The Texas Senate on Thursday unanimously approved a bill aimed at protecting people with mental illnesses who are arrested and may harm themselves in jail.

The legislation — Senate Bill 1849 — was filed after a high-profile incident in 2015 in which Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old Illinois woman, was found dead in the Waller County jail days after being arrested during a routing traffic stop. 

The so-called "Sandra Bland Act" evolved as it moved through the legislative process amid criticism from law enforcement officials. The version the Senate unanimously approved on Thursday — authored by state Sen. John Whitmire — would mandate that county jails divert people with mental health and substance abuse issues toward treatment, make it easier for defendants with a mental illness or intellectual disability to receive a personal bond and require that independent law enforcement agencies investigate jail deaths. (The agency would be any appointed by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards and cannot be the agency that operates the county jail.)

The legislation now heads to the House, where state Rep. Garnet Coleman filed a similar bill that was left pending in committee. The Houston Democrat first introduced the legislation and named it in honor of Bland.

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After Bland's death, the state trooper who arrested her was criticized by activists, politicians and his own boss for verbally threatening her.

Under the legislation, jails also would be required to ensure prisoners continue to have access to health care while in custody and report serious incidents – including attempted and completed suicides, deaths and assaults. And, if the money is available, counties would have to install electronic sensors or cameras to better monitor inmates. Law enforcement officers also would be required to learn de-escalation techniques that may reduce the use of force.

Whitmire struck some provisions in the original version of the bill amid criticism that it would hamper law enforcement's work, including requiring police officers to learn how to identify implicit bias. It also would have required counseling and training for officers who racially profiled drivers and prohibited what are called "pretext stops" — traffic stops for one offense that are used to investigate another.

None of those provisions were in the bill the Senate approved Thursday. A day earlier, Whitmire said that police groups opposed earlier provisions regarding consent searches and implicit bias and that the only way the legislation had a chance of passing was if it was written as a mental health bill. Two police organizations told the Tribune that language about racial profiling and bias came from a place of distrust of law enforcement.

The House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee took public input on Coleman's bill last month but never voted on it amid a lack of support.

Coleman thanked Whitmire in a statement after the bill passed out of the upper chamber.

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"Senator Whitmire's knowledge of criminal justice and expertise in the Texas Senate was invaluable in ensuring the Sandra Bland Act made it out of the Senate," the statement read. "I look forward to making sure the Sandra Bland Act now passes the Texas House, and heads to the governor's desk. The Sandra Bland Act will truly make Texas safer for both law enforcement, and the public."

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • The Senate Criminal Justice Committee approved the Sandra Bland Act on May 2.
  • Last month, Sandra Bland's mother traveled from Illinois to testify in support of the House version of the Sandra Bland Act.
  • State Rep. Garnet Coleman announced the Sandra Bland Act outside the Texas Supreme Court building in early March.
  • The Sandra Bland saga began in July of 2015. Read all our coverage since then.
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