WALLER COUNTY, Texas — Take a short glance back into the legacy of Waller County and it’s no wonder that by the time 28-year-old Sandra Bland’s body was recovered in a jail cell here, the public’s faith in its institutions was already long-compromised.
The conspiracy theories in the wake of Bland’s death materialized as rapidly as the video of her arrest went viral. Why would a vibrant, young black woman with seemingly promising prospects want to take her own life when she seemed so close to getting out of jail?
But the story of the public’s mistrust goes beyond personal details of Bland’s life and further back in time than when the circumstances of her untimely death began with a routine traffic stop. Appealing to a community skeptical of the official account of Bland’s death as a suicide, Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis acknowledged this week the root behind palpable lack of trust behind the investigation.
“I can completely understand why those looking outside Waller County and looking at some of the bad things of our past would jump to those conclusions that this was a murder and not a suicide,” Mathis told reporters this week.
Once the investigation is complete and it comes time for authorities to start rebuilding the community’s trust, they will be working up against an unsavory legacy decades in the making. Instances of racial discrimination, police misconduct, political corruption and voter disenfranchisement have all intertwined into a fraught dynamic throughout the county in recent years. Some are more optimistic than others that those issues can be untangled.
The sheriff running Waller County
One does not have to look far back into the past to find instances of Waller County’s mired history. Sheriff Glenn Smith, who once served as chief of the Hempstead Police Department before being forced out, rises to the top of the list with a complicated past checkered with allegations of racism.
“Thirty-six years in this business, have I made everybody love me? Have I been the most popular? No I haven’t,” Smith told msnbc.
In 2007, the Hempstead City Council voted to suspend Smith for two weeks without pay, stemming from the arrest of a 35-year-old black man named Cory Labba. Local reports at the time from The Houston Chronicle described an intense debate between city council members in a closed-door meeting that lasted until 2 a.m.
Smith says that Labba was standing in the middle of the road and spit on him. Smith then shoved Labba in the chest and shouted profanities at him. The former police chief contests that his actions were not racially motivated.
A year later, he was fired.
Smith was ultimately ousted by a 3-2 vote on March 17, The Houston Chronicle reported at the time, amid community complaints against police conduct and a mistaken drug raid from earlier that year when police stormed the wrong house.
In defiance of his firing, Smith opened a bid for county sheriff before his termination at the Hempstead Police Department was effective on May 1. That fall, he was elected as sheriff of Waller County, beating out Democrat Jeron Barnett, who would have been the first black sheriff elected in the county.
“It’s a sad testament that this guy was fired from a department for his racist behaviors and then elected as sheriff,” said Dr. Richard Watkins, a former prison warden and alumnae of Prairie View A&M University. “It shows that if people are not informed and do not participate in the elections, this is what happens.”
As sheriff, Smith now heads the jail where Bland’s body was found and is leading the investigation along with state officials into what went wrong. Despite being under intense scrutiny for his jail protocols in the wake of Bland’s death, Smith maintains that he has run a clean department.
“Even statistically wise, data wise, I think it shows I’m not racist,” Smith said.
Just over 60% of all drivers pulled over by Waller County Sheriff’s Department in 2014 were white, according to its annual racial profiling report filed to the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement. In more diverse areas in county like Prairie View, where Bland was pulled over and previously attended school at a historically black college, the scales are flipped. More than 60% of stops by local police there involved black drivers.
Rejecting calls from the community to step down, Smith says he plans on running for re-election once his term is up.
“I’m not going to run backwards. I’m going to face it, deal with it, ultimately, I’m the sheriff of the county and it’s my responsibility,” Smith said.
A history of scandal
The battle for voting rights in the county has a long, sordid history in Waller County. Prairie View A&M University has been a beacon in the fight to add students to the voting rolls, dating back to the 1970s when key federal court rulings blocked efforts to deny students the right to vote.
The issue reached a head again in 2004 when Waller County District Attorney Oliver Kitzman declared that students were not immediately eligible to vote at their college address. Thousands of students marched in protest to his actions, which drew lawsuits and federal inquiries. The county also tried to cut early voting hours on campus only to once again be blocked by the federal government. Kitzman backed down and resigned later that year.
“We have a long history of disenfranchising African-American or minority people,” said Brian Rowland, a Prairie View student at the time who later became a city councilman there. “There are a lot of racial underpinning in Waller County that’s based upon Waller County being a majority Republican while the number one employer is a historically black university.”
Years later, the region would be caught up in yet another scandal. For a time, federal indictments against elected officials were nearly commonplace throughout Waller County. Four elected officials were forced to resign in 2009 after being swept up in a federal bribery and fraud investigation.
In a single month, the mayor pro-tem of Hempstead, a Hempstead alderman, the Brookshire mayor and public works director all pleaded guilty to soliciting and accepting kickbacks in exchange for contracts with their respective cities.
“Waller County is just a real problem area and it’s just a fact that it exists to this day,” said Glenn Bledsoe, president of the Texas NAACP.
“A new generation in control”
Mathis, the Waller County district attorney, says the days of racial tension and political corruption are a thing of the past, pointing to an effort to root out racial profiling and adding hate crimes to the books to effectively prosecute cases of discrimination.
“There is a new generation in control here in Waller County — a more progressive generation,” he said. “Historically this county does and did have a lot of things went on here that we’re not particularly proud of as far as racial interaction.”
Sheriff Smith for his part has tasked a local trial attorney Paul Looney to head an outside commission to review jail procedures. He says the public should expect some wholesale changes to protocols in the future.
Looney says he’s up for the challenge.
“If he wanted to select someone who covers for him, he chose the wrong person,” Looney said of Sheriff Smith.