The Weirdness of DA’s Investigation Into Sandra Bland’s Death
July 21, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — Waller County is a small, rural county immediately to the west of Harris County, Texas. Other than the fact that it is home to Prairie View A & M University, its only claim to fame was being a notorious speed trap along the route from Houston to Austin. The county’s reputation for intense traffic enforcement took an ominous turn on Friday, July 10th when a Texas Department of Public Safety trooper stopped a young woman named Sandra Bland for allegedly failing to signal a lane change.
Although what happened after the trooper made initial contact with Bland is not entirely clear, witness accounts indicate that the traffic stop escalated quickly. Ms. Bland was taken to the ground by the trooper and arrested for assault on a public servant – a 3rd degree felony in Texas. She was booked into the Waller County that same day and was unable to make bail. On Monday, July 13th, she was found dead in her jail cell. The Harris County Institute of Forensic Science ruled her cause of death as a suicide by hanging.
Any time law enforcement involvement leads to the death of a citizen, whether it be an “in custody” suicide or a police officer involved shooting, there is a type of role reversal for the local District Attorney’s Office. While defense attorneys are quite familiar with the role of standing beside an accused in the face of negative public opinion, it is an uncomfortable scenario for a prosecutor.
One of the factors that makes a police-involved shooting or in custody death difficult for prosecutors is familiarity. Prosecutors work day in and day out with police officers and they get to know them. It isn’t at all unusual for the same police officer to have testified for a prosecutor in multiple trials. This is especially true in smaller jurisdictions like Waller County.
Personal friendships are frequent between police officers and prosecutors. It isn’t unusual at all to see marriages between prosecutors and police officers, either. When a police officer is under investigation, prosecutors feel like they are investigating a friend.
Another factor that makes a police-involved fatality awkward for the prosecution is that it jeopardizes all the cases the officer has worked on. Again, this is especially true in smaller jurisdictions that have small police agencies within them. An individual officer may be the main witness in a significant percentage of pending cases in a small county.
A police officer under investigation is not going to be called to testify in trial while that investigation is pending. If the investigation into the officer results in charges being filed against him, there is a high potential that the previous cases he or she worked on are irreparably tainted. Under the best scenario, the officer’s cases are in limbo until the investigation against him or her is resolved.
The final factor that makes prosecutors uncomfortable about having to investigate a police-involved fatality is the fact that they generally have an underlying belief, regardless of facts and circumstances, that the victim did something to initiate the confrontation.
Despite the fact that there have been a rash of controversial police officer-involved shootings over the past few years, they typically have originated with a legitimate call for service for the police officer. Regardless of whether or not an officer’s actions after this initial contact are justified, the shooting victim is already a step behind in credibility. The investigation is usually viewed with the underlying belief that a police officer was attempting to arrest a bad guy, and things just got out of control.
The law enforcement officials involved in the Waller County investigation, however, seem to be taking appropriate steps to address the death of Sandra Bland. As noted in USA Today, the Texas Department of Public Safety has already conceded the trooper who arrested Bland “violated the department’s procedures regarding traffic stops and the department’s courtesy policy.” That statement is a strong rebuke considering it comes so early in the investigative process.
Additionally, the Waller County District Attorney, Elton Mathis acknowledged that there was nothing evident as to why Bland would have committed suicide:
I will admit it is strange someone who had everything going for her would have taken her own life. That’s why it’s very important a thorough investigation is done and that we get a good picture of what Ms. Bland was going through the last four or five days of her life.
The Texas Commission on Jail Standards has informed the Waller County Sheriff’s Office that they were deficient in their standards on mental health training and inmate observations. The allegations on the mental health training focused on a lack of training hours that are required every year. Additionally, jail standards require that jailers have face-to-face communication with inmates at least once an hour. The report noted that on the morning of Monday, July 13th, the jailers spoke with Ms. Bland at 8:00 a.m. via intercom. She was found dead at 9:00 a.m.
Hypothetically, an investigation may reveal Sandra Bland was unlawfully arrested. It might also be revealed that the unlawful arrest was completely unrelated to her death in the Waller County Jail. Regardless of the ultimate results, the fact that these three agencies seem willing and able to place blame on law enforcement, if necessary, is encouraging.
It is also unusual.
The truth of the matter is that usually the only time a prosecutor is truly willing to give an accused the presumption of innocence is when the accused is a police officer.