It is unclear whether the Texas Department of Public Safety will make any changes to its training policies following the announced settlement of a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the family of Sandra Bland.
A lawyer for the Bland family and DPS officials on Tuesday appeared to be at odds as to whether the settlement in that lawsuit — brought against Waller County, some county employees and former DPS trooper Brian Encinia — includes an agreement to institute additional statewide de-escalation training for all incoming troopers and those already on the roster.
Testifying before the Texas House Committee in County Affairs, Tom Rhodes, the Bland family’s Texas-based attorney, told lawmakers that the settlement includes a $1.9 million payout, including $100,000 from DPS. While the department was not a party in the lawsuit, it agreed to pay that amount to indemnify Encinia, who arrested Bland in a July 10, 2015 traffic stop that quickly escalated to an arrest. As part of the settlement, DPS also agreed to set up the training, Rhodes said.
But earlier in the day, DPS director Steve McCraw indicated the department already requires 76 hours of de-escalation training that’s embedded in its school for recruits.
“I was told just the opposite which is one of the reasons we required that as part of the settlement,” Rhodes told lawmakers.
Asked for clarification about McCraw’s comment, a DPS spokesman said DPS “has not settled litigation regarding Sandra Bland” and is not party to any agreements between her family and the Waller County defendants.
“The department is looking at a number of options regarding the issues discussed today,” DPS spokesman Tom Vinger said, pointing out that the department earlier this year began requiring troopers to complete an eight-hour de-escalation course.
Citing confidentiality restrictions, Rhodes said he couldn’t provide many details about the settlement discussions but he indicated he had reached a deal on the de-escalation training with DPS’ general counsel.
“All I can say is today was the first time I heard they had that training, and it seems like to me when we insisted on that as part of the settlement if they had it they would’ve said it,” Rhodes said in an interview after the hearing. “If it’s already there I’m glad it’s there. Obviously it’s not that effective — whatever they’re doing — because it certainly didn’t help in Sandy’s case, but that’s not the agreement we reached.”
Bland was found hanged in her cell at Waller County Jail three days after being arrested in a controversial traffic stop; her death was ruled a suicide.
Tuesday’s hearing was the latest in a series meant to shed details on the reforms that could come from Bland’s death, including banning pretextual stops, changes to de-escalation tactics and increased inmate monitoring requirements at county jails. But it also made clear that there remains no resolution on the race and law enforcement questions that arose in the aftermath of Bland’s arrest, which was caught on dashboard camera video,
Lawmakers questioned McCraw about racial disparities among drivers stopped and searched by DPS, pointing to reports by the Austin American Statesman and research by University of North Carolina professor Frank Baumgartner that found DPS troopers are more likely to search black motorists after stopping them.
The Statesman’s report found that 35 percent of troopers included in an analysis of traffic stops from 2009 to mid-2015 searched black and Hispanic drivers at least twice as often as white drivers.
Baumgartner, who testified before the committee over Skype, pointed out that DPS troopers are 59 percent more likely to search black male drivers than white drivers after stopping them.
In a heated exchange with committee chairman state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, McCraw defended his troopers, insisting they do not engage in racial profiling and that the disparity among minorities stopped and searched could be attributed to increased DPS presence on the border.
Coleman countered that explanation did not “pass muster” because it did nothing to dispel the disparity among black drivers stopped and searched by DPS.
Speaking over each other, McCraw insisted that any accusations that DPS engaged in racial profiling were “unforgivable” while Coleman shot back that McCraw was using the department’s increased presence on the border “to literally justify what’s happening with black people.”
Baumgartner interjected to say the racial disparities in DPS searches were “all too real” and could not be “explained away.”
“We can’t deny their existence and what we need to do as a nation...is understand whether the disparities that do occur are due to different levels of criminal behaviors on the part of citizens of different racial backgrounds or if they might be due to different kinds of interactions on the officers’ sides.”
When pressed by state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, whether he was claiming DPS is engaging in racial profiling, Baumgartner said he could not answer that because the data did not provide answers on why “officers do what they do.”
“I can’t answer that. We don’t have a statistical pattern of what constitutes racial profiling,” Baumgartner told Stickland, adding that was something legislators should consider. “What evidence would be enough?”
Read related Tribune coverage:
- With one major legal battle seemingly behind them, Sandra Bland's survivors and advocates are gearing up for the next phase of their quest to wrest change from the 28-year-old black woman's death.
Sandra Bland's 2015 arrest, and death three days later in the Waller County Jail, remain catalysts for lawmakers, activists and policy experts seeking reforms in various facets of Texas criminal justice.
Waller County needs a new jail, local officers need body cameras to record their activities and the sheriff's office needs to promote civility, a study committee formed after the death of Sandra Bland said Tuesday.