopez to a shed behind a house, where he fatally shot him. Alvarado later testified that Lopez had "bull-rushed" him as he opened the shed door. Lopez, who was unarmed, died soon afterward. In August 2012, a grand jury declined to indict Alvarado. The Northside Independent School District school board later agreed to pay a $925,000 settlement to Lopez's family. Alvarado has since been terminated from Northside for unrelated reasons, an attorney for the school district told Mother Jones.
The US and state governments do not specifically collect data on police conduct in K-12 schools. But some data has been gathered at the county and state level by the ACLU and other advocacy groups, including in Texas and North Carolina. Using news reports, the Huffington Postidentified at least 25 students in 13 states recently who sought medical attention after getting tased, peppersprayed, or shot with a stun gun by school resource officers. (For more on these harsh tactics and a lawsuit they led to, read this Mother Jones story.)
The US Justice Department spent $876 million to fund nearly 7,000 school resource officers nationwide after Columbine, and another $67 million following the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary.
From the war on drugs to "zero tolerance policies," cops have been utilized in K-12 schools for decades. But the mass shooting at Columbine High School in 1999 caused their ranks to swell, with the number of police officers patrolling K-12 campuses approximately doubling to 20,000 by 2006, according to the National Association of School Resource Officers. The US Department of Justice spent an estimated $876 million after Columbine to fund nearly 7,000 school resource officers across the country. Since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012, the DOJ has spent another $67 million to fund an additional 540 cops in schools. Many school districts and local police departments have funded their own sworn law enforcement personnel for the job.
But much about this field remains unclear: According to a recent report from Philip Stinson, a Bowling Green University criminologist, "The existing research offers few answers to such basic questions as to how SROs are selected, the nature and extent of SRO training, and the strategic uses of SROs."
Michael Dorn, a former school district police chief in Georgia, says that misconduct cases by school cops are rare and that overall their presence has helped improve campus safety. But the programs need to be better evaluated based on data, he adds. Studies in some school districts have shown that school cops helped reduce crime, truancy, and bullying. But others have found that the presence of cops in schools leads to increased ticketing and arrests for minor infractions. Jason Langberg, an attorney in Virginia who has represented victims of alleged abuse, explains that many officers end up stepping into matters of routine student discipline. They deal with "minor scuffles, a bag of marijuana, or even just talking back," he says. "The vast majority of incidents don't involve guns in schools."
Dewey Cornell, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia who studies school safety, suggests that the rise of school cops has been based on misguided fear. After Sandy Hook, the NRA proposed putting them in every single school in America. But relative to overall gun violence, "schools are one of the least likely places for a shooting to occur, and pulling officers off the street and putting them on guard in a school lobby is short-sighted and dangerous," Cornell says. "The fear of school shootings has been greatly overestimated because of the attention to a handful of tragic cases."
Black students are arrested by school cops at a disproportionate rate, according to recent data from the US Department of Education.
Last March, the US Department of Education reported that 92,000 students were subject to school-related arrests in the 2011-2012 academic year, the first time the agency collected and published such data. Black students comprised 16 percent of the total students enrolled but accounted for 31 percent of arrests. And a quarter of the total arrested were students with disabilities, despite that they comprised only 12 percent of the student population. In recommendations to the White House published in May, the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing advised that law enforcement agencies analyze data on all stops, frisks, searches, summons, and arrests—and seperate out the data for school detentions. "Noncriminal offenses can escalate to criminal charges when officers are not trained in child and adolescent development," the report noted.
Often young police officers are on the job, according to the advocacy group Strategies for Youth, which works with police departments and school districts on training. Yet, a national survey conducted in 2013 by the group found that police academies in only one state, Tennessee, offered training specifically for officers deployed to schools. The majority of academies, the survey noted, "do not teach recruits how to recognize and respond to youth with mental health, trauma-related and special education-related disorders."
In February, Michael Reynolds, a black high school student in Detroit, testified to the task force about an interaction with a cop at his school. "Before I could explain why I did not have my [student] badge I was escorted to the office and suspended for an entire week," he said. "Many young people today have fear of the police in their communities and schools."
A study released on Tuesday reveals a glaring lack of diversity among America's elected prosecutors. The data, gathered by the Center for Technology and Civil Life and published by the Women's Donors Network, examines the racial and gender makeup of the more than 2,400 elected city, county and district prosecutors, as well as state attorneys general, serving in office during the summer of 2014. Here are the key findings:
95 percent of all elected prosecutors were white.
79 percent of all elected prosecutors were white men.
In 14 states, all elected prosecutors were white.
Just 1 percent of the 2,437 elected prosecutors serving were women of color.