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Why are indictments rare when people of color die in police custody?

A grand jury in Texas has decided to not indict anyone yet in connection with the death of Sandra Bland while in police custody, effectively clearing officials and jail employees of criminal wrongdoing. Jeffrey Brown discusses the case with Molly Hennessy-Fiske of the Los Angeles Times, then Heather Mac Donald of the Manhattan Institute and Brittany Packnett of Campaign Zero offer reactions.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Let's turn once again to the national conversation around policing, criminal justice and race.

    The latest development of note: a decision by a grand jury in Texas not to indict anyone yet in connection with the death of an African-American woman while she was in custody.

    Jeffrey Brown has the story.

  • DARRELL JORDAN, Prosecutor:

    This case is very big for the citizens of Waller County. It is even bigger for the family of Sandra Bland.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Prosecutor Darrell Jordan speaking last night.

  • DARRELL JORDAN:

    We have left no rock unturned. And the grand jury, anything that they have asked for, we have done our best to get it to them.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    That grand jury's decision effectively cleared sheriff's officials and jail employees of criminal wrongdoings in Bland's death. As captured on video, the Chicago-area woman was pulled over by a Texas state trooper in July for making an improper lane change.

    It quickly turned into a confrontation, as Bland refused to get out of her car, and trooper Brian Encinia brandished a stun gun.

  • BRIAN ENCINIA:

    Get out of the car! I will light you up! Get down!

  • SANDRA BLAND, Arrested:

    Wow.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Bland remained in jail when she could not raise $500 dollars bail, and three days later, her body was found hanging in her cell. The local medical examiner called it a suicide, but the family rejected that finding. And shortly before yesterday's decision, Bland's family charged the grand jury was a — quote — "sham proceeding."

  • GENEVA REED-VEAL, Sandra Bland’s Mother:

    It's the secrecy of it all. I can't even begin to tell you what's going on, because I myself don't even know what's going on, to not have my counsel be privy to any of this evidence that is being presented.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    There've been similar outcomes in several similar cases, including Michael Brown's death in Ferguson, Missouri, where a grand jury refused to indict a white policeman, plus the Eric Garner choke hold death on Staten Island New York. Again, a grand jury decided not to indict a white officer.

    And last week, a Baltimore judge declared a mistrial for the first officer charged in Freddie Gray's death in custody. Back in Texas, the prosecutor in the Bland case says the grand jury will reconvene next month to consider — quote — "other issues," possibly including charges against the trooper.

    And we get some further reporting on the Sandra Bland case and reactions to it now from Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Houston bureau chief for The Los Angeles Times.

    Molly, welcome back to the program.

    There's a lot here that we don't know exactly — including exactly what the grand jury was looking at, right?

  • MOLLY HENNESSY-FISKE, Los Angeles Times:

    That's right.

    The evidence presented to the grand jury, what the special prosecutor said — there's a team of about five special prosecutors, independent prosecutors who have been appointed to present the evidence to the grand jury. I spoke to some of them, and they said they could share some information, but they couldn't address specifics.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The special prosecutor said the grand jury will reconvene in January, so what do we know about what they will look at then?

  • MOLLY HENNESSY-FISKE:

    Well, they did say yesterday after meeting all day for the third time in six weeks, the special prosecutors came out late in the evening and said that there would be no indictments returned against the Waller County Sheriff's Office or the jail where Sandra Bland was held and where her body was found in her jail cell.

    But they said that the grand jury wanted to continue meeting, to continue investigating, and they will reconvene January 6. I asked them specifically whether they would be addressing the trooper who stopped Sandra Bland, that original traffic stop that resulted in her arrest and her being take to the jail. They wouldn't respond directly to address that.

    That's one of the specifics that they said they couldn't discuss. But it is one of the matters that's still outstanding.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And I gather that supporters of Sandra Bland are now preparing or now calling for federal — a federal role in all of this.

  • MOLLY HENNESSY-FISKE:

    That's right.

    Today, they called a meeting in front of the Waller County courthouse, which is where the grand jury had been meeting previously. The supporters gathered there urge and I talked to them ahead of time. They said that they planned to ask for the Justice Department, the federal government to get involved and have their own independent investigation, because they said they don't trust the local officials, the grand jury, as well as those who are investigating the case.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    All right, Molly Hennessy-Fiske, the Houston bureau chief of The Los Angeles Times, thanks so much.

  • MOLLY HENNESSY-FISKE:

    Thanks for having me.

    And we broaden the discussion further now with Brittany Packnett, an organizer of Campaign Zero, a group advocating for police reform, and Heather Mac Donald, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a policy think tank.

    I want to welcome both of you.

    I want to start with you, Brittany Packnett, starting with Sandra Bland to get a quick reaction. Were you surprised by the grand jury's decision?

  • BRITTANY PACKNETT, Campaign Zero:

    I'm sadly not surprised. As an activist and protester from Ferguson and also as a black woman myself who videotapes every single police encounter that I have when I'm pulled over, because I live in that amount of fear, I'm sadly not surprised.

    And there are millions of Americans not surprised by this outcome, and that should concern us all.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Heather Mac Donald, your reaction?

  • HEATHER MAC DONALD, Manhattan Institute:

    Well, there was no evidence that this was a homicide, Jeffrey. This was a suicide, and it's a tragic case. It's heartbreaking that Sandra Bland has died, but I don't know of any evidence. The coroner found that this was a suicide.

    Whether there was negligence on the part of the jail officials in not keeping a close enough suicide watch on Ms. Bland, who reported that she had recently tried to commit suicide because of a miscarriage, that remains to be seen, but I don't think there's any evidence of criminal wrongdoing here.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Each case, of course, has its own specifics.

