Sheriff at Center of Sandra Bland Death Inquiry Has Past Charges of Racism

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Glenn Smith, the sheriff at the center of the Sandra Bland inquiry, has claims of racism against him, according to news reports dating back nearly a decade. (csmonitor.com photo)
Glenn Smith, the sheriff at the center of the Sandra Bland inquiry, has claims of racism against him, according to news reports dating back nearly a decade. (csmonitor.com photo)

Glenn Smith, the Texas sheriff who has been tasked with investigating the death of a 28-year-old black woman found hanging in her jail cell mere days after a controversial traffic stop, has a history of discipline in prior law enforcement positions over cases of alleged racial bias.

Smith, who was chief of police for the Texas town of Hempstead before running for the position of Waller County’s sheriff seven years ago, was one of five police officers accused of racism and police brutality following the arrest of Cory Labba, then a 35-year-old man who claimed Smith had assaulted him during his arrest.

Michael Wolf Sr., the mayor of Hempstead at the time, acknowledged Smith had been “unrestrained” but said the assault was nothing more than a mere push and that Labba had “no bruises and he was not physically abused in any way whatsoever.”

Hempstead’s city council voted to suspend Smith without pay for two weeks after reviewing videotapes of the January 2007 encounter. One year later, the same city council dismissed Smith following a vote of “no confidence,” something Smith attributed to “small town politics.” Activists said the dismissal was due to numerous mistaken drug raids and the sheriff’s policy of strip-searching African-American suspects in public.

Mere weeks after his dismissal, Smith ran on the Republican ticket for the position of Waller County’s sheriff. He easily defeated his challenger in 2008 and has held the position ever since.

He is now the county official tasked with investigating the death of Sandra Bland, a black woman who was arrested and jailed following a traffic stop by a state trooper. Bland, who was confrontational during the traffic stop, was found dead in her jail cell three days after her arrest.

Local officials have determined Bland’s death to be a suicide. An autopsy performed by a county coroner also labeled her death a suicide. The conduct of the autopsy and the contents of the report have been disputed by some family members and activists who have called for a thorough, independent post-mortem examination of Bland’s body.

In a lengthy interview with The New York Times, Smith said the investigation into Bland’s death would continue and that law enforcement and jail officials may be suspended or fired if they were found to be at fault. His comments came after a report published by Public Radio International in which documents revealed that the jail where Bland had been detained following her arrest was not in compliance with state standards.

That non-compliance included jail staff not receiving a mandatory two-hour suicide prevention training (documents reveal that some, but not all, staff had received this training) and that staffers did not always perform hourly safety checks on inmates as required by policy.

Brandon Wood, an official with the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, confirmed to PRI that a “notice of non-compliance” had been issued “based upon a records review of the Waller County Jail.” That non-compliance notice was issued on July 16 of this year, three days after Bland’s death. Smith has responded to the notice by saying he would “double and triple the training we have on mental health” and pledged that some staffers may be terminated following an investigation into Bland’s death.

“There will be some action take in the near future,” Smith told the Times. “Right now, that’s the way I’ll leave it.”

Smith says he has accepted full responsibility for Bland’s death, but said he has no intention of resigning in the wake of the controversy surrounding it.

“I’m going to stand here and take it,” Smith said. “I’m going to stand here and fix it, what I can fix, and show the citizens and everybody that that’s my job and that’s what I’m going to do.”

Matthew Keys is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine

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