The Texas Senate on Thursday unanimously approved a bill aimed at protecting people with mental illnesses who are arrested and may harm themselves in jail.
The legislation — Senate Bill 1849 — was filed after a high-profile incident in 2015 in which Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old Illinois woman, was found dead in the Waller County jail days after being arrested during a routing traffic stop.
The so-called “Sandra Bland Act” evolved as it moved through the legislative process amid criticism from law enforcement officials. The version the Senate unanimously approved on Thursday — authored by state Sen. John Whitmire — would mandate that county jails divert people with mental health and substance abuse issues toward treatment, make it easier for defendants with a mental illness or intellectual disability to receive a personal bond and require that independent law enforcement agencies investigate jail deaths. (The agency would be any appointed by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards and cannot be the agency that operates the county jail.)
The legislation now heads to the House, where state Rep. Garnet Coleman filed a similar bill that was left pending in committee. The Houston Democrat first introduced the legislation and named it in honor of Bland.
Under the legislation, jails also would be required to ensure prisoners continue to have access to health care while in custody and report serious incidents – including attempted and completed suicides, deaths and assaults. And, if the money is available, counties would have to install electronic sensors or cameras to better monitor inmates. Law enforcement officers also would be required to learn de-escalation techniques that may reduce the use of force.
Whitmire struck some provisions in the original version of the bill amid criticism that it would hamper law enforcement’s work, including requiring police officers to learn how to identify implicit bias. It also 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.
None of those provisions were in the bill the Senate approved Thursday. A day earlier, Whitmire said that police groups opposed earlier provisions regarding consent searches and implicit bias and that the only way the legislation had a chance of passing was if it was written as a mental health bill. Two police organizations told the Tribune that language about racial profiling and bias came from a place of distrust of law enforcement.
The House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee took public input on Coleman’s bill last month but never voted on it amid a lack of support.
“I would’ve preferred a more robust bill, but I’m happy — I’m elated — that there is a bill,” said Representative Garnet Coleman, a Houston Democrat who penned the initial version. “This is not an environment that most people believe would’ve allowed for the passage of a bill carrying the name of the victim of a state trooper.”
The bill that cleared the chamber Thursday no longer bans controversial pretext or “investigative” stops, which Coleman has likened the vehicular equivalent of “stop and frisk.” It also would require law enforcement to collect and review data regarding these stops to check for racial or ethnic disparities. These were the most disappointing sacrifices, Coleman said.
Lawmakers also removed provisions preventing people from being incarcerated for Class C misdemeanors and ensuring that offenders without prior violent convictions be released on personal bonds, which require no up-front cash. These provisions, Coleman pointed out, have found homes in other bills that that are “still alive and moving,” such as Whitmire’s SB 1338, a bond-reform bill that cleared the Senate earlier this month.
The bill requires county jail operators to undergo more mental health training, as well as better monitoring the health of inmates. To that effect, it mandates that jails install cameras and electronic sensors in cells when funding is available. Those measures could’ve changed the circumstances of Bland’s death. (Coleman said he is working with the budget conference committee to secure funds for cameras and sensors — totaling $1 million.)
Coleman is looking to carry the measure across the finish line in the House and doesn’t expect much will be changed, he told the Observer Thursday. It’s not likely to clear his chamber with unanimous support — “that doesn’t happen over here,” he said. Coleman said he’s working to gather support from members and House leadership, whom he said seems receptive.
“The issue has transcended politics, brought together people who used to be diametrically opposed,” Coleman said. “With this one, we really have to do something now.
Yes, we do. Good work all around, let’d get this finished. The Chron has more.