In another early legislative step toward fashioning reforms in the aftermath of Sandra Bland's 2015 suicide in the Waller County Jail, the Texas House Committee on County Affairs will meet on Tuesday to discuss improving local jail policies and modifying law enforcement training.
To settle the Bland family's lawsuit against Waller County, county employees and the state Department of Public Safety, officials recently agreed to pay the family $1.9 million and implement policy changes at the Waller County Jail. The settlement also calls for legislation in Bland's name launching statewide efforts to address issues raised by her arrest and death.
Bland was arrested by former DPS trooper Brian Encinia last year for assaulting a public servant after she was stopped for failing to properly signal a lane change near the Prairie View Texas A&M Campus. Three days after the heated argument with the state trooper, Bland was found hanged in her Waller County jail cell. Her death was ruled a suicide.
State Rep. Garnet Coleman, a Houston Democrat and chairman of the House County Affairs Committee, called Tuesday's hearing, and has promised to introduce a Sandra Bland Act in the next session.
"Texas has always been a heavily policed state," Coleman said. "I think this presidential election has exacerbated these kinds of discussions. I grew up afraid of the police, I was told to be. These experiences are all part of the fabric of Texas."
Coleman said he wants to consider ways to ban pretextual stops by law enforcement and require additional police training in how to de-escalate tense situations.
Coleman said pretextual stops and unjustified searches are aggressive policing tactics that go hand-in-hand with conscious or subconscious racial bias.
"We're making sure that in our training we're dealing with conscious and subconscious bias," Coleman said. "That creates a mindset that someone is more criminal or dangerous than somebody else. Pretextual stops are stops with no probable cause. We also need to ban the question of asking someone, 'will you consent with me searching your car?"
Better approaches to dealing with mental illness will also be considered, Coleman said. The committee will discuss whether the state has funds to divert mentally ill detainees away from jails and into treatment.
"We define things in Texas from our hearings, and we need to make sure everyone is treated the same," Coleman said. "The most important thing is that we’ve been looking at this since August and its controversial but we’ve done our best to stick to policy."
Tom Rhodes, the Bland family's Texas-based attorney, said medical care and inmate monitoring standards need to be improved for local jails across the state.
Changes could include expanding requirements for nurses or emergency medical technicians in jails around-the-clock, making telemedicine available to detainees or inmates and a using card swipe system to monitor jail cell checks.
"One of the big problems we had in the Sandra Bland case was that they were falsifying cell checks," Rhodes said. "They'll now swipe the card and it's logged into the computer system, so you can actually tell exactly what time they checked the cell and they can't falsify and said they checked it when they didn't."
Read more of the Tribune's related coverage:
- Waller County and the Department of Public Safety will pay Sandra Bland's family a total of $1.9 million as part of the wrongful death lawsuit settlement.
- Bland's case will now make its way towards the legislative and political arena, as lawmakers scrutinize the screening process for inmates and detainees in Texas.