Sandra Bland Act gets nod from Texas Senate panel

The Senate Criminal Justice Committee on Tuesday approved its version of the Sandra Bland Act, which aims to comprehensively change the way police and civilians interact.

The Senate version of the bill, authored by Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire, D-Houston, would mandate that county jails route people with mental health and substance abuse issues to treatment and install electronic sensors or cameras to better monitor inmates. It also would require training for officers on limiting use of force and understanding implicit bias.

On the police searches front, it also would prohibit officers from conducting a search with a person's consent, unless they first telling them that they can refuse and after that person signs off on the search or verbally consents to one. The verbal consent would be recorded by the officer's body camera or the camera in the officer's vehicle.

Bland, a black woman from Illinois, was pulled over in Prairie View on July 10, 2015, by then-Texas Department of Public Safety trooper Brian Encinia after she failed to signal a lane change. When Bland's conversation with Encinia became heated, he arrested her on a charge of assaulting a public servant. She was found dead three days later in the Waller County Jail. Officials ruled her death a suicide.

Bland's death drew criticism in and outside of Texas and helped power the Black Lives Matter movement. State Rep. Garnet Coleman authored the bill in Bland's name, and Whitmire carried the Senate version of his bill.

Both the Senate and House versions of the bill have gone through several changes. Coleman's version originally 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.

That language was changed to simply require law enforcement agencies include the race and ethnicity of drivers — among many other details from stops — for the purposes of identifying whether profiling has taken place.

Whitmire's version most notably removes language that would ban arresting people for offenses that generally only have fines as a punishment. Earlier versions of the bill also tried to make it easier for nonviolent people in jail to receive personal bonds. Whitmire said fine-only offenses would be addressed in a separate bill, as the Sandra Bland Act is "primarily a mental health, accountability" bill. He's also tackling bail bond reform in bills of their own.

Coleman's version had a hearing before the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee on April 11, but no vote has since been taken.

The Texas Tribune


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