“My sister died because a police officer saw her as a threatening black woman rather than human.”
The sister of Sandra Bland, a black woman whose death in a Texas jail cell sparked national protests, says that a recently released video that Bland took is further proof that black men, women, and children are seen as threats by police.
“My sister died because a police officer saw her as a threatening black woman rather than human,” Sharon Cooper wrote in an op-ed published in USA Today earlier this week.
Bland, a 28-year-old woman who had recently moved to Texas from Illinois, was stopped for a traffic violation by then-Texas state trooper Brian Encinia on July 10, 2015. She was arrested and charged with resisting arrest and assaulting an officer. Encinia claimed Bland kicked him, but the alleged act against him was not captured on dashcam video released shortly after Bland’s death.
Three days after her arrest, Bland was found dead in a Waller County jail cell. Authorities ruled that she died by suicide, but the circumstances around her death were viewed with suspicion. The incident also happened around the same time that the Black Lives Matter movement was gaining steam in the US, and led to nationwide protests.
Then, on May 6 of this year, a local Texas news outlet reported on the existence of a previously unreleased cell phone video that Bland had recorded of her traffic stop. The video showed the officer yelling at Bland and threatening to “light [Bland] up” with a Taser.
Cooper says that in the four years since her sister’s death, her family’s fight for justice has shown her how the justice system fails black families seeking convictions in the wake of police misconduct.
“Despite America’s efforts to align itself with the notion that we are living in a post-racial society, viral videos of black women, men and children dying at the hands of police confirm that the scales of justice are imbalanced,” she writes.
Bland’s sister says ideals of freedom and justice “come at a sacrificial cost to black Americans”
While Bland’s death raised suspicion and concerns of foul play, the guards at the jail were not charged. Encinia, the state trooper, was charged with perjury and accused of lying about fearing for his safety when he pulled Bland from her car.
Bland’s family says the recently released video further shows Bland was not a threat to Encinia as she sat in her car recording the police interaction. And that has frustrated Cooper, who says that this video should have been available to her family as they pursued the case against Encinia.
Cooper recalls the difficulties her family faced as they continued to press for Encinia to be convicted of the charges. Initially, she says, she believed the justice system would support her family, but she found the opposite was true as her sister’s case moved forward and the family tried to figure out what had happened to their loved one.
“Glitchy dashcam footage, the dissemination of Sandra’s autopsy report to the public (including pictures of her lifeless body) and the intentional assassination of her character by referring to her as ‘not a model person’ left me questioning whether justice would prevail as I had believed,” she writes.
The charges against Encinia were later dropped in 2017 after he agreed to never work in law enforcement again. In 2016, the family settled a wrongful death lawsuit for $1.9 million in 2016.
But with new video of Bland’s encounter now public, Cooper says that her sister’s death is closely tied to deeper issues affecting black Americans, who continue to find themselves harmed by the very police departments tasked with protecting and serving the public. She writes:
The foundational promises of justice and freedom come at a sacrificial cost to black Americans as we demand to be seen and heard regardless of our gender, age, educational attainment and socioeconomic status. When we’re thrust into unsolicited encounters with law enforcement, it leaves us bruised, humiliated and with a loss of dignity not otherwise experienced by a majority of Americans who benefit from the liberties promised by “our” America.
“What I’ve learned from this ordeal is that those five words ‘liberty and justice for all’ aren’t as linear of a concept as I naively believed,” she adds.
Cooper notes that there have been some reforms in the wake of her sister’s death, pointing to the passage of the Sandra Bland Act, which includes new guidance for officers on how to conduct traffic stops. And she adds that while the officer wasn’t convicted, Bland’s family will continue to push forward.
“What happened in court isn’t the sole measure of justice,” Cooper says. “My sister was unafraid. Her strength gives us the power to continue to fight for her and say her name.”