AUSTIN, Texas (CN) – A black woman who hanged herself in a Texas jail had a bill introduced in her honor this week by a state lawmaker who wants county inmates to have 24/7 access to mental health counselors.
The Sandra Bland Act, House Bill 2702, was filed Thursday by State Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston.
Bland’s July 2015 death stoked a national movement seeking reforms of how police deal with African-Americans, after footage of the traffic stop that led to her arrest went viral.
Former Texas State Trooper Brian Encinia, who is white, pulled Bland over on July 10, 2015, for failing to signal a lane change.
Dashcam footage from Encinia’s patrol car shows Encinia pull Bland from her car after she refuses to put out her cigarette and scream at her “I will light you up!” in reference to his stun gun.
Bland was found dead in her Waller County jail cell three days later. County officials say she hanged herself with a plastic garbage bag. Waller County’s seat Hempstead is 60 miles northwest of Houston.
Rep. Coleman’s wide-ranging bill would force police officers to try to divert people detained for nonviolent misdemeanors – whose crime stemmed from their mental health or drug problems – to treatment, rather than arresting them.
The bill also calls for traffic-stop reforms. It would bar officers from arresting a driver during a stop for a traffic violation unless the officer had probable cause to believe the driver committed a crime more serious than a class C misdemeanor. A policeman who broke that rule could face a one-day suspension.
Bland had just moved from her hometown of Chicago to take a job at her alma mater, Prairie View A&M University, when Encinia pulled her over.
She reportedly became distraught in the jail after she couldn’t raise $515 needed to post bond from family and friends and hanged herself.
Coleman’s bill says Texas county jails are spending millions of dollars housing people accused of nonviolent, petty crimes, who have not yet been convicted, and it calls for more frequent use of no-fee bonds, also called personal recognizance bonds.
“Many of these individuals pose no risk to the community nor are they a flight risk…This Act will create policies aimed at properly increasing the use of personal recognizance bonds. If these policies would have been in place, there is good reason to believe Sandra Bland would still be alive,” the proposed legislation states.
The argument for more widespread use of no-fee bonds has gained traction in Harris County. The county’s jail in downtown Houston is infamously known as the state’s biggest mental health care provider.
Harris County is facing a federal lawsuit accusing it of unconstitutionally jailing poor people arrested for misdemeanors only because they can’t afford bails preset by a fee schedule. The county has argued in court filings that there’s no constitutional right to affordable bail.
The Sandra Bland Act would also strengthen the safety net for mentally ill county inmates by requiring jails to have a nurse or EMT on duty for all shifts and provide inmates with 24/7 access to mental health counselors, either in person or via video.
Coleman is chair of the county affairs committee in the Texas House.
Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, filed a federal wrongful death lawsuit against Encinia, Waller County, its sheriff and several jailers in August 2015. The parties reached a settlement in September 2016 in which Waller County agreed to pay Reed-Veal $1.8 million and Encinia’s former employer, the Texas Department of Public Safety, agreed to pay her $100,000.
As part of the settlement, Waller County also agreed to staff its jail with an emergency nurse at all times and install sensors to make sure regular cell checks are done.
DPS fired Encinia in March 2016 because he didn’t follow its procedures for interviewing traffic violators when he stopped Bland.