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Mental Health Jail Check Failed in Bland Case

The Waller County Jail failed to complete a two-part mental health screening process as required by law during Sandra Bland's booking process, according to the state jail commission and at least one public policy group.

Waller County Jail booking video showing Sandra Bland appearing before Justice of the Peace Delores Hargrave.

* Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout. 

The Waller County Jail failed to complete a two-part mental health screening process required by state law during Sandra Bland's booking process, according to the state jail commission and at least one public policy group.

At a minimum, the 28-year-old who was found hanged in one of the jail's cells on July 13, three days after she was arrested and booked, should have received a court-ordered mental health exam once she indicated she had tried to commit suicide in the past, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards confirmed Wednesday.  

"The commission believes that at the very least, given what was on the screening form, the magistrate should have been notified," said Diana Spiller, a research analyst with the agency that oversees county jails in Texas. 

A standard background check of state records for a history of mental health issues also failed in the Bland case, officials said. Although that process did not yield information about Bland, its failure concerns state officials who are trying to determine what happened.

On Thursday, the Texas House Committee on County Affairs will hold a hearing to review mental health assessments, as well as overall county jail standards as a result of Bland's death.  

Since 2007, in an attempt to better assess the mental health status of county jail inmates, sheriff's offices have been using two tools to assess those arrested.

The first is a mental health history questionnaire that jailers use when interviewing inmates during the booking process. 

According to Bland's booking documents released a week ago, she told a jailer that she had attempted suicide in 2015 and had been depressed following the death of a baby. Complicating things is another form, in which Bland said she had not attempted suicide. 

Last week, Capt. Brian Cantrell of the Waller County Sheriff's Office told The Texas Tribune that Bland was asked about her mental health at two different times during her booking and she answered two different ways.

Nevertheless, once Bland answered "yes" when asked about depression and attempted suicide, the jail should have notified a magistrate of the possible mental health issue under state law. The magistrate would then order a mental health professional to perform a more thorough exam. That did not occur.

The second check is done by computer. Along with checking an inmate's past criminal history, Texas jailers now perform what is known as a Continuity of Care Query, or CCQ, by searching the state's health department databases to determine if an inmate has received any Texas mental health services, either through the state psychiatric hospital system or as an outpatient at the 39 community mental health centers in the state. 

"These are the things that are supposed to happen each and every time," said Katharine Ligon, a mental health policy analyst with the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a liberal research group that promotes social and economic policies. 

"From what I understand, this is where it broke down," Ligon said.

Waller County Jail officials did run a CCQ check on Bland shortly after she was brought into the facility on July 10. They informed the state commission it was done at 6:36 p.m. But they could not complete the query because of technical problems, they told the agency. 

"This system was down and did not process a return," Waller County told the commission in an email. The check was eventually completed on July 13, at 9:16 a.m., after Bland was found hanged.

The Texas Department of Public Safety operates the computer network — known as the Texas Law Enforcement Telecommunication System, or TLETS — used to access the Texas Department of State Health Services mental service database. That system was working the day Bland was booked, said DPS spokesman Tom Vinger.  

"We do not show that TLETS was down," Vinger said. "In fact, we show several transactions from the Waller County Sheriff’s Office over TLETS that day."

Whether the problem might have occurred at the state health department is being researched, a spokeswoman told the Tribune.

After Bland's death, the CCQ showed she had never used any public mental health services in Texas. But the health department is reviewing why Waller County officials were not able to process the CCQ when she was booked into the jail. 

"We're looking into whether there was an issue on our end," said Carrie Williams, a DSHS spokeswoman.

Bland was arrested for allegedly striking DPS trooper Brian Encinia after he pulled her over for failing to signal before changing lanes in Prairie View on July 10. Her death three days later has been ruled a suicide by the Harris County medical examiner but is being investigated by the Texas Rangers, and all findings will be presented to a Waller County grand jury next month. 

Video of the traffic stop has sparked outrage worldwide. On it, Encinia loses his temper when Bland refuses to exit the vehicle and comply with his request to put out her cigarette. He has been reassigned to desk duty pending an internal review of his actions, which DPS has said violated agency procedures.

Questions emailed to the Waller County Sheriff's Office, which oversees the 110-person jail, about mental health protocol were not immediately answered on Wednesday. 

After Bland's death, the jail commission cited Waller County when it could not produce evidence that jailers had each taken two hours of mental health training, a component of the jail's suicide prevention plan filed with the agency into 2010.

Disclosure: The Center for Public Policy Priorities is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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Courts Criminal justice State government Department of Public Safety Garnet Coleman Sandra Bland Texas Legislature