Just a few days ago, Sandra Bland's family members reached a settlement in their wrongful death lawsuit against the Texas Department of Public Safety and Waller County. Now, Texas Rep. Garnet Coleman (D-Houston) wants to make sure that what happened to Bland will never happen to anyone else, as he's announced plans to introduce the Sandra Bland Act into the next legislative session.
In July 2015, Sandra Bland was pulled over for a traffic stop by a Department of Public Safety trooper, as we've previously reported. The encounter quickly escalated, according to dash-cam footage, and the trooper arrested Bland. Bland was found hanging in her jail cell three days later, officials said.
“It just seemed like there were a lot of questions that needed to be answered about the circumstances of her death,” said Coleman, who, as chair of the House County Affairs Committee, has so far held three hearings on the case. (There's another one scheduled for tomorrow morning at which Tom Rhodes, the Texas-based lawyer who represented the Bland family, will speak.) He added, “Quite frankly, it is disturbing that somebody can be pulled over for not signaling and then end up in jail and end up dead.”
“I'm a black guy. I'm 55 years old. I understand this stuff,” Coleman explained. “I grew up in times that this was the norm… It's 2015 and we're going through these same kind of circumstances? It just didn't compute to me.”
One of the Act's most important initiatives will be a push to end “pretext stops,” or when an officer uses a minor violation as a reason to stop somebody he or she suspects of a separate offense, and “consent searches,” or searches conducted after an officer asks permission. Approximately a third of Texas state troopers are at least twice as likely to search minority motorists than they are white ones, according to an analysis of five years' worth of DPS data conducted by the Austin American-Statesman.
These two tactics go hand-in-hand, Coleman said, in disproportionately affecting people of color. “You could call it Stop and Frisk in a car,” Coleman, referring to the controversial police practice of stopping people on the street and searching them. Critics contend that minorities are much more likely to be stopped and searched than white people.
Other parts of the act will seek to give all jails access to mental health professionals who can evaluate incoming prisoners – even if it's just by video – and create a diversion program to keep people with mental health issues from even being booked, Coleman said. (Before her death, Bland told jailers at the Waller County Jail that she had recently attempted suicide.) In fact, Coleman said, his first priority is to greatly decrease the number of suicides that occur in jails.
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The Sandra Bland Act will be a wide-ranging piece of legislation and will likely span several different bills, Coleman said, because what happened to Bland encompasses so many issues, from racial bias in policing to mental health. But, “I've come to the conclusion that you don't do one thing and declare victory, knowing that there are four other things that will lead to the same result.”
“I didn't realize how emotional it'd be, I really didn't,” Coleman admitted of the hearings, adding, “I grew up being afraid of the police and so I didn't realize how ingrained that was… When I got elected to the legislature and I'd see the troopers, I'd immediately get nervous. That's how ingrained it is.”
Saying that he often works with law enforcement agencies to make sure that legislature fits their needs, Coleman explained, “Not that I dislike peace officers. I don't. But I've never – unfortunately, I just don't see them as somebody I call when I need help… So if I feel that way, I know there are a whole bunch of other people out there who do. As a matter of fact, I know they do.”
Coleman said he plans to hold three more hearings related to the Bland case, in order to gather more information about what happened to Bland and the best way to move forward. A report about the hearings' findings will be released sometime before the start of the new year.