A criminal attorney named by the sheriff convenes a five-member panel for a top-to-bottom review of the jail's policies

By Jeff Truesdell
July 28, 2015 10:00 AM
Courtesy Sandra Bland

As Sandra Bland’s family and friends search for answers after the Illinois woman was found dead in a Texas jail cell three days after a routine traffic stop, the local sheriff has named an independent investigator to review what happened.

Criminal attorney Paul Looney, who formed a five-member panel to conduct the top-to-bottom review of practices and policies at the Waller County, Texas, jail at the request of Sheriff Glenn Smith, tells PEOPLE: “We want to create an environment where people like cops. Sadly, I fear we do not have that.”

Bland, 28, had just landed a job at Prairie View A&M University when she was stopped July 10 for failure to signal a lane change. The escalating confrontation between her and state trooper Brian Encinia was captured on dash-cam video, leading to Bland’s arrest on assault charges and placement alone in a jail cell, where she was found July 13 hanging with a plastic trash bag around her neck.

The medical examiner confirmed the death was a suicide. Her family question that finding and want a more detailed accounting of what led to her death.

Says Looney of his investigative panel: “We are not former law enforcement, but have experience dealing with the legal system.”

“Our members include a black retired congressman who has been an icon in civil rights work, a black retired justice from the highest court in the state, a Hispanic criminal defense lawyer, a woman who is president of a huge legal association and a man who makes his living suing law enforcement organizations for civil rights violations,” he adds. Looney will serve as a sixth, non-voting member of the group.

“We will review documents, policy and procedures. We will talk to prisoners, one on one, with no one else present. We will do ride-alongs with deputies. We will thoroughly review the entire department. We will issue recommendations and will make them public,” he says.

“We are educated observers, and we will make suggestions. The sheriff can adopt them. Or he can ignore them, and pick and choose from them. But I don’t think he asked me to do this unless he was serious.”

The FBI is also assisting in reviews, including one being undertaken by the Texas Department of Public Safety, which earlier found that Encinia’s actions violated policy.

“We continue to coordinate with all of the involved agencies,” Shauna Dunlap, a spokesman for the FBI’s Houston office, tells PEOPLE. “Once the local process takes its course, the FBI will review all of the evidence to determine if any federal criminal laws may have been violated.”

A law enforcement source with knowledge of the investigation into what happened at the jail tells PEOPLE: “Workers at the jail are reeling from this. Everyone there believes she killed herself. They’re in shock. One officer supposedly said, ‘No one had anything to gain from killing an inmate.’ ”

“If you’re looking for where this is leading, keep an eye on reprimands, transfers or firings,” the source says. “Everything is being looked at.”

Reporting by SUSAN KEATING

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