The FBI has joined the investigation into the death of a young black woman whose body was found in a jail cell and whose family has dismissed police’s claims that she took her own life.
The Associated Press said federal investigators had joined the Texas Rangers in examining the circumstances of her death of Sandra Bland. The local prosecutor has also called a grand jury to which he will present the finding of his own investigation.
The developments came after the family of Ms Bland refused to accept the claims of officials that she had killed herself. Ms Bland, who had just secured a job at her alma mater, Prairie View A&M, had been pulled over and detained a week ago for an alleged traffic violation.
She was found dead in her cell on Monday morning, just hours before she was to have been released on bail. Authorities say it appeared she had taken her own life and a post-mortem examination carried out by the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences in Houston ruled her death ruled a suicide by hanging.
But the young women’s friends and relatives say they do not believe the official version of events and have seized on a video that shows the arrest of Mr Bland. Family members have travelled to Texas to take her body back to Chicago and activists from the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People have launched a probe.
Cheryl Nanton, a friend of the young woman, told The Independent that she feared foul play was involved.
“I don't think she killed herself,” she said, speaking from Chicago. “It is very sad...We look out for our young men because there are so many incidents, but we don’t expect this to happen to our daughters. People want to know what happened.”
A prominent Texas state senator has added his voice to those calling for a more full inquiry, asked the director of the Texas Department of Public Safety to release any video it has of the arrest of a woman later found dead in a jail cell.
Senator Royce West, one of two African American members of the 31-member Texas Senate, said in his letter that he believed the circumstances of the young woman’s death were “suspicious”.
“The circumstances have raised a number of questions for numerous persons, none more than myself,” he said.
Suspicions were increased after it was reported that the senior police officer in charge of Ms Bland’s detention was reportedly fired from his last job amid racism allegations.
Glenn Smith became sheriff of the Waller County Police Department the same year he was fired from his position at the Hempstead Police Department.
Ms Bland was spoke out about the issue of race filled her Facebook page with videos in which she made observations under the title “Sandy Speaks”.
“Being a black person in America is very, very hard,” she wrote in a recent post. “Show me in American history where all lives matter.”
It is understood that Ms Bland was detained by officers from the Texas Department of Public Safety. The department did not immediately respond to questions.
A spokesperson for Waller County Sheriff's Office, Jaime Madison Burnside, declined to respond to questions about the racism allegations levelled at Mr Smith, the sheriff.
He added: “With regards to the video, its authenticity has not been confirmed and we have no comment at this time.”
In video footage that was filmed by a passer-by of Ms Bland’s arrest, she can be seen being pushed to the ground and restrained. She can be heard questioning them about why they are being so rough.
“You just slammed my head into the ground. Do you not even care about that? I can't even hear,” she says. “You slammed me into the ground and everything.”
The police claimed Ms Bland “had been combative on the side of the road”. They said she was charged with assaulting a public servant and was taken into custody.
Her friend Malcolm Jackson told ABC News: “After he pulled her out of the car, forced her and tossed her to the ground, knee to the neck, and arrested her.”
Ms Bland’s friends say she had been with her family in Chicago over the July 4th holiday, and drove to Texas where she had recently secured the job at the college. She was to begin working in student outreach.
Officials said jailers saw Ms Bland at 7 am Monday when they gave her breakfast and again at 8 am. when they spoke with her over the jail intercom. She was found dead an hour later.
In a press release from the sheriff's department, authorities say they applied CPR, but that Ms Bland was pronounced dead shortly after she was found.
Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis said he had called the grand jury because he wanted "the public to have the final say on this issue,”, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Yolanda Bevill, a spokeswoman for Prairie View A&M University, said Ms Bland was due to take up a position on August 3 as a summer programme associate. She said she was unclear why she was in Prairie View.
“We are a very close-knit family,” she said. “We are saddened by this tragedy and the loss of a young vibrant life.”Reuse content