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Lawmakers Push For More Police Reforms On Five-Year Anniversary Of Sandra Bland's Death

On July 23, 2015, protesters walked from Victory Grill in East Austin towards the Texas Capitol to attend a vigil for Sandra Bland.
On July 23, 2015, protesters walked from Victory Grill in East Austin towards the Texas Capitol to attend a vigil for Sandra Bland.

From Texas Standard:

Five years ago, 28-year-old Sandra Bland died by what was officially ruled a suicide, in a Waller County jail cell. Bland, a Black woman, was about to start a job at Prairie View A&M University. But on July 13, 2015, a Texas state trooper pulled her over for failing to use her turn signal.

Such a stop would have normally resulted in a warning or a ticket. But it quickly escalated when trooper Brian Encinia, who is white, demanded Bland step out of the vehicle after she refused to put out a cigarette. She was arrested on suspicion of assaulting a public servant. Three days later, she was dead. The trooper was eventually fired for his actions during the traffic stop. 

The circumstances of her arrest and death led the Texas Legislature to pass the "Sandra Bland Act," which expands citizens' protections during police interactions. It also helps people with a history of mental health or substance abuse issues get treatment, and get easier access to bond if they end up in jail.

But Houston Democratic state Rep. Garnet Coleman, who cosponsored the bill, told Texas Standard host David Brown on Monday that it fell short of his original goals. He said key provisions were left out of the final law, including an end to "pretext" stops. That means an officer doesn't need to have probable cause to stop a driver, only a "reasonable suspicion" that the driver might have committed a crime. 

"We all know what happened in New York with their policy of stop and frisk," Coleman said. "This is stop and frisk in a car."

Coleman and other advocates of the "Sandra Bland Act," including Rep. Nicole Collier, a Democrat from Fort Worth who chairs the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, said other important provisions were left out of the 2017 law. Limits would have been placed on arrests in fine-only cases, like the traffic stop that led to Bland's death, Collier told Brown.

"She was arrested for an alleged minor traffic violation," she said. "We want to be able to limit those types of interactions that could escalate unnecessarily."

Collier said addressing the kinds of police practices that led to Bland being stopped, and that contribute to incidents of violence against Black Americans, requires a rethinking of how officers are hired.

"Not everybody deserves to be a law enforcement officer," she said. "That is a position in high regard, with a lot of authority." 

Collier advocated for greater supervision over police, and creating a standard definition of "excessive force" across police agencies.

Despite what's missing from the final version of the "Sandra Bland Act," Coleman said it does include important provisions like deescalation training for officers. 

The Legislative Black Caucus has asked Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to make police reform a priority during the 2021 legislative session. But Abbott, so far, has declined to commit to such an effort. 

Web story by Shelly Brisbin.

Copyright 2020 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.