Sandra Bland death: Is Waller County 'the most racist county' in Texas?

As investigators probe the death of Sandra Bland, critics are pointing to Waller County's law enforcement officials, who have faced previous claims of racism.

Pat Sullivan/AP
Waller County Sheriff Glenn Smith listens during a news conference, Tuesday, in Prairie View, Texas, following a meeting regarding the investigation into the death of Sandra Bland. In 2008, Sheriff Smith was fired from his post as police chief of the Hempstead Police Department for issues allowing racism to cloud his police work.

The death of an African-American woman in police custody in Waller County, Texas, has cast a spotlight on the surrounding community and the officials involved.

Just as a district attorney announced this week that an inquiry into the death of Sandra Bland would be treated like a murder investigation, reports have surfaced of a pattern of racism long plaguing Waller County, where she was being held.

“Waller County, Texas, has had a complicated racial history since the days when it was a part of Mexico,” reported The Atlantic’s David A. Graham.

While the area has a longstanding past of discrimination, it also was something of "a beacon of black progress,” he noted. “The messy, confusing double legacy of that history has persisted to the present.”

“This is the most racist county in the state of Texas which is probably one of the most racist states in the country,” DeWayne Charleston, a former Waller County judge, told The Guardian.

Ms. Bland, a 28-year-old from Naperville, Illinois, was found dead in her jail cell on July 10 after she was arrested for being “combative” toward state trooper Brian Encinia, by his account. She had been pulled over three days before by Officer Encinia for failing to signal before changing lanes.

The sheriff’s department said Bland had hanged herself with a plastic bag and the coroner ruled her death as a suicide.

But some are critical not only of the announcement on Bland’s death, but the person who made it. County Sheriff Glenn Smith himself has a record of racism during his time as chief of police in Hempstead, Texas, reported progressive news site Daily Kos.

In 2007, Mr. Smith was suspended after complaints were made against him and four other white officers of racism and police brutality. When accusations of misconduct continued even after his suspension, he was eventually fired.

Smith, who ran for Waller County sheriff later that year, addressed these concerns at a news conference on Bland’s death, reported The Houston Chronicle. “Black lives matter to Glenn Smith,” he vowed. “I can assure you of that.”

Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis told reporters Monday that it was still too early in the investigation to come to a conclusion. He has said that federal agents, along with the Texas Rangers, are looking into the cause of Bland’s death.

Mr. Mathis has also been accused of public misconduct, according to the Chronicle. An African American pastor last year told reporters that the prosecutor sent him abusive text messages in response to accusations that he primarily prosecuted minorities.

Mathis confirmed that he had sent the messages but denied that he’d been making threats. “Those statements were made by me in anger but I stand behind them," he said.

Meanwhile, a police video released Tuesday shows parts of Bland’s arrest, but it also appeared to raise more questions than it answered. Viewers are deliberating whether the footage had been edited beforehand, and seized on remarks made by Officer Encinia, who had threatened her with his stun gun.

Officials have attributed the discontinuities in the footage to a "glitch." Encinia has been suspended pending a full investigation. A grand jury will ultimately decide whether any charges are warranted in relation to Bland's arrest and death.

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