House Committee Probes Sandra Bland Death, Interrogates DPS Director

The House County Affairs Committee held a hearing Thursday in the wake of Sandra Bland's death, discussing mental health services in jails, procedures and protocols within the Texas Department of Safety, and the relationship between law enforcement and the community.

The committee grilled Texas Department of Safety Director Steve McGraw, questioning his troopers' conduct and general treatment of citizens. On July 10, trooper Brian Encinia threatened to taser Bland and arrested her after a simple traffic stop turned confrontational. Three days later, Bland was found dead in Waller County jail. Texas Rangers and the FBI are conducting a joint investigation into the incident. 

“Clearly this is a tragedy,” McGraw said. “We made mistakes. The bottom line here is transparency."

But almost every time McGraw was questioned about specific elements of the Sandra Bland case, he refused to go into detail, citing the ongoing investigation and “due process.”  McGraw even refused to say what happened to Bland's cell phone when he was asked directly by one of the committee members. 

McGraw's testimony soon turned broad, as he answered questions about general trooper conduct (they have a 7-step procedure to to deescalate situations), rules for traffic stops (apparently you can be arrested for all but two types of traffic violations), and whether DPS troopers require a reason before they stop someone (they do). 

McGraw got off to a rough start, and never really recovered. In his opening statement, he said his DPS' investigation into Bland's death and traffic stop would be full and transparent— but he was quickly cut off by committee chair Rep. Garnet Coleman, (D-Houston). 

"We will make sure of that," Coleman said. A little later, Coleman said he blamed Encinia for being the catalyst in Bland's eventual death. Coleman shared his own traumatic encounters with law enforcement as McGraw sat quietly. Coleman said he was pulled over a few weeks ago for speeding, and was treated "like a boy" by the trooper. 

"I get afraid when I'm around law enforcement officers," Coleman said. "That's how I've been conditioned. I remember walking into one DPS office with confederate flag wallpaper. I feel like we've moved backwards."

McGraw said his troopers must follow a 7-step procedure for every encounter with the community, with the goal of making citizens less nervous and de-escalating the situation. When asked if he believed there was a reason for Bland being stopped, he said he didn't want to "pre-judge." 

In the committee's discussion of how to improve mental health services in the jails, one of the biggest areas it focused on was the intake stage, given that that was what failed Sandra Bland. Despite having admitted to a jailer that she had attempted suicide previously, and that she had suffered from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, Waller County Jail did not notify a magistrate judge or the local mental health authority, as was required. 

Texas Commission on Jail Standards Executive Director Brandon Wood said that the “overwhelming majority” are jailers who do such screenings have minimal training (the training isn't required, Wood said, but only recommended by TCJS minimum standards). The committee thought it would be important that trained medical and mental health professionals conduct these screenings instead, which longtime University of Texas researcher on the topic of jail suicide and mental health, Michele Deitch, later echoed in her testimony.

For Wood, though, it's all a matter of funding. Though he has no control over how the funds are allocated, he has advocated for increased mental healthcare dollars and more beds for inmates at local mental hospitals for years. Due to limited funding, Wood said that jailers focus most of their attention on inmates who appear to be in an immediate mental health crisis rather than those who aren't showing overt signs.

Like Sandra Bland. Those are the inmates, Wood said, that he's “concerned are falling through the cracks if we're not careful.”

The committee also expressed concern that the TCJS simply didn't have enough teeth. TCJS may require jails to have a plan to address mental illness and suicide prevention in the jails, but doesn't measure the success of those plans.

“We need to look at outcomes,” Deitch said, “not a checklist.” When jails are found to be non-compliant with TCJS standards, they are simply sent a notice in the mail. That was particularly upsetting to Rep. John Stickland, who, stressing that lives could be at stake when a jail screws up, said that “it scared him” that all the TCJS was doing was sending a letter.

But overall, everyone in the room was on the same side: finding ways to prevent future inmates from suffering the same fate as Bland. Before moving on to witness testimony from Limestone County Sheriff Dennis Wilson, Rep. Coleman, sharing that he also has a mental illness, reminded the panel that, in any situation in which a mentally ill person is arrested, “there's likely to be a crisis. Even if everything is going fine.”


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