A Texas police officer who was present during Sandra Bland’s traffic stop and arrest that led to her untimely death in a Waller County jail cell last year has said that county officials told him not to speak out about what really happened.
In an interview with the Houston Chronicle on Tuesday, Prairie View police officer Michael Kelly said the Waller County’s district attorney’s office prevented him from testifying before a grand jury about evidence that would have benefited Bland’s family and lawyer, telling Kelly that if he went public with his account, his career would suffer.
On July 10, 2015, Sandra Bland was pulled over at a traffic stop for an improper lane change she made on the way to her new job at Prairie View A&M University, her alma mater. Trooper Brian Encinia, the arresting officer who was later shown on a dashboard camera video getting into a physical confrontation with Bland and threatening to “light you up” with his Taser, took her to the county jail. Bland was found hanged in her cell three days later, her death later ruled a suicide.
Bland’s death, and the events leading up to it, have aroused both suspicion and outrage from family members, and from civil rights activists across the country. Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, has filed a federal wrongful death lawsuit against Waller County officials, and has criticized both county jail officials’ treatment of her daughter and the subsequent grand jury review of Bland’s death.
According to the Chronicle, Officer Kelly outlined his allegations in a sworn deposition he made last week on behalf of Reed-Veal’s wrongful death suit.
According to a separate interview he gave to the Huffington Post, Kelly arrived on the scene of the fateful traffic stop after Officer Encinia had already handcuffed Bland and put her in the back of his squad car. Kelly told the Post that he had overheard Encinia admit that he didn’t know what charge he could levy against Bland, but that he would think of something. Kelly said that that detail was later removed in the Prairie View cop’s incident report about Bland’s arrest.
“My opinion is that [Encinia] messed up,” Kelley told the Huffington Post. “He did not have probable cause to detain her after he pulled her out of the car.”
After Bland was found dead in her cell, the Houston Chronicle wrote, a Texas Ranger arrived at the Prairie View police station and told Kelly and another officer present at Bland’s arrest to write reports about what they had witnessed. But when Kelly and the other officer printed out their statements, the Ranger told the two cops not to make any copies or sign them.
“That’s when the red flags started coming on my end,” Kelly told the Chronicle.
Kelly said he was told to input his statement into the police station’s computer system, but he never did so, because his chief told him that he would take care of the report. But when Kelly was presented a copy of the report during his deposition last week, he said the document contained overly “generic” statements, and any information incriminating Officer Encinia was omitted.
The Chronicle reported that Kelly asked to testify before a grand jury about what he saw at the traffic stop, but the DA’s office declined to subpoena him. When the officer threatened to call one of the lawyers for Bland’s mother, an official at the DA told him that doing so would have a bad effect on his career.
The Huffington Post reported that Officer Kelly was later indicted for allegedly using a Taser on Prairie View City Councilman Jonathan Miller after the councilman did not comply with police orders last October.
The allegations of his own misconduct have led some county officials to discredit Kelly’s claims about what happened when Encinia arrested Sandra Bland. As the Houston Chronicle noted, Waller County District Attorney Elton R. Mathis Jr. dismissed Kelly’s deposition as “fictional,” and referred to the October incident with Councilman Miller.
In a written statement, Mathis said that Kelly’s allegations are “an attempt to divert attention away from the crime committed against Councilman Miller and to cash in on the media attention and sad circumstances surrounding Ms. Bland’s death last year for which we all still mourn.”
“I unequivocally state that he never approached me, my first assistant, or any member of my staff with any such information,” Mathis added. “His job was never threatened by me or my staff, and I barely knew who he was before he was indicted.”
But Kelly maintains that his October indictment was in retaliation for his willingness to go public with his claims about Encinia’s treatment of Bland, the Huffington Post wrote.
Allegations of corruption in the case surrounding Sandra Bland’s death are not new. As the Houston Chronicle noted, a former Waller County jailer recently testified in a deposition that he falsified jail logs on the day of Bland’s death, but a source told the Chronicle that the grand jury decided not to indict anyone over the matter.
Waller County Jail also has a history of mismanagement and abuse. An expose in The Guardian in April reported that a five-person panel was appointed by the sheriff’s office and a local attorney to suggest improvements to the jail. The committee eventually called for an entirely new jail, and said that there was widespread abuse of inmates, including harassing suspects and calling them names like “thug,” “gangbanger,” and “piece of sh*t.” The committee also stated that there was a poor system for screening inmates with physical and mental health problems.
Despite the resistance he’s received for coming forward, Officer Kelly maintains he is doing so for the right reasons, questioning the district attorney’s pledge to fully investigate Sandra Bland’s death.
“He gave statements to the media they would leave no stone unturned,” Kelly told the Chronicle. “I wasn’t allowed to give testimony. I was a stone that wasn’t turned over.”