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Tom Rhodes: Sandra Bland Act signed into law to address mental health of prisoners

6:36 p.m Thursday, June 15, 2017  Texas News & Politics by Julie Chang American-Statesman Staff

Sandra Bland Act signed into law to address mental health of prisoners

Gov. Greg Abbott has signed into law the  Sandra Bland Act  which, among several provisions, requires more training for jailers on mental health issues of prisoners.

“It is time that we make progress in criminal justice reform that will keep both law enforcement and the public safe and prevent future tragedies like Sandra Bland’s,” said state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, who authored the House version of the law. “The Sandra Bland Act will act as a building block to build upon in the future.

In 2015, 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.

Under Senate Bill 1849, law enforcement will have to complete training in de-escalating confrontations with members of the public, “including techniques for limiting the use of force resulting in bodily injury.”

Jailers also must learn de-escalation tactics and complete eight hours of training on how to deal with mental health issues of prisoners.

County jails also will have to provide prisoners with access to mental health professionals, in person or through electronic means, and a medical professional would have to review “as soon as possible” any prescription medication that a prisoner was taking when placed in custody.

Under the bill, police would have to make a “good faith effort” to divert those arrested for nonviolent misdemeanors to needed mental health or substance abuse treatment.

All jail deaths will have to be investigated by an outside law enforcement agency instead of the agency in charge of the jail where the death occurred.



Sandra Bland's legacy of jail and law enforcement reform 

The suicide of Sandra Bland in a Waller County jail last July was an unmistakable and very likely a preventable tragedy.

But it’s not one that need have occurred in vain.

Bland’s family, friends and advocates have been relentless in working to ensure that is not the case.

The 28-year-old African-American woman was found hanged in her jail cell last July, three days after she was arrested during a routine traffic stop northwest of Houston.

While dashcam footage showed a contentious exchange between Bland and the arresting officer, the incident and Bland’s death revealed a series of law enforcement failures and jail conditions that made her suicide possible.

This week, the Waller County Court of Commissioners approved a $1.8 million settlement to resolve a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Bland’s family.

But the meaningful legacy of the suit is that it also includes an agreement by Waller County to initiate changes in jailing and law enforcement practices that could help prevent future tragedies, including a requirement that a nurse or emergency medical technician be at the county jail during all shifts.

For its part, the Texas Department of Public Safety (which was not a party to the suit) will pay $100,000 and according to Tom Rhodes, the Bland family attorney, also agreed to implement statewide de-escalation training for all current and incoming troopers.

Such training was a point of contention during a hearing before the Texas House Committee in County Affairs Tuesday, when DPS Director Steve McCraw testified that 76 hours of de-escalation training is already required for recruits.

Regardless, DPS would be well-served to review its training protocols and recruitment requirements.

The Legislature has a role to play, too, which will include legislation to be introduced next session that addresses how mental health issues are handled by the criminal justice system.

In the case of Bland, much-needed changes may result from tragedy.

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