On July 10, a 28-year-old black woman Sandra Bland was pulled over by Officer Brian Encinia while driving in Prairie View, Texas, for failing to signal a lane change. Within minutes, the encounter turned contentious, and then violent, with Encinia ordering Bland out of her car and allegedly forcing her to the ground. She was arrested, and after a weekend in jail, it was announced that she was dead from an apparent suicide by hanging. Now, Bland's family is taking action: On Tuesday, they filed a federal wrongful death lawsuit against Encinia, the Waller County Sheriff's Office, the Texas Department of Public Safety, and others.
It's an understandable move, considering the deep uncertainties that still surround the case. Bland's family has been suspicious from the start of the idea that she would take her own life, and they've called for further disclosures. The family's attorney, Cannon Lambert, expressed as much on Tuesday, as detailed by the Washington Post:
We are looking for Waller County and the individuals involved in this situation to take accountability. This family is frustrated — they’re frustrated because we don’t feel like that has happened. This family needs an answer to the principle question: What happened to Sandra Bland?
The thrust of the lawsuit is that Encinia performed a needlessly aggressive, wrongful arrest of Bland, which subjected her to pain and trauma, and ultimately culminated with her death. It's notable that Bland's family has voiced very public doubts about the official story of her suicide, but the lawsuit doesn't necessarily hinge on those questions. Rather, they're asserting that she shouldn't have been arrested to begin with, and that her jailers showed "conscious disregard" for her safety, according to NBC News.
In particular, Bland's family has decried how she didn't receive the mandated face-to-face check-ins every 60 minutes, which could have proved pivotal if she was indeed suicidal and took her own life. According to CNN's reporting in July, Bland's body was discovered nearly two hours after the last time anyone had checked in on her.
Obviously, her family believes something else happened to Bland that isn't being shared. Even though suicide and depression often manifest in ways and at times that seem unthinkable or shocking, you can understand that instinct. Bland's death comes amid heightened focus on violence against black Americans by members of law enforcement, mixed with a pulsing distrust of official narratives.
The recent killing of Sam Dubose in Ohio demonstrates the reasons for this very well. Body camera footage of his death was likely the only reason his killer, former officer Ray Tensing, was indicted for murder. The footage seemingly showed Tensing fashioning a fallacious self-defense narrative for himself, while a pair of fellow officers went along with it.
This isn't to say that such a thing happened to Bland, but it's a stark and demonstrative example of why the official explanation has been challenged so forcefully by Bland's family, friends, and activists. Bland's mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, did make it clear that she's prepared to accept it if the information points to suicide, but she still wants to see it before making that conclusion. According to the family, they still haven't received Bland's autopsy results:
I would welcome any additional information. We've asked for it in writing, but we're not getting it. I'm the first one to tell you that if the facts show without a doubt that that was the case, I will have to be prepared to deal with that. But bottom line is she never should have been in that jail. Period.