Sharon Cooper & Kate Davis on Sandra Bland’s Legacy

In July 2015, Sandra Bland was arrested in Texas for a traffic violation, and died three days later in police custody. Michel Martin sits down with Kate Davis, the director of a new film looking back at her death, as well as Sharon Cooper, Sandra’s sister.

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AMANPOUR: Indeed scary in the search for justice on a global scale. And now we focus on a more intimate struggle for closure by one American family. Sandra Bland’s death became a flashpoint for protests back in 2015. She was arrested during a traffic stop in Texas and 72 hours later after being taken into custody, she was found dead in her cell of an apparent suicide. She was only 28. Three years later, her family is still trying to figure out what happened to her. A mission that’s been documented by the film “Say Her Name”, the life and death of Sandra Bland which premiered on HBO this week. Michel Martin sat down with the director of the film Kate Davis and Sandra’s sister, Sharon Cooper who’s determined to keep her sister’s story and her name alive.

MICHEL MARTIN, CONTRIBUTOR: Kate Davis, Sharon Cooper, thank you so much for talking with us.



MARTIN: Tell me about your sister. Tell me about Sandra.

COOPER: Sandra was one of five girls. She’s number four in the pack. So someone who always wanted to make sure that her voice was heard. As you can imagine, there’s a lot of voices around female voices at that. You want to make sure that your opinion is heard. She was an aunt. She has 10 nieces and nephews. Really just a brilliant person, very smart, intellectually vocal, very talented.

MARTIN: Why was she driving to Texas?

COOPER: Sandy moved back from Texas about three years prior to 2015. She’d gone to school there or stayed there for a little bit and was driving back because there was an opportunity for her to work as a student ambassador in one of their offices down there. She was also making plans to go back and get her master’s in political science. She actually only been in Texas for just one day before she was stopped by Brian Encinia.

MARTIN: How did you find out that something terrible had happened?

COOPER: I found out on that Monday afternoon. I will never forget it. And I had all of these missed calls, call after call after call. And I’m like something is wrong, not even thinking that it was that. But found out from my younger sister Shavon who’s right underneath me. I just ended up calling her back first because she was the person who had recently called me. And she just told me that Sandy was dead and I just like hit the floor in my office at work. I remember wailing and having a colleague come in and ask me if everything was OK. And I just really could not even keep it together.

MARTIN: Kate, how did you get connected to the story?

DAVIS: Well, the dash cam that showed Sandy’s arrest had gone viral almost instantly after she passed. And so I knew about the story. And at that time, HBO called my partner and me and asked if we might want to do a full-length film on this. And we approached the family and they met with us. And they had to, you know, take the leap of faith that we would tell the story even-handedly with compassion, listen to them, let them, you know, lead the way in terms of their voice being really heard fairly.

MARTIN: What the public originally saw was the video, the dash cam video of the police stop, where Sandra was pulled over for failure to signal a lane change and then it escalated to this confrontation that was very ugly. That’s what the public saw.


SANDRA BLAND: Why am I being apprehended? You’re trying to give me a ticket –

BRIAN ENCINIA: I said get out of the car.

BLAND: Why am I being apprehended?

ENCINIA: I’m giving you a lawful order. I’m going to drag you out of here.

BLAND: So you’re going to drag me out of my own car?

ENCINIA: Get out of the car. I will lock you up. Get out.

BLAND: And you will stop me? Wow.



ENCINIA: Get out of the car.

BLAND: For failure to signal? You’re doing all of this for failure to signal?

ENCINIA: Get over there.

BLAND: Right, yes. Yes, let’s take this to court.

ENCINIA: Go ahead.

BLAND: For failure to signal. Yes, for failure to signal. I can’t wait if we go to court. I can’t wait. I cannot wait until we go to court.


MARTIN: From your standpoint as a journalist, what was it that — the questions that you came in with?

DAVIS: Well, I mean I think the dash cam speaks for itself largely. You see this, you know, escalating situation which leads to Sandra being put into a small town jail for what ended up being three days. The lingering questions come I think around or centered around some of the protocol in the jail. She wasn’t checked on when she should have been every 24 hours. She wasn’t — you know she had said that there were — she had a history of suicide and they didn’t have any, you know, mental special —

MARTIN: There’s no mental checks?

DAVIS: She had a trash can liner made of plastic in a jail cell where she was isolated, you know, in solitary confinement for three days. This is a jail cell where they will take your shoelaces away so that you can’t hurt yourself. So those are just a few of the questions. They, you know, were supposed to check on her every 45 minutes, 50 minutes. And the jail records, as people will see when they see the film, you know, were actually sloppily kept, inaccurately kept. So we don’t really know what happened.

