Last Friday, 28-year-old Sandra Bland was arrested during a traffic stop by Texas state troopers in Waller County for allegedly displaying combative behavior. The troopers arrested Bland and took her to the Waller County Jail.
Three days later, she was found dead in her cell of alleged self-asphyxiation.
Captain Ian Cantrell at the Waller County Sheriff's office told Fusion that all arrests made by Texas State troopers get funneled to local county jails.
The distinction is important: Waller County police did not arrest Sandra Bland. State troopers arrested Sandra Bland. Which is why there’s a conflict of interest here.
According to Captain Cantrell, the investigation into the death of Bland, who would have begun her first day of work on Wednesday at her alma mater, Prairie View A&M University, is being conducted by the Texas Rangers, a statewide law enforcement agency tasked with investigations into unsolved crimes, public corruption, and officer-involved shootings, among other things.
The Texas Rangers are also comprised entirely of former Texas state troopers, the Texas Department Public Safety told Fusion, and are part of the same agency that oversees the state troopers who arrested Sandra Bland. In order to even qualify to become a ranger, candidates must have previously been troopers, according to the rangers website. Ranger applicants must also be currently employed with the Texas Department of Public Safety.
This is a significant conflict of interest in the investigation into the death of Sandra Bland.
Let’s take for example the case of Eric Garner, the 43-year-old grandfather who died in police custody last year on July 17 (the anniversary of Garner’s death is Friday). The investigation into Garner’s death was conducted by the Staten Island District Attorney’s office, an office that works hand-in-hand with the very police who were involved in Garner’s death.
Protesters, family members and civil-rights leaders all agreed on this, and they began petitioning New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, to change the way police-involved deaths are investigated.
Last week, the family members, protesters and civil-rights leaders won. Civilian deaths involving police will be investigated by New York’s special prosecutor Eric Schneiderman, who was assigned by Cuomo in an executive order.
Bland’s case is different from Garner’s—she died after spending three days in a county jail, not during her arrest. But the conflict of interest between the Rangers investigating her death and the troopers who arrested her still matters: The investigation could easily involve why she was arrested and whether that arrest was valid.
In Texas, police generally—but not always—turn officer-involved deaths over to the Rangers, who then present their case to a grand jury. In the case of Sandra Bland, the FBI has joined the Rangers' investigation, according to a statement from the Department of Public Safety.
Recent police shootings investigated by the Rangers did not result in any indictments against police officers, according to media reports. In the span of one week in late June, grand juries declined to indict officers in three fatal shootings investigated by the Rangers: one in Midland in which officers shot a man rushing them with a box cutter, another in San Angelo in which officers shot a man holding a gun after a car chase, and a third in Longview where officers shot a 17-year-old girl who came at them with a knife.
Nationwide, it’s rare for grand juries to indict officers, so that doesn’t necessarily mean the Rangers do a bad job of investigating officer-involved deaths. A spokesperson for the Department of Public Safety did not immediately respond to requests for comment about past cases.
The family and friends of Sandra Bland, the young black woman who, according to Waller police, died in her cell from self-asphyxiation, deserve a thorough investigation into her death. A thorough investigation should be performed by an outside entity that has nothing to do with the events that led to her death.
The Texas troopers arrested Sandra Bland. Texas Rangers, who were all once Texas troopers, should not investigate her death.
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.
Collier Meyerson is a reporter at Fusion with a focus on race and politics. She lives in Brooklyn.