When it comes to the circumstances leading to Sandra Bland’s death, what we don’t know far outweighs what we do.
And with each passing day, and each new revelation, the picture — instead of coming slowly into focus — appears to turn murkier.
“I have a hard time dealing with inconsistency and that seems to have been the theme over the last couple of days here,” Bland’s sister, Sharon Cooper, told CNN’s “Erin Burnett OutFront.”
First, a recap: Bland ended up in jail after she allegedly made an improper lane change and was pulled over by Texas state Trooper Brian Encinia. During the traffic stop, authorities say she was belligerent. Bland was arrested and taken to jail, where she died three days later on July 13.
What happens after that has ignited a debate about what the officer could have done versus what he should have done.
The issue: Cause of death
How did Bland die? The family is seeking an independent autopsy, dissatisfied with the official version.
Authorities say there was no foul play. Bland apparently hanged herself with a trash bag from a metal barrier that separated the bathroom from the rest of her cell, they say. She was found “in her cell not breathing from what appears to be self-inflicted asphyxiation.”
Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis has released some preliminary autopsy results which indicate she had marijuana in her system and cutting scars on her arm.
“There is absolutely no doubt in my mind” that Bland took her own life, Waller County Sheriff R. Glenn Smith said.
That makes no sense to Bland’s family and friends.
Bland was “ecstatic” at the prospect of starting a new job at her alma mater, Prairie View A&M University, in Texas, family attorney Cannon Lambert said.
“Why is it that a 28-year-old woman who had received two job offers take her own life? Why would she call her mom in excitement about those jobs and take her own life?” Lambert asked.
The issue: Her mental state
Jail intake forms released to CNN tell two different stories.
In one section, it indicates that Bland said she tried to kill herself using pills in 2014 after losing a baby. In another section, the answer is ‘no’ to the question: Attempted suicide?
On both forms, the question “Are you thinking about killing yourself today,” is marked “no.”
Despite the inconsistencies, the answers should have raised red flags at the jail, according to Philip Holloway, a former prosecutor.
“They should have been monitoring her very closely,” he said. “They should have gotten more detailed medical information … because they were put on notice … that she had a problem.”
It’s a problem that Bland talked about in a video she posted to Facebook earlier this year.
“I am suffering from something that some of you all may be dealing with right now,” Bland said. “It’s a little bit of depression as well as PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).”
Her family says that’s news to them.
“I can tell you that we take issue with the notion that she was suffering from depression. She was never clinically diagnosed as this family understands,” said Lambert. “Everybody has hills and valleys, and we don’t know about any medication that she was taking in regards to … depression.”
A friend of Bland’s, LaVaughn Mosley, also says Bland was not suicidal at the time of her arrest. Mosley says Bland was just looking forward to getting the situation resolved.
“I’m still just at a loss for words, honestly, about this whole process,” she said in the message. “How this switching lanes with no signal turned into all of this, I don’t even know. Um, but I’m still here. So, I guess call me back wehen you can. Bye.”
The issue: Her arrest
Critics are quick to point out that Bland wouldn’t have been in a position to die in jail, if she hadn’t been arrested after a simple traffic stop.
Encinia, in his arrest warrant affidavit, said he pulled Bland over on July 10 for allegedly failing to use her turn signal. What started as normal conversation got testy after Encinia asked her to put out her cigarette.
The trooper wrote that Bland became “combative and uncooperative” and that she was placed in handcuffs “for officer safety.”
“Bland began swinging her elbows at me and then kicked my right leg in the shin,” Encinia said. “I had a pain in my right leg and suffered small cuts on my right hand. Force was used to subdue Bland to the ground to which Bland continued to fight back.”
Encinia also wrote that Bland “was placed under arrest for Assault on a Public Servant.”
One problem with the account: Encinia told her she was under arrest before the alleged assault took place, dashcam video shows.
The officer told Bland to exit her car 11 times and then tells her she’s under arrest. It’s then the alleged assault takes place.
The video from Encinia’s patrol car doesn’t show the confrontation, although it can be heard off camera. A cell phone did capture part of the exchange that took place.
A simple traffic stop should have never escalated to Bland being arrested, her family said.
“I simply feel like the officer was picking on her, and I believe that is petty,” Cooper said.
CNN law enforcement analyst Harry Houck said the trooper did have the right to ask Bland to get out of the car and then try to pull her out of the vehicle.
“The fact is an officer can make an arrest anytime … you run a red light, parking ticket, anything like that,” Houck said.
But Houck, a retired New York Police Department detective, said the video concerned him.
“The one problem I have was just that he told her to get out of the car because she wouldn’t stop smoking.”
The issue: The dashcam video
The initial video released by the Texas Department of Public Safety of the traffic stop had at least six video — but not audio — anomalies in two sections. A car disappears mid-screen several times; a tow truck operator’s image jumps from outside to inside the vehicle.
Critics claimed the video had been edited.
Not so, the department said; it was an error in uploading. A second video released late Wednesday cleared up the anomalies.
It was an important matter to clear up, according to Paul Ginsberg, a forensic multimedia analyst.
“It was really more important than anything,” he said. “It’s their reputation It’s their professionalism. It’s everything and yet they uploaded something that apparently had flaws.”
The issue: The officer’s fate
Encinia has not spoken publicly about the incident and the Texas Department of Public Safety hasn’t released much information about him. It has pulled Encinia off the street and assigned him administrative duties.
“We have certain procedures in place, and he did not comply with those procedures,” said Steven McCraw, the department director. “One of the many procedures is letting the individual know in terms of what actions are going to be taken.”
Mathis, the Waller County district attorney, promised a thorough and exhaustive review of the case, which will be presented to a grand jury.
“It has not been determined at this point that this was a murder. This investigation is being conducted as a murder investigation would,” Mathis said. “Whatever the ultimate determination may be, whether that’s a suicide or a homicide, that will ultimately be decided by a grand jury.”