Texas officials insist that the case is not closed when it comes to the death of Sandra Bland, the 28-year-old African-American woman who was found dead in a Texas jail cell days after she was arrested unnecessarily during a traffic stop. But the news that grand jurors had decided not to return any indictments five months after the fact underscores just how difficult it is to hold anyone accountable when encounters with the police turn deadly. As with the case of Freddie Gray, it is easy to see where things went wrong — where overly aggressive law enforcement escalated a situation with tragic consequences — but much harder to discern whether someone broke the law.
Bland was on her way back from Chicago, where she had been living with family, to Prairie View A&M University, her alma mater, where she was about to start a new job, when she was pulled over for allegedly failing to signal before changing lanes. Dashboard video of the subsequent encounter between Bland and Texas state trooper Brian Encina showed an initially normal encounter quickly turn acrimonious after Mr. Encina asked Bland to put out her cigarette and she refused. He asked her to get out of the car, she refused, and he tried to yank her out. He pulled a stun gun and threatened to "light you up." Officer Encina claimed that Bland assaulted him, but there is no evidence of that in the dashcam video or another taken by a bystander. It's possible that the cameras missed it, but she can be heard complaining "You slammed me, knocked me to the ground. I got epilepsy [expletive]." He replies, "Good."
Three days later, she was found dead in her cell, hanging from a trash bag. Authorities said it was suicide, but Bland's family insist that could not have been the case. Either way, jail officials appear to have failed to follow several procedures that might have prevented her death. According to booking documents, she had told jail officials that she had previously attempted suicide by taking pills after losing a baby, yet according to the official record, no one checked on her for 90 minutes before her death. No one conducted a mental health assessment either.
Much of what has spurred public outrage in this case has been the mystery of it, which remains five months after the fact. Because the investigation is shrouded in the secrecy of the grand jury, Bland's family and supporters are left puzzled about what has been considered so far and what other aspects of the case the grand jury is supposedly going to take up in January. By contrast, Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby's decision to pursue charges against the officers involved in Freddie Gray's arrest has at least guaranteed that the cases will play out in open court rather than in the black box of a grand jury.
Even so, it remains very much to be seen whether the outcome will ultimately be any different in the Gray cases than it was in the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Eric Garner in New York or Sandra Bland in Texas. Though we have witnessed what appear to be clear-cut cases of excessive force by police in recent months — in South Carolina, Cincinnati and Chicago, for example — it remains difficult to know what constitutes justice in cases like Gray's and Bland's.
We are certainly glad to see a national debate about how and when law enforcement officials should be held criminally accountable for the deaths of those in their custody, but ultimately, what's most important is figuring out ways to reduce the number of such cases in the first place. We are already seeing signs in Baltimore that the use of body cameras can help improve encounters between officers and residents because they hold both sides accountable. Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said this week that the officers involved in a recent pilot program to study their use want the cameras back because they foster "the trust we need to build with our community, the two-way respect that we need to push public safety forward in Baltimore."
But cameras don't solve everything. We also need better training in de-escalation techniques and a police culture that emphasizes their use. Whether the arrests and aggressive treatment of Sandra Bland and Freddie Gray will turn out to be criminal, they were clearly unnecessary, and that is what makes both their deaths so tragic.