Is there any way to change our state’s policing policies and jail standards to prevent tragedies like the death of Sandra Bland? Ms. Bland was 28 years old when she was found hanged in a jail cell in Waller County on July 13, 2015. A medical examiner determined that the cause of her death was suicide, but protesters and activists disputed that finding and charged that Ms. Bland was a victim of racial profiling and racial violence.
Three days before she was found dead, Ms. Bland had been stopped for a traffic violation by Texas state trooper Brian Encinia. The trooper arrested Ms. Bland after she allegedly assaulted him, but when authorities examined the dashcam footage, they placed Encinia on leave for improper traffic stop procedures. Although Bland’s death was classified as a suicide and no evidence of a struggle was found, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards determined that Waller County did not adhere to the state’s required jail standards and policies.
In 2016, a Waller County grand jury indicted Brian Encinia for perjury, and the Texas Department of Public Safety terminated his employment. Also in 2016, Ms. Bland’s family settled a wrongful death lawsuit for $1.9 million. As a condition of the settlement, the Waller County jail will have an on-duty nurse or EMT available at all times to help prevent suicides there.
HOW MANY SUICIDES HAPPEN IN JAILS?
Since 2009, 140 suicides have reportedly been committed in Texas jails. Jails have an annual suicide rate of 46 per 100,000 inmates, while the general population’s suicide rate is 13 per 100,000 persons. If you are charged with any crime in Texas, you must get legal help at once. Apparently, Texas jails can be hazardous to your health. If you are charged with a crime in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, an experienced Plano criminal defense attorney can help.
Earlier in the year, Texas State Representative Garnet Coleman of Houston filed a bill called the “Sandra Bland Act” that would change the state’s law enforcement and incarceration policies to help prevent similar tragedies in the future. “This is something we thought we had overcome. But obviously not,” Coleman told reporters. One provision of the bill would end arrests in Texas for violations that are penalized by fines, such as traffic offenses.
After filing the proposal early in March, Representative Coleman told reporters, “The Sandra Bland Act aims to improve and correct Texas’ criminal justice system to make it better for all people and prevent future tragedies like Sandra Bland’s.” The legislation, which runs to 55 pages, would establish policies to stop racial profiling, increase the reporting of the use of force in Texas jails, and train police officers to use de-escalation tactics. Coleman’s proposal also would require more training for both jailers and patrol officers on handling individuals with possible mental impairments.
WHAT ELSE WOULD THE SANDRA BLAND ACT REQUIRE?
Specifically, the Sandra Bland Act would require jails in Texas to have around-the-clock “access” – which could be electronic – to medical personnel and mental health professionals. The proposal also offers financial resources to help smaller counties afford the changes that the legislation will require. Representative Coleman believes there will be support for the Sandra Bland Act in the Texas Senate, but the bill first must be assigned to a committee and be approved by the Texas House of Representatives.
Representative Coleman’s proposal would outlaw “consent” searches in this state and require a search warrant for any search made by law enforcement officers. If adopted as Texas law, the Sandra Bland Act would also prevent the police in Texas from conducting “pretext stops,” where law enforcement officers stop a motorist in traffic ostensibly – but not really – for a traffic offense with the actual intention of investigating a possible violation of some other law.
The Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas have already expressed their opposition to the proposal. Charley Wilkison, the group’s executive director, said the group is against any proposals that would legally forbid police officers to ask questions that could lead to the discovery of other crimes. Follow-up questions often yield important evidence, Wilkison said, leading to the discovery of human trafficking or illegal drug activity. Wilkison added that the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas will support only the provisions of Coleman’s proposal that call for additional law enforcement training and resources.
The Texas Municipal Police Association also expressed strong opposition to the Sandra Bland Act. The group’s executive director, Kevin Lawrence, said, “So this, we believe, is just simply a knee-jerk reaction to an anecdotal incident. It would create bad public policy. It would benefit criminals; it wouldn’t benefit public safety.” But not everyone who speaks on behalf of law enforcement groups is opposed to the bill.
Jackson County Sheriff A.J. Louderback, for example, who also acts as the legislative director for the Sheriffs Association of Texas, called the Sandra Bland Act – House Bill 2702 – “outstanding.” Louderback said, “The mental health portion has long been a concern of Texas sheriffs. We have fought for this for many years, many sessions we have tried to get the mental health resources in our county jails and we’re still fighting that fight and we’re still not where we think we should be three sessions later.”
ARE WE BEING TOLD THE TRUTH?
Not every death in a jail is the jail’s fault or the system’s fault. Inmates sometimes die of natural causes like anyone else, and many inmates are plagued by health problems linked to alcohol and drug issues. Nevertheless, experts tell us that the cause of an inmate’s death really cannot be accurately determined from the publicly released data. Many in-custody deaths caused by force, for example, are attributed to another cause, according to Steve Martin, a corrections expert who has monitored excessive force cases across the United States.
Martin says that when a jailhouse death is reported as a heart attack, for example, the public may not be told if a stun gun was used against the inmate prior to the death. “The American public has no idea what’s taking place, and because of the lack of public awareness, there’s a corresponding lack of public outrage,” says Erik Heipt, a Seattle attorney who focuses on police misconduct and represents numerous families of individuals who have died in jails.
Jails often house people who’ve never been in serious legal trouble before, and jail can have a traumatic impact. While the proposed Sandra Bland Act would help to ensure that inmates are treated more humanely and legally in our state, if you are facing criminal charges in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, there is no substitute for the legal help that a Plano criminal defense attorney can provide.