In the very last photo ever taken of Sandra Bland alive — shortly before she was found hanging from a slipknotted plastic bag in her Waller County, Texas, jail cell — the 28-year-old stares emotionless at the camera, clothed in an orange jumpsuit. The grim mugshot was snapped shortly after Bland was arrested during a routine traffic stop on July 10. Three days later she was dead.
The picture soon sparked a host of conspiracy theories speculating she may have already died and was sprawled on the floor when it was taken. The rumors gained such momentum, they forced police to release CCTV footage showing Bland was alive during her booking process, but the action did little to dispel other rumblings that her jailers somehow had a hand in her death. Bland's family insisted she had met with foul play, and also questioned why a woman who had just landed her dream job would kill herself. Yet, this week, a Texas grand jury decided it would not indict any troopers or jailers in Bland's death, which has officially been ruled a suicide.
The grand jury decision also means the case will almost certainly be ruled out for inclusion in a new FBI-run database tracking the number of people killed by police each year in America. Instead, the cases in the new data set, which is set to be released some time in 2016, will likely focus on more definitive officer-involved deaths caused by either direct physical force or use of firearms. High profile examples might include Eric Garner, who suffocated after being locked in a police chokehold, and Michael Brown, whose shooting death was one of the cases that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement and nationwide protests that followed last spring.
Bland's case on the other hand demonstrates the highly obstacled undertaking of building a transparent justice system in response to ongoing protests and the seemingly unabated deaths in police custody this year. While 2015 has been the year the movement known for short as BLM flourished and matured, it also has been a year of mixed progress and attempts with varying success to hold police accountable for the deaths of minority citizens, largely African-American, at the hands of cops.
The FBI deadly force tracker is just one of a range of new measures of accountability that have been crafted in response to the rise of the BLM movement. Until now, the FBI has only collected data on cop-involved deaths from police departments that volunteer it — and unsurprisingly, those reports have not been forthcoming. The bureau recently said the new system would publish a broader range of data, but since it will ultimately still rely on information volunteered by departments, it's not clear how it will be "more robust," or "complete," as officials claim.
Signs of some progress are also noticeable at the state and local level. Since Brown's death, law enforcement officials in at least 24 states have introduced at least 40 new laws or policies aimed at curbing police misconduct. In many cases the officials have started training their forces in unbiased and community-based policing or mandating the use of bodycams. Yet the repeated surfacing of videos depicting police brutality or officer-involved fatalities in 2015 showed that some remained undeterred by such measures.
A citizen-run database, Killed by Police, counted more than 1,144 people killed since the beginning of the year — an increase from at least 1,108 killed in 2014.
This year, BLM and other protests also pushed the Justice Department to launch broad-ranging investigations into police departments in Baltimore, where Freddie Gray died of a broken neck while in the back of a police van in April, and Chicago, where police fatally shot 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. Yet, the question remains whether these reports will force police departments to become more accountable, especially considering the DoJ investigations into other cities have demonstrated varying results.
In Cleveland and Ferguson, for example, the DoJ found systemic civil rights violations and excessively violent practices within both police departments in reports released last December and this March, respectively. But the implementation of recommendations outlined in those reports has been sluggish,while bringing officers to justice has remained slow.
The timing and number of indictments and charges against police is also troubling. In August, on the anniversary of Brown's death, a VICE News investigation revealed that of the 1,083 civilian deaths by police in that 12-month period, there were only 22 cases where officers were indicted or charged with crimes for killing citizens. A significant number more — at least 257 deaths — had been either ruled an accident or investigators found the officers were justified in their use of fatal force. The majority of incidents are still under investigation, including the Texas probe into what exactly happened to Bland.
Meanwhile, there no guarantees indicted officers will ultimately be held to account or prosecuted in a timely way. It's been more than a year since police shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice as he played with a toy gun in a Cleveland park in November 2014. But the white cop who fired at the boy is only just this month facing a grand jury panel, which will decide whether to bring criminal charges against him. Last week, a judge in Gray's case announced a mistrial after jurors remained deadlocked in the trial of one of the officers involved in the man's death. Five other officers charged with varying roles in Gray's death are also set to stand trial next year.
Yet, without BLM, which is comprised of a loose coalition of civil rights groups and individual activists, the momentum for change would not arguably have taken hold as it did. Issues of criminal justice and race would arguably not so readily be on the tips of the tongues of 2016 presidential candidates, and police departments would have arguably continued many practices that were once were ignored or even systemically tolerated, but that are now vocally opposed and widely condemned. This year the number of police officers slapped with murder or manslaughter charges for on-duty shootings has more than tripled, compared with the annual average over the past decade. That's not trifling — and it says that in 2015, running a police department that systematically brutalizes minority citizens became much harder in the United States.
Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields