Police reform bills stuck in limbo as Texas Legislature winds down


Panel on Thursday to decide whether to advance bill making police records of in-custody deaths more available.

While Sandra Bland Act stalls in Texas House, a trimmed-down version advances in the Senate.

A bill that would have let a North Texas family more easily obtain police records detailing their son’s final hours is facing an uphill battle in the frantic waning weeks of the legislative session.

Thanks to a 1997 statute, law enforcement agencies currently don’t have to share their investigative records if a suspect isn’t convicted. House Bill 3234 would compel police to release the documents if a suspect died before being convicted or if the suspect gave his consent to their release.

The need for such a change was highlighted in an April American-Statesman investigation into the death of Graham Dyer. The 18-year-old died in August 2013 while in the custody of Mesquite police, who said he’d sustained fatal self-inflicted head injuries in the backseat of a police cruiser. Dyer, who was having a bad reaction to LSD, was being taken to jail after a confrontation in which he allegedly bit an officer trying to handcuff him.

When his parents, Kathy and Robert Dyer, asked to see the records documenting the officers’ contact with their son, however, the Mesquite Police Department refused. It said that because their son had died before the charges of assaulting a police officer had been proven, it didn’t have to release the records.

After two years, the couple managed to find a backdoor way to obtain police videos of Graham from the FBI. The disturbing images the Police Department had refused to release showed a Mesquite officer shocking the teenager in the testicles. Another officer can be heard threatening to kill Graham. The videos also showed Graham to be barely responsive when he was delivered to the jail – a different picture than that initially painted by police, who’d said he still needed to be restrained.

Thanks to the videos, the Dyers were able to revive a federal lawsuit against Mesquite. It remains pending. Less than a week after the Statesman’s story was published, the Dallas County district attorney’s office said it was opening a full review of Graham Dyer’s death in police custody.

Although HB 3234, sponsored by state Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, was scheduled for a hearing Thursday in the House, supporters noted that Thursday is the deadline for members to vote on pending bills, which have stacked up as the session draws to a close. If not approved then, the measures face extinction unless they are added as an amendment to another bill.

The bill is among a handful of other police reform bills that are either stuck in limbo or headed for victory as the 85th Texas Legislature races toward the finish line.

Bland Act stalls

The most ambitious police reform bill – the wide-ranging Sandra Bland Act filed by Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston – never made it past a House committee, though a scaled-back version of the bill could soon come up for a vote on the Senate floor.

Bland, a 28-year-old black woman from Illinois, was arrested in Prairie View in 2015 after then-Department of Public Safety trooper Brian Encina stopped Bland for failing to signal a turn. The two began arguing, and the incident quickly escalated. Bland was handcuffed and taken to jail.

Three days later, Bland — who had a history of mental illness — committed suicide in the Waller County Jail. Her death sparked protests across the country and added to the national outrage over police use of force against African-Americans. Last September, the county and the DPS agreed to pay Bland’s family $1.9 million to settle a civil lawsuit.

The original House bill written in her name aims to bring sweeping changes to nearly every step of the criminal justice system, such as outlawing searches based purely on driver consent, prohibiting officers from stopping vehicles for a traffic violation as a “pretext” to investigate other crimes, requiring better reporting on racial disparities in traffic stop data, and increasing mental health training for officers and jailers.

The House bill also called for prohibiting arrests for fine-only offenses and diverting nonviolent, misdemeanor offenders undergoing a mental health crisis into treatment rather than jail.

But during an April hearing before the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee, the bill faced stiff resistance from police groups and was left pending without a vote.

A Senate version, authored by Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, and was passed by the Senate Criminal Justice Committee last week. It stripped out a number of elements that met with resistance from police groups and Republican lawmakers, including restrictions on searches and stops and data reporting requirements.

The Senate bill keeps provisions that would increase mental health de-escalation training for law enforcement officers to 40 hours and implement a statewide training program of general de-escalation tactics that would be required for officer promotions. It would also require mental health first aid training for county jailers.

Initially opposed to the Sandra Bland Act, the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas is starting to come around, said its executive director, Charley Wilkison, who added he supports additional training for jail staff.

“All of those kind of things that would enhance training in county jail, we’re supportive of those things,” Wilkison said. “I don’t want to say today we’re in support of the bill because it has a ways to go.”

Choppy water for police reform

At least 33 people with histories of mental illness have died after being restrained by police in Texas over the past decade, according to a first-of-its-kind investigation by the Statesman of in-custody deaths. Six of those people wielded weapons; the rest were unarmed, records with the Texas attorney general indicate.

The investigation also found nearly 100 people died in custody after being detained for minor legal infractions, mental health calls or no charges at all. In many cases, minor encounters quickly spiraled into fatal confrontations.

Coleman said the training provisions of the Senate bill would keep incidents from spiraling out of control.

The Senate bill, which would head to the House if passed by the full Senate, also calls on law enforcement agencies to make a “good faith effort” to divert nonviolent, misdemeanor offenders in mental health crises into treatment instead of jail.

The Senate version wouldn’t require law enforcement agencies to make fundamental changes in how they collect and report racial profiling data on traffic stops, searches and arrests as originally called for by Coleman.

As of Wednesday afternoon, Whitmire said he was working to persuade recalcitrant lawmakers to allow it to come for a vote on the Senate floor. He says the heart of the bill is the prevention of jail suicides.

“It’s been a challenging process because as introduced the bill was broad,” Whitmire said. “That energized the police community. They got locked in against the original bill.”

He said he’s trying to now explain that this has effectively become a mental health best practices bill. But he said that he’s also gotten criticism from reform activists who say the bill is too watered down.

“They don’t want to compromise,” he said.

Police reform measures proposed chiefly by African-American lawmakers have found choppy waters in both chambers, despite claims by members of the Republican leadership that they were willing to help move bills after the Texas Legislative Black Caucus pressed them in the wake of the police shooting death of unarmed 15 year-old African-American Jordan Edwards in North Texas.

A handful of police reform measures appear dead, unable to get out of committee. Among them:

The appointment of a special prosecutor for officer-involved shootings.

Changing the standards for which the use of lethal force is acceptable.

Another measure would prohibit a peace officer from arresting an offender for most fine-only misdemeanors without a warrant. As of Wednesday afternoon, it still hadn’t gotten a vote on the House floor.

“Every time a police officer walks out the door, we want that person to return safe and in one piece,” said state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston. “By the same standard, we want citizens to be treated with respect and to be safe.”

Asked late Wednesday morning if the leadership has taken any action since last week’s press conference, Thompson joined her thumb to her forefinger: Zero.

“We’ve asked for help from the leadership, and we’re still waiting,” she said. “We need to be able to carry home to our people something that shows they’re being protected.”

State Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, said he would like to see the leadership and law enforcement stand shoulder to shoulder with civil rights leaders after events like the shooting death of Jordan Edwards.

“It’s about messaging as much as it’s about legislation,” he said. “They wrap themselves in the flag and law enforcement – which they should do – but they have to resolve their messaging when citizens are being killed.”

Some bills are moving.

West’s Senate Bill 30, which calls for instructions to high school students on how they should communicate with officers during a traffic stop, won unanimous approval in the Texas Senate and on Tuesday won approval in the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee. The Senate bill also calls for officers to complete a “civilian interaction training program” involving traffic stops.

Staff writers Ryan Autullo and Asher Price contributed to this report.

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