Deadly force

Sandra Bland’s mother: “Are we talking about ‘serve and protect’ or ‘isolate and neglect’?”

Joined by the nephew of Bettie Jones, Sandra Bland’s mother and sister explain how trust within communities can be built despite a culture of police violence

Demonstrators hold signs of Sandra Bland and Kindra Chapman, both of whom died in custody, during a rally against police violence in New York July 22, 2015. (REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton)

Seven months ago, 28-year-old Sandra Bland was pulled in Texas over for allegedly failing to signal a lane change. A routine traffic stop became an internationally-viewed horror after Bland was violently forced from the car by Texas trooper Brian Encinia after refusing to put out her cigarette after a warning was issued — events all caught on dash cam, where the officer is seen threatening Bland with a Taser, saying, “I’m going to light you up.” “Sandy,” as she was known by those who loved her, was found dead in a jail cell three days after her arrest.

Today the sister and mother of Bland, Chicago natives Sharon Cooper and Geneva Reed-Veal, joined Vice News’ Danny Gold at Tina Brown Live Media’s American Justice Summit on a panel to discuss the role of police in the community. Reed-Veal, who remembered her late daughter as a “six-feet diva” who was “very bright, smart and assertive,” expressed concerned about the state of modern policing, the militarization of which has come under heavy scrutiny nationwide in the last year following the death of dozens of unarmed African-American people.

“Are we talking about ‘serve and protect’ or ‘isolate and neglect’?” she asked — a question that was met with heavy applause from the audience at the New York City event.

Shante Needham (C), sister of Sandra Bland, and Bland's mother Geneva Reed-Veal (L) attend the funeral. (REUTERS/Jim Young)

Shante Needham (C), sister of Sandra Bland, and Bland’s mother Geneva Reed-Veal (L) attend the funeral. (REUTERS/Jim Young)

A medical examiner ruled the death a suicide, but Bland’s family disagrees. She had just relocated for a new job at her alma matter, Prairie View A&M University, and was of sound mind, according to Cooper and Reed-Veal. She had started #SandySpeaks seven months before her death to speak about racial injustice and Black Lives Matter. “She was about the rights of people, the rights of the underdog,” her mother said. Bland knew her rights and expressed them to the arresting officer, and her family believes that she would still be alive today if it were not for the culture of police brutality that disproportionally targets African-American people. “In July [of 2015], seven other women died in police custody. What are their names?,” Reed-Veal asked.

A non-indictment for the jailers who handled Bland behind bars was handed down by a Texas grand jury in December and termination proceedings are underway for Encinia, who was charged with perjury earlier this month for allegedly lying about why he asked Bland to step out from her vehicle. If convicted, he faces a maximum of one year in jail and a $4,000 fine. “He does not deserve to be called an officer, from what I’m concerned,” Cooper said, adding that the slap-on-the-wrist charge “doesn’t bring Sandy back.” Her mother agreed, remarking that she would have trouble being in the same room as Encinia, as she sees him as the impetus to her daughter’s death. “When I look at the tape that the entire world has seen, there is no way I would’ve treated anyone’s child in that manner,” Reed-Veal said. “I would have to ask the gentleman, ‘Where was your head?’ As I a parent, I can’t imagine what he was thinking.”

Sandra Bland following her arrest. (Waller County Sheriff's Office via The New York Times)

Sandra Bland following her arrest. (Waller County Sheriff’s Office via The New York Times)

Also on stage was nephew of the late Bettie Jones, Jahmal Cole, who argued that after incidents of police violence, “criminal charges against police officers is necessary to establish trust within communities.”

A 55-year-old mother of five and grandmother to 10, Jones was shot accidentally while opening the door at her home by a Chicago police officer Robert Rialmo on the day after Christmas. Also killed that day was 19-year-old Quintonio LeGrier, who called the police three times before an officer was dispatched to calm a situation between the teen and his father. Jones, who loved music, volunteered with anti-violence community groups and was described as the “glue of the family,” was shot once. LeGrier was shot six times — four times in the back — and his family is now being sued by Rialmo.

“A police badge gives you a platform to elevate your good spirit,” Cole said. “If you’re a bad person, a badge is a platform to stage your wickedness.” Police need to relearn communication tactics for patrolling within communities where mistrust has been built, starting first by approaching the people they serve with “understanding and leading with empathy,” he said. His aunt’s avoidable dead, Cole said, has put him on a path to seek “uncompromising justice” for both his family and LeGrier’s. Bland’s family pledged to do the same, reinforcing the power of public, vocal questioning of such authority. “We’re going to keep speaking, but after the talking, action needs to take place. Each of us has the power to do it,” Reed-Veal said.

Moving forward after police violence proves difficult, the panelists explained, but especially when the authorities often refuse to cooperate with the families of victims. “We need to see a commitment to transparency, particularly with cases that are shrouded in misconduct,” Cooper said, explaining that too often, it’s difficult to receive information and paperwork about what transpired. “I personally feel [such delays] utilized as stall tactics to get yourself into a situation where you become despondent or get discouraged,” she explained. Cole agreed, adding, “In a grand jury [like the Bland non-indictment] there’s no judges, no defense attorneys…it’s done in secrecy and it has repeatedly failed us.”

Policing can change, the panelists explained, but only with great effort on both the part of the establishment and the people who find the system unjust. “The answers are there, the information is there, if [police] truly want to find solutions, they could survey communities to [help] police the police,” Cole said. Before his aunt’s death and after serving as a volunteer at the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center, where he learned that many Chicago boys had never been beyond their own neighborhood, Cole founded My Block, My Hood, My City, a non-profit to help expose young people to life beyond “the hood,” where he has seen an “overwhelming” police presence. “Over-militarization, at first, appears to improve safety but is damaging to your psyche,” he said. His organization was inspired to reverse the negative impact over-policing had on his community, and expose young men to opportunities they might not otherwise see.

Brought on stage to help reform a broken system, one that lead to the death of her sister, Cooper remained focused on the mission she and her mother—joined with others like Cole around the nation—have set out to complete. “The pursuit of justice is marathon,” she said. “Stay in the race.”

“It’s an election year,” her mother added. “Show me what you can do now. People are dying, now.”

Additional reporting by Lisa Desai.
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