Rep. Garnet Coleman, Chair of the House Committee on County Affairs, Will Introduce Comprehensive Legislation Next Session in Memory of Sandra Bland
Editor’s note: Chairman Garnet Coleman (D-Houston) recently announced that he will file The Sandra Bland Act in the coming legislative session. In September, he conducted two days of hearings in the Texas Capitol where lawmakers, agency staff and policy experts met, including one held jointly with the House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence. These hearings were the latest in a series Chairman Coleman has conducted since Sandra Bland’s July 2015 death in Waller County county jail. Chairman Coleman published the following column on Friday, September 23rd. Burnt Orange Report reposts it here with his permission.
This week the County Affairs Committee, that I chair, met to discuss important issues regarding pretrial diversion for individuals who do not need to be in jail and law enforcement’s racial profiling practices. On Tuesday we met to continue our discussion on the issues surrounding Sandra Bland’s death. Specifically racial disparities during traffic stops within Texas Department of Public Safety, the constitutionality of equal protection claims and concerns that arise from DPS racial disparities, de-escalation tactics, and diversion before booking. We followed up that important conversation by holding a joint hearing with Criminal Jurisprudence Committee to review pretrial service and bonding practices throughout the state. Specifically, we examined factors considered in bail and pre-trial confinement decisions, including the use of risk assessments; assessed the effectiveness and efficiency of different systems regarding cost to local governments and taxpayers, community safety, pretrial absconding rates and rights of the accused.
I want to thank all the members who attended this week’s hearings, as well as the witnesses who came not only from across Texas but the United States to share their expertise on these important issues. Both hearings were successful because the focus has shifted from identifying problems to solving those challenges. This upcoming session I plan on introducing the Sandra Bland Act in memory of Sandra Bland, and to address the bad policies that ultimately lead to her tragic death.
To stop the use of pretext/investigatory stops, the statutory language regarding racial profiling needs to be clarified and strengthened. Additionally, we need to ensure collecting data from traffic stops in which only a verbal warning occurs actually occurs. As it stands now, large amounts of data are being entered incorrectly, coding Hispanics as White. To ensure that Hispanics are properly represented in the data, we need to change the coding processes within DPS to reflect individuals accordingly
As discussed in great detail last week, stopping pre-textual/investigatory stops will be included in the Sandra Bland Act (click here to read last week’s Coleman Chronicle on pretext/investigatory stops). To stop the use of pretext/investigatory stops, the statutory language regarding racial profiling needs to be clarified and strengthened. Additionally, we need to ensure collecting data from traffic stops in which only a verbal warning occurs actually occurs. As it stands now, large amounts of data are being entered incorrectly, coding Hispanics as White. To ensure that Hispanics are properly represented in the data, we need to change the coding processes within DPS to reflect individuals accordingly. Additionally, we need to reevaluate how DPS is presenting the data to the public and make sure it is done in a way that stands up to academic scrutiny, shows the rate of search by classification, and the rate of successful searches by classification. We also need to ensure that this data is being collected and reported by all law enforcement agencies in Texas, not just DPS.
But collecting data is not enough. The Sandra Bland Act will also put in enforcement mechanisms to provide additional training for law enforcement who need it and punish officers who repeatedly racially profile. Part of that will also include making the DPS complaint system more robust and transparent. To avoid some of these problems altogether the Act will also prevent consent searches, but still allow officers to perform searches through probable cause.
The Sandra Bland Act will also increase and improve the use of de-escalation tactics in Texas. It will do this by ensuring that all DPS troopers receive more evidence-based de-escalation training not only during their initial training but also as part of their counting education. To ensure that theses de-escalation tactics work, there should also be training in soft/people skills. In addition to training, the approach of DPS should also shift to a guardian focused approach, where de-escalation is the primary approach in all public interactions.
Sandra Bland, like many in Texas, was unnecessarily jailed. This over-jailing not only hurts the individual incarcerated, but also is a major financial burden on the taxpayers. To help alleviate this problem, the Sandra Bland Act will prevent arresting and jailing for minor traffic violations. Furthermore, the Act will increase the use of personal recognizance (PR) bonds by writing into law that PR bonds ought to be the presumption when setting bail for all non-violent misdemeanor arrests.
Additionally, pre-booking diversion should also be increased. Diversion is an important tool to getting people the help they need. Often law enforcement is dealing with individuals whose mental health or addiction is causing them to run afoul of the law. Diverting these people to places that can help connect them to resources for treatment is better than taking them to jail where they will either deteriorate further or bail out just to end up back in jail the next time they have a crisis. Getting these individuals the treatment they need can help get them back on the right track, and free up law enforcement resources to keep us all safer.
The County Affairs Committee has already worked this interim with the Texas Commission on Jail Standards to improve the suicide screening form that is used during booking. But more still needs to be done. The Sandra Bland Act will also create a grant program that will provide funding to County jails to improve safety. The measures county jails can use to improve safety under this program can include, but are not limited to increasing, Tele-mental health services, onsite medical professionals, and automated electronic sensors to ensure accurate and timely cell checks are occurring. Additional funding is also needed for the Texas Commission on Jail Standards to ensure the over 200 County jails in Texas are safe and up to standard.
The Sandra Bland Act will aim to enhance our pre-trial criminal justice system and prevent tragedies like what happened to Sandra Bland. These policies are truly the effort of the work of many who have come to share their ideas with the County Affairs committee. The Sandra Bland Act is not only the right thing to do but it also the fiscally responsible thing to do. The State and counties are spending millions of dollars each year to house people who shouldn’t be in jail.
The events around the country this week underscore why we continue to work on these issues. My goal is that The Sandra Bland Act along with other policies, combined with a focus on building relationships will be able to make Texas safer for everyone. We will continue to address these issues going forward.