Using the 2015 jail death of Sandra Bland as a catalyst for change, a Houston Democratic legislator filed a sweeping criminal justice reform bill Thursday that would strengthen racial-profiling laws, prohibit jailing for fine-only offenses and limit police searches during traffic stops.
House Bill 2702, dubbed the Sandra Bland Act, is intended to improve the safety of police, the people they stop and the suspects they arrest and send to county jails, state Rep. Garnet Coleman said.
“This should make it safer for everyone,” he said at a news conference to unveil the bill outside the Texas Supreme Court building in downtown Austin.
Bland was found hanged in a Waller County Jail cell three days after a routine traffic stop escalated into a confrontation with a Department of Public Safety trooper and led to her arrest. Had the reforms in HB 2702 been in place two years ago, Bland wouldn’t have died, Coleman said.
“It took us a long time to draft this piece of legislation,” he said. “We wanted to get it right.”
The 55-page bill would:
• Require law enforcement agencies to monitor traffic stops and individual officers to determine if a disproportionate number of racial or ethnic minority members had been pulled over. Officers found to violate profiling rules would receive additional training and counseling, with subsequent infractions requiring at least a six-month suspension.
• Require county sheriffs to prepare a monthly report on jailhouse suicides, attempted suicides, deaths, serious injuries, assaults, sexual assaults, escapes and use of force. Jail deaths would have to be investigated by an outside law enforcement agency appointed by DPS.
• Prohibit officers from stopping vehicles for a traffic violation as a “pretext” to investigate other crimes, unless there was a strong suspicion that another offense was committed. Vehicles couldn’t be searched based solely on the driver’s consent, and motorists also couldn’t be arrested for offenses punishable by only a fine.
• Require police officers to complete a longer, more in-depth course on de-escalation tactics when dealing with the public, including techniques for limiting the use of force.
• Direct the Commission on Jail Standards to set jail rules on using force, preventing sexual assault, managing intoxicated inmates and ensuring that inmates continue receiving prescribed medication, particularly for mental illness. Jails would be required to have 24-hour access to mental health professionals, in person or via telemedicine, and an on-duty nurse or emergency medical technician for all shifts.
• Encourage officers, in arrests involving nonviolent misdemeanors, to divert those experiencing a mental health crisis or suffering from substance abuse to a treatment center instead of jail.
What we reported
An American-Statesman review of 14 million Texas Department of Public Safety traffic stops between 2009 and mid-2015 found that 401 troopers had searched Hispanic and African-American motorists at double or more the rate of whites. Yet most troopers — 231 — found contraband on minority motorists at lower rates.