    But, Brittany Packnett, you're saying you're not surprised because you see a larger pattern here?

  • BRITTANY PACKNETT:

    Absolutely. Over 1,000 people are killed each year by police officers in this country, and this year alone 14 police departments killed black people exclusively.

    And so we see this trend happening every single day. And I find it fascinating that black women can be forthright on reality television and it's entertaining, but when we're forthright in our matters of constitutional rights and self-protection, it can be deadly, as it was in Sandra Bland's case.

    At the very least, we need to be looking at the kinds of psychological damage that she suffered at the hands of what happened to her, both during her arrest and during her jailing, and, quite frankly, she never should have been arrested in the first place.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Why do you think — let me just stay with you, Brittany Packnett. Why do you think these indictments are hard to get?

  • BRITTANY PACKNETT:

    I believe these indictments are hard to get because there is a systemic issue at play.

    We have evidence of that systemic issue. We have done that research at Campaign Zero. We continue to see evidence that the criminal justice system disproportionately jails black and brown people in the issue of mass incarceration. And so we know that this system was never built for folks like us. And we know that it continues to prevail against us.

    And so the reason why this can continue is because the system has never stopped it.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    All right, so Heather Mac Donald, what's your response to that? Do you see a systemic issue here or a case by case?

  • HEATHER MAC DONALD:

    If this is an example of an indictment that somehow should have been brought against the police officer for murder, that's ridiculous.

    That explains why there aren't many indictments of police officers for murder. This officer, Encinia, was clearly not fit psychologically for the force. He lost it. He completely lost his cool when he was faced with alleged contempt of cop, but he's not responsible for the death of Sandra Bland. This was a suicide.

    The causal reasoning here is so remarkably attenuated. Yes, blacks are over-represented in the prison population, but study after study has shown that that is completely a function of their elevated rates of black crime. If we want to save black lives, which we all should, the best thing to do is to support the police, who have been responsible for a 50 percent drop in homicides over the last 20 years, the main beneficiaries of which have been law-abiding black residents of inner-city neighborhoods.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Are you arguing, Heather Mac Donald, that the justice system is working as it should in these cases?

  • HEATHER MAC DONALD:

    I am arguing that.

    In this case, I don't see any sign of a miscarriage of justice. What we need to be focusing on is the six — every day, 16 blacks are killed. They're not killed by white civilians. They're not killed by the cops. They're killed by gun violence.

    In September, three children under the age of 5 were killed in Cleveland, leading the police chief there to beg in tears for attention to what's happening in the streets.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    All right.

  • HEATHER MAC DONALD:

    In Cincinnati in July…

  • BRITTANY PACKNETT:

    I would like to respond to that.

  • HEATHER MAC DONALD:

    … two children were killed.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    All right, Brittany Packnett.

  • BRITTANY PACKNETT:

    I would like to respond to that. Thank you.

    So, what we know is that gun violence absolutely presents tragedies every single day, but if black lives really matter to people like Heather Mac Donald and other people who insist that black-on-black crime is the real issue, then pay attention to poverty, pay attention to issues of education, and pay attention to the fact that, according to the research we have analyzed at Campaign Zero, there is no correlation between community violence and police violence.

    In fact, in many departments where there have been a high incidence of police violence, there's been a low incidence of community violence, and the opposite can be said of many other departments. So we actually see no correlation between those things.

    At the end of the day, we know police violence is not the only thing plaguing our communities. However, police violence is what has killed Sandra Bland. And she never should have been arrested in the first place.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Well, Heather Mac Donald, respond to that, that she's pulling apart the argument that you just made, that one thing can exist, but there can also be — there can also be what she's talking about.

  • HEATHER MAC DONALD:

    Police violence didn't kill Sandra Bland. This was a police stop for a driving infraction that went horribly awry, but Sandra Bland committed suicide three days later.

    There is simply no causal connection between officer Encinia and Sandra Bland's death, as horrible as Sandra Bland's death is and as tragic a loss to her family. The nation spends $1 trillion a year on inner-city communities and trying to uplift people from poverty.

    That has not worked. What has worked is proactive policing, and the police are not racist. There have been some horrible individual instances in this last year, but that is a drop in the bucket compared to the daily violence that is taking black lives.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    We just have less than a minute.

    Brittany Packnett, I just want to ask you, in the Sandra Bland case, there are now calls for a federal role. Do you think that — it's important? Would that make a difference?

  • BRITTANY PACKNETT:

    I think that's absolutely essentially.

    And I think we can't get away from the basic fact that if officer Encinia hadn't been confrontational with Sandra Bland and had not arrested her for failing the use a traffic signal, she wouldn't be dead. So, to say that there is no causal relationship is simply inaccurate.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And, very briefly, Heather Mac Donald, what do you think about the federal role?

  • HEATHER MAC DONALD:

    I think it's completely unnecessary here.

    There's no sign of a pattern of practice in this case of civil rights violations. It's — there's simply not any kind of legal case for causation here on the part of officer Encinia or the police department or highway patrol from which he comes.

    Again, everybody wants to protect black lives, and the best way to do that is for policing to try to protect inner-city community from gun violence.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    All right. All right. We do have to leave it.

  • BRITTANY PACKNETT:

    The best way to do that is to acknowledge what we live with every single day.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    All right. We have to leave it there.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Brittany Packnett, Heather Mac Donald, thank you both very much.

  • BRITTANY PACKNETT:

    Thank you.

  • HEATHER MAC DONALD:

    Thank you.

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