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Texas lawmakers call for stronger prohibitions on racial profiling

The House Committee on County Affairs this week released a series of recommendations aimed at preventing racial profiling among Texas law enforcement agencies and requiring them to better report potential disparities in traffic stops, searches and arrests.

Committee Chairman Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, said he plans to use the recommendations to file the “Sandra Bland Act,” which would make a series of sweeping changes, including prohibiting so-called consent searches of motorists, requiring de-escalation training for officers and mandating better mental health screening at county jails.

The committee’s report also called for strengthening the existing racial profiling law to require more accurate reporting of traffic stop data, citing results of an American-Statesman analysis that revealed patterns of racial disparities in Department of Public Safety traffic stops.

Coleman’s committee began investigating the agency’s traffic stops after Bland’s controversial arrest by DPS trooper Brian Encinia in Waller County. Dashboard camera video of the 2015 arrest showed the traffic stop escalating into a physical confrontation after Bland was stopped for failing to signal a lane change. Three days after her arrest, Bland committed suicide inside the Waller County Jail.

For more than a decade, the Department of Public Safety has published annual numbers that the agency said demonstrated that DPS troopers treated motorists of different races equally and were in line with state demographics.

WATCH: Dash cam video of traffic stops that led to racial profiling complaints

But an analysis conducted by academics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Texas found that the way the DPS presented the numbers was faulty because it didn’t take into account regional variations and other factors.

Frank Baumgartner, main author of the analysis and University of North Carolina political science professor, told lawmakers the DPS methodology is “sideways. (They are) calculating the percentages from the wrong baseline.” He said the more accurate way to measure racial disparities is to track what happens to motorists after they are pulled over by police.

In November 2016, the Statesman did that. The newspaper’s analysis of traffic stop outcomes of individual troopers found disparities in how some troopers searched white, black or Hispanic drivers after they were stopped.

About 20 percent of DPS troopers searched black and Hispanic motorists at two times or more the rate at which they searched white drivers, yet they were less likely to find contraband on the minority drivers, the paper’s examination found.

The public safety agency strenuously objected to the paper’s findings. “Implying or insinuating racial profiling without concrete evidence is slanderous and unfairly tarnishes the reputation of the commissioned men and women of the Texas Department of Public Safety, who proudly risk their lives every day to protect and serve all residents and travelers in Texas,” a spokeswoman said. She said the agency’s own review of troopers had found “zero evidence of racial profiling.”

Still, after the Statesman’s report, DPS Director Steven McCraw said the agency would begin reviewing disparities in the rates at which individual state troopers stop and search motorists of different races and ethnicities.

The DPS also hired an outside expert to analyze its traffic stop data for signs of racial profiling. In December, the agency entered into an agreement with the University of North Texas, according to DPS spokesman Tom Vinger.

The House committee this week called for a series of other changes to the Texas criminal justice system. They include de-escalation and crisis intervention training for law enforcement officers, as well as better mental illness screening at county jails and diversion programs.

Coleman said he wanted to prohibit “consent searches,” in which motorists are asked for permission to search their vehicle after a traffic stop. And he called for requiring a higher evidentiary standard for probable cause searches, which don’t require consent.

“We want to remove the things that allow the pathway to discriminate,” Coleman said.

Not all the committee’s members endorsed the recommendations.

“The testimony from DPS and others regarding racial profiling was that DPS does not profile,” state Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, wrote in a dissent included in the report. “It is also clear to me the lawful use of consent searches enables law enforcement personnel to properly investigate potential criminal activity.”

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