MARTIN: I want to play a clip in the film that speaks to that. And this is, I guess, why you feel that you don’t. Let me just play that clip and let you talk some more.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The Texas Rangers, they walked us through footage so they claimed anyway of the video. We were looking, trying to see where Sandy was. I don’t see her ever.

COOPER: The video that we viewed only went down. It was only for the morning of Monday, July 13. There’s no timestamps. There’s no dates. Her cell was all the way in the back corner. She was in the cell number 95. The way I choose to phrase it is, where she was did not have cameras, that I would think that that would be strange. Then how are you monitoring your inmates? Why was she in a cell by herself? That’s a big cell for one person. And when they were wheeling the gurney out, I went woah, she’s going to be on the gurney, right? Oh no. she wasn’t on the gurney. She wasn’t on the gurney.


MARTIN: Sharon, do you have a theory about what happened?

COOPER: I have to be honest with you. I wish I did. The position that I’m — that I sit within and quite frankly that my family sits within is that unfortunately, we’ll never know what happened. Because I do believe that the person who can tell us what happened is no longer here to share that information with us. I think there was an immense amount of negligence involved there. I think there was an immense amount of misinformation that was shared with us. And that created this level of distrust, right, and this discourse that put us in a position where we had to consistently question everything that they told us.

MARTIN: Why was she in solitary confinement?

COOPER: That is an excellent question.

MARTIN: Do you — you don’t know?

COOPER: She — absolutely no why she was. Remember she was charged with an assault and so that put her in a felony category which apparently changes the course of how you are cared for and how you’re situated in the jail. So they put her in solitary confinement because it was communicated that in the feel she was combative and had made physical contact with a peace officer as they called it. Which was completely unfounded based off of what he wrote in his report versus what was on the dash cam footage, coupled with the fact that when you bring someone in who is combatant, you’re supposed to reassess them after a 24-hour period. She wasn’t even combatant when she was brought in. So she wasn’t combatant when she was brought in. And so what’s supposed to happen is you’re supposed to put someone in with gen pop essentially after a 24-hour period which they never did. And I do have a theory about that.

MARTIN: Which is what?

COOPER: Which is this, I do believe that the intent was to punish her and to teach her a lesson, right. You have this interaction, this alleged interaction that happened in the field, and we have law enforcement officials and jailers who work closely together. And so the thought is if you have gotten out of line in the field then we’re going to put you back in your place here. And that’s all a part of locking someone up on a Friday evening, know that there are —

MARTIN: I was going to ask why was she never —

COOPER: — limited resources —


COOPER: — to get them out, whether it’s resources from the state level in terms of getting a judge or magistrate come in which I know was the case. But also two, what people need to understand is that she was in Texas and all of her family was in Chicago. Every single last member of her family. So yes, there was an initial call which we responded to within a 24-hour period but I think it’s important for people to understand families can’t pick up the phone and call a jail. You know this notion that, you know, people would say, “Well, why didn’t you guys call her back?” Who do you know could pick up the phone and call a jail and say, “Can I speak to so and so?” right. So there is this whole miscarriage of justice if you will, and this whole frustration around just the lack with which they handled things, the sloppy nature within which that they took care of the whole situation.

MARTIN: I don’t want to glide past the issue though of she had had a previous suicide attempt. Isn’t that —

COOPER: That’s correct based off of what she disclosed to the jail.

MARTIN: So does that make it plausible that she may have in fact taken her own life here, that she was so — just for whatever reason, she was so distraught by the behavior, by the treatment that — does that change anything?

COOPER: I don’t — I mean I think that we’ve always shared that we’ve been open to all possibilities. And I think what we have asked in return is that we’re finally shown that and we weren’t. Literally, every single thing that they shared with us on the phone from the time — you know, prior to us getting there was unfounded in that like they couldn’t provide that information to us to support the claim that they made. And so to that end, I think that if in the event that it were a possibility, it still goes to the heart of when you are under someone’s custodial care, they are responsible for you.

MARTIN: So the two issues as I see it is first of all that Sandra was in their custody and she had disclosed that she had had a prior suicide attempt. They should have taken steps to care for her.

COOPER: Agreed.

MARTIN: And they didn’t so that’s one issue. But Kate, you’re raising another issue and you spoke about that in the clip which is why was she treated that way, to begin with. And so what’s your theory about it?

DAVIS: I guess my theory really is that I wouldn’t point the fingers personally at any one person in the jail. I don’t necessarily think there’s a bad guy who came in and took her life. There’s no proof of that. On the other hand, I think that everybody involved, they’re all part of a larger system which allows for this kind of callousness and dehumanization to take place. And I think it’s — you know, I hope the film as a conversation started around that, that law enforcement needs to look at themselves why, you know, something like this can happen.

MARTIN: What does the hashtag mean, #sayhername? And you borrowed from the hashtag for the title of the film. What does that mean #sayhername?

DAVIS: Absolutely.

