Sandra Bland. Facebook.

The story simply does not add up. Tragically, what should have been a happy ending, became…her ending. Twenty-eight year-old Sandra Bland had moved from Chicago to Texas for a job in her field. But instead of Skyping with her family members in Chicago to talk about her first days on her new job, her family sits in front of television cameras begging for the truth about what happened to their daughter.

Waller County Texas police allege that Sandra killed herself while in jail overnight. But the information thus far leaves more questions than answers. Officers claim that Bland assaulted them during the traffic stop, but video recently released shows no such thing happened. In fact, the interaction between Bland and the police officer only escalated when, after writing her a warning, the officer allegedly asked her to put out her cigarette — a cigarette she was well within her right to have while in the confines of her car. When Bland questioned why she was being told to put out the cigarette, the officer then demanded she get out of car and attempted to open her car door.

Smoking a cigarette is not an arrestable offense. In fact, it’s not an offense at all. The officer had no right to demand that she put out her cigarette and Bland should never have been asked to step out of the car. This was an overreach of the officer’s authority. For those would ask, “Why didn’t she just put out the cigarette?” and repeat the line that civilians must obey every last word of a police officer, must be reminded that officers are held to a higher standard than civilians. This reality is why they are afforded the police powers they wield.  It means that being “annoyed” by a civilian is not sufficient reason to arrest them or trample on their rights.

Unanswered questions merely feed into the skepticism felt by many who have seen how video evidence directly contradicted reports filed by police. Why did officers not grant her medical attention after slamming her head to the ground during the arrest? Why was a trash bag in her cell? Why did the officer claim assault when the video showed otherwise? While the exact details of what happened that day when she was pulled over are still muddy, what is crystal clear is that this storyline is becoming tiresome. The routine, traffic stop somehow turns into a deadly affair and no one — save whatever cameras were knowingly or unknowingly recording — seems to know the truth. 

In recent days, the hashtag #IfIdieinpolicecustody has been trending on social media. The assertions connected to that hashtag are frightening as individuals make explicit the requests of how they would want their cases to be handled if they were to ever find themselves in the same unfortunate category as Sandra Bland. Like the killings that take place in too many communities all too often, we cannot allow ourselves to be desensitized to what has become an all too familiar storyline. Changes in public policy that create more transparency and accountability in police departments nationwide must be at the center of our advocacy when these incidents occur.  Bland was someone’s daughter, sister, aunt; who moved all the way to Texas for a fresh start in life … and ended up losing hers. Our advocacy for public policy change in law enforcement is the least we can do to ensure she did not die in vain.

Amara Enyia JD, PhD is a public policy consultant, community organizer and West Side resident.

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