HOMEWOOD, Alabama — Around 100 people gathered Sunday evening for a vigil at a municipal park to mourn Kindra Chapman, who was found dead in police holding cell on July 14. Members of the community hugged close in a semi-circle, holding birthday candles in small paper cups, chanting “Say her name — Kindra!” and “No justice, no peace!”
For Hank Sherrod, a civil rights lawyer in Florence, Alabama, who has pursued several cases of wrongful death in custody, the police chief's video statement raises significant questions.
“It's about what do [the police] know. What did you know that led you to put her in a video-monitoring cell?” Sherrod said in an interview with Al Jazeera on Sunday, adding that almost all jails have some form of intake questionnaire, in which each person is asked about their emotional state and past suicide attempts. As of now, while it is not known if Chapman filled out the intake questionnaire, Sherrod questions why she was left unmonitored.
“What is the point of putting a camera in [the cell] if no one is going to look at it?,” he asked. “Do the duties of the correction officers require them to monitor the video?”
Sherrod is unaware of the Homewood jail's protocol but said that leaving an inmate unmonitored for over an hour would break protocol in many other jurisdictions in Alabama. An inmate on suicide watch would typically be monitored every 15 minutes and in some jurisdictions, as often as every five minutes, he said.
“What this is really about is the failure to protect a vulnerable person who couldn’t protect herself,” Sherrod said. “These deaths are not new. We are suddenly getting videos of it, and we are being forced to look at situations that we have not looked at before, … how easily we can lose people in the criminal justice system.”
The Homewood Police say they have turned over video surveillance from the time Chapman arrived at the jail to the Jefferson County District Attorney. Falls released a statement on July 23 that according to their preliminary investigation, “At this time, I see no evidence of criminal wrongdoing in the arrest and detention, and I believe that her death is the result of a suicide.”
The coroner's office is expected to release Chapman's autopsy and toxicology reports this week.
Last week, attorneys hired by Chapman's mother, Kathy Brady, released a statement saying that the family believes the death was a suicide but that they plan “to investigate how this could have happened while she was in police custody.” This differs from what Chapman’s grandmother and father have said publicly.
As the park grew dark on Sunday night, organizers from Operation I Am, a local social justice activist group, led the crowd in a call-and-response chant of “Say her name — Kindra!” and slowly blew out dozens of candles set on picnic tables.
The thick summer air caught the sent of barbecue being sold at the entrance. Streetlights came on one-by-one on across the park, and the crowd of mourners stood for a moment in silence, except for the shrill whir of crickets.
Chapman's vigil drew representatives from many grassroots organizations, such Black Lives Matter and Southerners on New Ground, an LGBTQ activist group that attended because Chapman was gay.
Latasha Tony, 30, came from Birmingham to support the Chapman family. Tony says her elder brother died in 1996, after officers at a Birmingham jail ignored his request for water, and he slipped into a coma and died later at the hospital. He was 16 years old.
“I didn't think about [what happened to my brother] until recently. This has been going on for years,” Tony said. “I feel like it's a disgrace to the justice system. There should be more things in place to prevent these kind of things from happening.”
As the crowd slowly dispersed, a group of three women discussed their fears that their young daughters could face fates similar to those of Chapman and Bland.
“I don't want to have to worry about if this is going to be my child next,” said Shirah Robinson as her two-and-a-half year old daughter played near her feet. “I am a mother. I grieve because I know what it is like to live in a system of injustice.
“I understand the unequal distribution of rights, the unequal distribution of wealth and privileges,” she said. “I want her to grow up and not have to worry about that.”