MARTIN: And why do you think that took off?

COOPER: In the earlier half of 2015, the African American Policy Forum, they actually established #sayhername as this effort to amplify the voices of women who were being impacted by state-sanctioned violence but who weren’t getting the amount of attention and exposure as black men were, right. So I think let’s say what — why we took on the moniker of #sayhername is really to continue to amplify the notion that this is happening to women, black women, and girls at an alarming rate and for a litany of reasons. I do think that women in this country are seen as second-class citizens. And even in the lower tier, if you are a woman of color, right. So to be able to again have someone who was so outspoken, to have somebody who left this digital footprint if you will for us to learn from her and to be able to not just amplify her story and #sayhername but again, to highlight the names of so many others who haven’t gotten that recognition. And I think it was women who were saying you know what, #sayhername and don’t forget what her name is. And I think that it was so important to pay homage to that movement in that way.

MARTIN: I’m asking you as a journalist. You followed all of this. What investigation actually occurred and what did the authorities tell you about that investigation?

DAVIS: You know there were levels of the [13:50:00] investigation that we were not privy to. And there were many things that went down with the Texas authorities that we really still don’t quite understand. And it’s just — it’s not an easy thing to answer. What the district attorney and Sheriff Smith told us is that, you know, they were trying to do their best and Sandra was sad and she was abandoned and she was a, you know, marijuana smoker and things that were kind of blown up a little bit in the news that turned out to be somewhat false and irrelevant. But in terms of what happened on a forensic level, why her core body temperature was not taken at the time of her death, why there was no DNA that was found on the noose, you know, there are some flagrant and sort of pieces of evidence that still are murky.

MARTIN: As I understand it, there was a settlement with the family. Is that accurate?

COOPER: That was accurate. Also, perjury charge that he was —

MARTIN: And there was a charge but those charges were later —

COOPER: Ultimately dropped.

MARTIN: Dropped?


MARTIN: A perjury charge related to how the officer —

COOPER: Which was a (INAUDIBLE), the way that he wrote his report.

MARTIN: Described the circumstances of the report. And I wonder how does all of that sit with you?

COOPER: Oh, it’s infuriating. It’s infuriating largely because that is the exact opposite of what we wanted was this consistent accountability, right. Like there is a difference between an indictment and a conviction. And what families who are impacted by police brutality want is they want a conviction. People need to be held accountable for their inability to do their jobs effectively to the degree that it takes away a loved one. So quite frankly not thrilled about it at all. And the fact that he, you know, he won’t work in the State of Texas again as a law enforcement official but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he won’t hop over to a different state and work as a law enforcement official. And he just doesn’t need to be engaged with the public in that way as far as I’m concerned. I do not have a problem saying this you. He is responsible for Sandra’s death. He is, him, along with the jailers who failed to do their job appropriately. So I have no problem saying that. I know I feel that way. My family feels that way.

MARTIN: People, there’s — not everybody but there are a lot of people in law enforcement, you know, who feel that they are unduly criticized, that they feel there’s a lack of respect for what they do. And so I’m just interested in what you would say to them.

COOPER: And I have to tell you, we don’t have a police problem, right. Like I’m not anti-police. We are not anti-police. We’re anti-police brutality. That’s what we are. And we’re anti-lack of police accountability. And so what I would say to them is this. This is a dual conversation as equally, as equally as you are trying to make a home to your families and your loved ones, I very much want that for you, I very much want that for the young man, for the young woman, for the young boy, for the young girl that you encounter on your journey.

MARTIN: Why do you think that this encounter, as you put it, went viral? Why do you think people had such a strong reaction to it?

COOPER: I think without a shadow of a doubt, she’s a woman. She’s a woman I think that there is a level of desensitization that we’ve seen unfortunately when it comes to the take down of black men who are seen as inherently scary and evil and not good. And I think that black women are seen through that same thing, it’s just for the angry black woman lens, right. So you have this man who is quite frankly towering over this woman with the misuse of his power, right. That’s not towering over her in stature because that’s something that she didn’t have a problem with. So I think it was that and I think he also had someone who actually knew what they were talking about. And you can hear it throughout the dash cam video where she’s talking about she knows what her rights are and she’s asserting herself and telling him what she has and what she does not have to do. And so I think that a lot of people saw themselves in her, either saw themselves as Sandra or saw their sister or their best friend.

MARTIN: Kate Davis, Sharon Cooper, thank you both so much for talking with us today.

COOPER: Thank you.

About This Episode EXPAND

Christiane Amanpour speaks with Dominique Moisi, Special Adviser, Institut Montaigne; and Louise Arbour, U.N. Special Representative for International Migration. Michel Martin speaks with Sharon Cooper, Sandra Bland’s sister, and Kate Davis, co-director of the film “Say Her Name.”