Why focusing on suicide in the deaths of Sandra Bland and Kindra Chapman misses the point

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Occam's Razor can be a useful tool. The simplest explanation — the hypotheses that requires the fewest assumptions — is often best. But it’s not always clear where Occam’s Razor would cut. Would parsimony dictate, for example, that Sandra Bland committed suicide with a trash bag in her jail cell? Or is the simplest explanation that, once again, police have lied about how a black life was extinguished in their hands? We might slice the razor towards the latter. The premise that cops kill black people, and lie about it, is empirically established. But that's the danger of parsimony: it leads us to reject explanations that seem mysterious, based on our existing experience, but which deserve countenance.


It speaks volumes that in Bland's case, many people find suicide to be less believable than homicide by police. Such is the state of policing in America. So common is the tendency for cops to lie on record, even under oath, that the term "testilying" was coined specifically for the fabrications police officers present in court. We should be careful though: just because egregious police lies are so plausible that they are predictable does not mean that Bland hanging herself is implausible. We should challenge the police narrative because it is inconsistent and insufficient. We have every reason to scrutinize the Harris County police and autopsy reports. But not because, based on a poor understanding of suicide, we reject the possibility that Bland would take her own life.

I want to state from the outset that I unmitigatedly blame the police for Bland's death, in tandem with the draconian bail system that saw the activist caged for days after a traffic stop. If Bland hanged herself, she did so under the cruel yoke of a system that is in the very business of extinguishing and dismissing black life. The day after Bland was found dead, the body of 18-year-old Kindra Chapman was found in an Alabama jail cell, and according to police and coroners, she had hanged herself. The black teen had been arrested for allegedly trying to steal a cell phone. If it was suicide, I still also blame the police for her death. Fault doesn't lie only in police failures to monitor or administer mental healthcare. Nor is blame necessarily situated in the actions of any individual officer. When, in the span of two weeks, four people of color are found dead in jail cells just days after their arrests, we're looking at a system that is deadly.

In both the Bland and Chapman cases, family and friends of the deceased have disputed the suicide accounts. "She wouldn't do that," said Chapman's grandmother. Bland's close friend and mentor, LaVaughn Mosley received a call from Bland from prison three days before her death. "She was great. Looking forward to getting out and moving forward," he told the New York Times. He said suicide made no sense "at all" for the "strong" and "tough" woman, some of which we witnessed in her dignified anger in response to her abusive arresting officer. In wanting to support the loved ones' calls for justice, and sharing their distrust of police narratives, there's a temptation to prioritize testimony that ostensibly contradicts the police reports. But only an impoverished understanding of suicide demands that it be predictable, or born of traceable and clear intentions.

The mystery for many, however, was that at the time of her arrest Bland appeared "strong" and committed to living and fighting. But both to understand the trauma of jail and police abuse, and to assert a properly nuanced understanding of suicide, we must accept the possibility that in confinement, Bland made a leap for oblivion. It's not only that we can never know if she truly wanted to die, but that the line between intentional and accidental could be essentially blurred. The factor that can't be underestimated is the despair that confinement and racist police abuse can produce. We're not just talking three days in Bland's case. We must address the force of unbroken centuries of institutionalized racist violence, reiterated again and again on black life every day.

The focus on proving or disproving suicide is important, but should not subsume the broader problem of death in police custody. The same July day that Chapman was found dead, Native American activist Rexdale Henry was found dead in a Mississippi jail cell. When arrested (for not paying a traffic fine) he was deemed in good health. Details of his autopsy have not been released, but his family has stated that the 53-year-old was found with broken ribs. Then, just two weeks later, this time in Cleveland, Ralkina Jones died in police custody, exhibiting “no suspicious injuries,” reporting to police. She was being treated with medications for as yet undisclosed conditions, but was discovered dead in her cell just two days after her arrest. Neither Jones’ nor Henry’s case involve questions of suicide at all; the spate of people of color dying after a short time in police custody is not an epidemic of suicidal arrestees.


We might for a second imagine that every time police claim a detainee has killed herself or himself, it is true. This requires a stretch of the imagination in some cases — it’s hard to picture how a teen might have been searched, handcuffed and put in the back of a police car, and yet still manage to shoot himself in the head, as police claimed was the case in the death of 17-year-old Jesus Huerta in 2013. But in a suspended reality, in which police never lie about detainee suicides, the cops do not exempt themselves from being a violent actor in these cases.

To take seriously the possibility of suicide in cases like Bland's or Chapman's is not to grant impunity to the police. Rather, it entails understanding the trauma that arrest and confinement can invoke, especially in their black victims. The terrain of suicide is not limited to those who present as wracked by psychological distress, nor those with long-term suicidal ideation or reasoned intentions towards death. It is consistent that Bland be strong and tough and also driven to deadly despair. Chapman's grandmother's claim that the teenager "wouldn't" take her own life relies on an assumption that we have a clear and correct profile of a believable suicidal subject. Suicide is not nearly so simple.


I see the impulse to dispute police reports in these deaths as an index of our rightful distrust of cops, more than a barometer for our dismissal of suicides we find hard to explain. It speaks to the constancy with which police kill black people that this seems to be the most rational explanation. But we must consider the possibility that Bland committed suicide, Chapman too, and that police reports about these deaths are still untrustworthy, inconsistent and in need of challenging. If these were suicides, that is no grounds to trust the police, but rather ample reason to see them as vectors of despair so serious that they prove fatal.