An independent probe into the work of the Waller County, Texas, officials in charge of closing the case on Sandra Bland’s July 13, 2015, death in police custody reveals hurdles standing in the way of justice.
Funded by nearly 3,200 individual donors and published by The Huffington Post the investigation examined the current status of the commission that Waller Country sheriff Glenn Smith vowed to convene, starting with the leadership. Here is what it revealed:
Conflict of interest. Sherriff Smith—who was reportedly fired from a previous post for allegations of racial bias and brutality— appointed local defense attorney Paul Looney to lead the commission and pick the remaining five members. But Looney enjoys a close relationship with the county. Since June, Looney’s law firm had a retainer agreement with Waller Country’s top elected official, Carbett “Trey” Duhon III, that paid the firm to send clients its way. Duhon runs the county’s “commissioners’ court” which is the equivalent of a city council, and is the person who would ultimately be responsible for approving a settlement to Bland’s family. (He is also the person who tweeted that Bland had “high levels of active THC in her system at time of death.”) Duhon severed his ties with Looney’s firm earlier this month after the chair of the ethics committee of the State Bar of Texas’ Judicial Section said it represented a conflict of interest.
No deadline. The panel is not being held to a deadline to complete their review of the case, and Looney said that the members are currently just “observing and taking notes.”
Apparent lack of intent for action. Looney, who is now a non-voting member of the panel at Duhon’s request, told The Huffington Post, “We’re not trying to do an exposé. It’s more in the nature of a consultant report for the sheriff to use as he wants.” He continued, “He can read it or not read it. If he wants to throw the whole thing in the trash can, he can.” Meanwhile, Duhon said that he thought the investigation of the case would hold more weight. “I was told early on that they would be doing a comprehensive review. If that’s changed, that’s not anything I would have knowledge of,” Duhon said.
There have been many pleas to the Department of Justice (DOJ) to investigate the case, including an online petition. And Attorney General Loretta Lynch has been quoted as saying that Bland’s death “highlights the concern of many in the black community that a routine stop for many members of the black community is not handled with the same professionalism and courtesy that other people may get from the police.” But the DOJ is not currently investigating the case. Duhon told The Huffington Post that the county would welcome a DOJ probe.
In a statement, ColorOfChange executive director Rashad Robinson* said:
Sandra Bland’s family members lost their loved one because these elected officials have allowed discriminatory police violence and the highly unjust practice of for-profit bail to continue unabated. Their corruption is the reason why more than two months later not one person has been prosecuted or held accountable for Sandra’s death, despite more than enough video footage and evidence to do so. It's shameful, and yet our national leaders sit by and do nothing. …
Paul Looney, Sheriff Glenn Smith and DA Elton Mathis must be removed from office and prosecuted for their criminal negligence. It’s imperative that Department of Justice uses its power to overhaul the policies and practices that led to Sandra’s death and hold all those responsible accountable.
*Rashad Robinson is on the board of Race Forward, the racial justice organization that publishes Colorlines.