The past few years have seen racial tension rise to the forefront of the national consciousness, bringing up the issue of unequal and unethical treatment of individuals of different races. A non-stop hail of breaking stories has revealed in vivid detail the mistreatment of entire African-American communities by police, disturbingly brought to light by the racist policing techniques used by Ferguson police. Stories of unarmed black men slain by police have dominated the news cycle: Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner — these names endure in our minds. The bloody arrest of Martese Johnson by three overzealous Alcoholic Beverage Control officers even brought this tension to our Grounds.
Sandra Bland’s death on July 13 seemed to be a continuation of this trend. Bland, a 28-year-old African-American woman, was found dead in her cell, a plastic trash bag wrapped around her neck, three days after her arrest for assaulting a police officer who had pulled her over for switching lanes without a turn signal. Her death was declared a suicide but many people, especially her family members, think the circumstances of her death are suspicious. They see her death as a violent continuation of the same abuse of power by police against African-American citizens, and accusations of foul play were quick to arise.
In their defense, the police department presented evidence of Bland’s depression and past attempts at suicide and released some videotape of the outside of her cell. Portions of her intake form have been shown, though also closely scrutinized, revealing her suicidal thoughts. Bland’s family has countered by adamantly stating she would never harm herself in that fashion. Her new job, they say, among other positive events in her life, could not leave Sandra in a mindset to commit suicide. They have labeled the focus on her issues with depression, perhaps reasonably, as a feeble attempt to distract focus from the suspicious circumstances in which she was found.
However, even if this is an attempt to distract, this argument still has value. Depression is by far the most common cause of suicide. If that was the cause of Sandra’s death, it was not about her strength or how well her life was going. Her decision to take her life, if indeed she did, would be due to the depression she faced, the same depression that causes thousands of others to take their lives each year. Despite that, her family’s response is natural. The shock, confusion and anger that a loved one’s family members feel leave them desperately searching for answers, trying to find a reason. The recent string of officer related deaths of African-Americans makes it simple to connect this to a nationwide pattern. But suicide is rarely simple.
Moreover, in disregarding Sandra’s issues with depression, her family may be unwittingly absolving the police of a lesser but still significant offense. If, as the department states, Sandra indicated her issues with depression and suicide, then why was she not put on a suicide watch? Bland’s admission of her past attempts at suicide and her characterization of her mood on the day of her arrest as “very depressed” should have been a clear warning sign to the intake officers that special care was called for. Instead, they displayed a callous lack of concern for the welfare of their inmate. While on suicide watch, Sandra Bland would have been checked on at least every hour. Instead, her last two check-ins were almost two hours apart. “Protect and serve” shouldn’t have ceased to apply when Sandra was arrested or when the door to her cell was locked. She still deserved care and protection, things her jailers were unwilling or unable to provide.
An investigation into what happened will hopefully put some of these questions to rest. I don’t know what happened to Sandra Bland, be it murder or suicide. The only person who knows for sure what happened in that jail cell died there. Until her death is fully investigated, all claims to either side will have little factual basis. Rather, I would like to say to those who think Sandra’s situation would not have credited her response should think again. Disbelief inevitably accompanies suicide, it being unthinkable to loved ones and friends that someone they knew so well had such hidden and terrible pain. It is no surprise Sandra’s family does not believe she took her life. No matter what happens, they will be left with a burden of grief and questions.
Whatever the results of an investigation, the fact remains that Sandra’s death was an unnecessary tragedy. And even if it reveals that Sandra did take her own life, the officers involved are far from blameless. At the least excessive force and possibly racial profiling occurred in the traffic stop, and the jailers displayed a blatant disregard for the mental and physical health of their patient. If they had valued their inmates’ lives enough to spend a few extra minutes a day looking out for them, it’s possible Sandra’s death could of have been prevented. The police department will still have to answer for the actions of its officers. But murder? Of that, it may be innocent.
Alex Mink is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.