Tuesday, Feb. 7, would have been Sandra Bland’s 36th birthday.
Her sister, Shante Needham, misses her every day.
“She loved her nieces and nephews,” Needham said. “She loved her sisters too, but she really focused on the younger generation.”
This summer will mark eight years since Bland, who lived in west suburban Naperville, was found dead in a Texas jail cell, two days after a police officer stopped her in Prairie View, Texas, because the officer said she didn’t signal before pulling over.
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With that stop, Bland joined a troubling list of Black people who were pulled over on a traffic stop and died as a result, including:
- Jerame Reid – pulled over for running a stop sign (Bridgeton, New Jersey – 2014)
- Walter Scott – pulled over because his brake light was out (North Charleston, South Carolina – 2015)
- Samuel DuBose – pulled over for a missing license plate (Cincinnati, Ohio – 2015
- Philando Castile – pulled over because police said he had a “wide-set nose” resembling a suspect (Falcon Heights, Minnesota – 2016)
- Daunte Wright – -- pulled over for an expired registration and an air freshener hanging from his mirror (Minneapolis, Minnesota – 2021)
- Patrick Lyoya – pulled over for an improper license plate (Grand Rapids, Michigan – 2022)
- Tyre D. Nichols – pulled over for reckless driving (Memphis, Tennessee – 2023)
Ironically, it was an issue on which Sandra Bland had been laser-focused before her death.
“I honestly thought something was going to happen to my sister, for speaking her truth,” Needham said, “[and] ultimately, that’s what kind’ve happened.”
Before she died, Bland had posted several videos to YouTube, mostly full of cheer and encouragement. She started each video with “Good morning, my beautiful kings and queens!”
But she also used her videos to talk about what she saw as clear racial profiling by some local police.
“My white friends,” she said in one video, posted just a few weeks before she died. “Don’t get upset, but I’m going to call racism whenever I see it. … So for you who can say, ‘Oh, the law doesn’t see color,’ it doesn’t see color, ‘cause you ain’t got no color in your skin.”
Over the previous decade, Bland had been stopped and ticketed several times by suburban police for various traffic violations. And in her videos, Bland seemed to anticipate that people might write off her accusations of racial profiling as simply over-reacting to truly legitimate traffic tickets – or maybe even playing the race card.
“What you may see as just somebody doing their job – we see the undertones of that,” Bland told her viewers. “We’ve been trained to see them because we lived them every day.”
That’s where Bland was coming from when she was stopped that final time in Texas on July 10, 2015, for allegedly failing to signal, and it all may have informed her dealings with the trooper. The entire stop was recorded on the trooper’s dashcam.
“You okay?” the trooper asks her while she sits in her car, a few minutes after getting pulled over.
“I’m waiting on you,” Bland responds. “You – this is your job.”
The trooper says, “You seem very irritated.”
“I am," Bland answers. "I really am,” as she insists she’d pulled over just to try to get out of his way.
Bland’s exchange with the trooper eventually gets more heated on both sides. Ultimately, the trooper takes away her phone, pins her to the ground, cuffs her and drives her to the jail in Waller County, Texas. That’s where she was found, hanged in her cell, three days later.
But for those who might think Bland had no reason to challenge or talk back to the trooper, NBC 5 Investigates has discovered the truth. Bland, it turns out, was right, all along, when she talked about Chicago-area police officers racially profiling the people they ticketed in traffic stops. Her attitude that day, with that trooper, reflected her reality.
How do we know? Because of a law that was passed in Illinois back in 2003.
Here’s part of a radio ad released back then, which now sounds eerily familiar to Bland’s encounter with the trooper in Texas:
Cop: “Hand over your driver’s license!”
Motorist: “But officer, I wasn’t speeding.”
Cop: “Don’t talk back to me. Get out of the car.”
Motorist: “But what did I do?”
Cop: “I’ll worry about that. Now open the trunk.”
The radio ad continues with a familiar voice: “This is State Senator Barack Obama. Racial profiling is not only wrong and degrading, it’s dangerous and can lead to unexpected confrontations. Not only that, it erodes confidence in law enforcement. That’s why I’ve introduced legislation to address the problem of racial profiling, and protect you from those who would abuse your rights.”
Then-State Sen. Obama’s law passed through Springfield unanimously and created the annual Illinois Traffic Stop Study, which requires every police department in the state to keep track of the race of every person they pull over and ticket, every year. The study was one of the first of its kind in the country. It requires piles of paperwork and sits – mainly unnoticed by the public – on a state website.
But this study makes it possible for NBC 5 Investigates to analyze the hard numbers of every police department that cited Sandra Bland in a traffic stop, to see if any of them – consciously or unconsciously – profiled her for what is known as "driving while Black."
It turns out that, out of the six Chicago-area traffic stops where Bland was ticketed, the police in five of them had a practice of racial profiling during the exact window of time in which she was stopped.
All these findings are adjusted for the proportion of each race of drivers in that area, during that particular time:
- One west suburban police department stopped Bland in 2005. That year, that department’s numbers showed that they stopped drivers of color 55% more often than white drivers.
- Bland was stopped by another west suburban police department in 2013, when that department reported that its police were pulling over drivers of color 22% more often than white drivers.
- That same west suburban police department stopped Bland again in 2014 -- twice. That year, their own numbers show they were stopping drivers of color 17% more often than white drivers.
- In 2014 police in another western suburb also stopped Bland – also twice – at a time when that department’s own numbers showed it was 13% more likely to pull over a driver of color than a driver who was white.
Only in southwest suburban Crestwood, where Bland was stopped and ticketed in March of 2013, did its police actually pull over drivers of color at a lower rate than the same proportion of white people.
“You’re twice as likely to be stopped, if you’re Black, than if you’re a white motorist,” said Ed Yohnka of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, which has published several analyses of the state’s traffic stop studies. The problem, Yohnka says, is that law enforcement officials can’t agree on what the traffic stop data shows each year, which means they rarely take the next step to address the actual disparities.
Yohnka says there must be leadership at the state level as well as the police level: “That’s going to be the time when we get to change, not by simply adopting laws, not by simply adopting new policies.”
Needham agrees that the studies are informative, but adds, “we need change – not studies. We need change to match the studies.”
And Needham hopes that, as these controversial traffic stops seem to inevitably continue, her sister’s words will continue to live on.
“I’m grateful for her voice being utilized,” she said. “I think by her using her voice, she has empowered others to step up and use theirs.”
You can check the history of traffic stops by any Illinois police agency, by going to this link. Once there, click on the tab marked “Studies;” select a year, and you can then look through the various links for analyses – plus every agency’s detailed traffic stop data – for that year.