Activists Criticize Focus of “Sandra Bland Act”May 15, 2017 |
by Paul J. Weber, Associated Press
AUSTIN, Texas — A Texas police-reform bill named after a black woman found dead in jail following a confrontation with a white state trooper during a traffic stop has been stripped down to the point that some community organizers say it’s no longer a worthy tribute.
The death of Sandra Bland in 2015 was a national flashpoint in the Black Lives Matter movement: a 28-year-old woman stopped near Houston for not signaling a lane change, forcibly pulled from her car and found dead in jail days later.
Yet the version of “The Sandra Bland Act” entering the home stretch of the Texas Legislature is no longer a sweeping list of police reforms as originally filed. It’s much slimmer than the wide-ranging accountability package first proposed, following opposition from powerful law enforcement groups and Republicans.
Now some black community leaders are suggesting Bland’s name should even be stripped from the bill if key provisions aren’t restored before reaching the desk of Republican Gov. Greg Abbott.
“That’s disrespectful to her and her family,” said Ashton Woods, a Black Lives Matter organizer in Houston who helped Democrats unveil the original bill and says he keeps in touch with the Bland family. “I would definitely request they not use her name and go another route.”
By any measure, the original bill would have changed policing in Texas by requiring a higher burden of proof for stopping and searching vehicles, counseling and training for officers who racially profile drivers. It also would have banned arrests over offenses that are punishable by a fine.
But the pared-down version unanimously passed by the Texas Senate on Thursday is what Democratic state Sen. John Whitmire assured colleagues was “a mental health and awareness piece of legislation.” Remaining are provisions that mandate more mental health training for jailers, heightened supervision of inmates and improved mental health care access. It would also require more de-escalation training for officers.
The bill now goes to the House, where it must pass before the Legislature adjourns May 29.
Authorities say the 28-year-old Bland hanged herself in the Waller County Jail with a plastic garbage bag in jail three days after being pulled over in July 2015. Dashcam video shows Trooper Brian Encinia ordering Bland out of the car and drawing his stun gun while yelling, “I will light you up!”
Bland can later be heard screaming off-camera that the trooper was about to break her wrists. Authorities say Bland told a jailer during booking that she had previously tried to kill herself. Family, friends and activists have expressed skepticism that Bland committed suicide, which is one of the reasons Woods and others take issue with Bland’s name being attached to what is now a mostly mental health bill.
Charley Wilkson, executive director of the Combined Law Enforcement Association of Texas, said the original version was overly broad and seen by rank-and-file officers as a punitive attack.
“It was a straight-out attack on all law enforcement over a tragic suicide in a county jail,” Wilkison said. “Appropriately, now we’re talking about mental health diversion.”
Geneva Reed-Veal, Bland’s mother, did not return a message left through her Chicago attorney. But testifying before lawmakers last month, she said the bill was not anti-police but said the bill is needed “to prove to people who say that Texas is the most awful state to live in.”
Lawmakers say the new bill reflects political realities in Texas, but Democratic state Rep. Garnet Coleman said activists should see the original bill as a roadmap for future reforms.
“All I can say to them is that’s what we were trying to do and keep everybody safe. But clearly the police unions, associations are very good at what they do,” said Coleman, who wrote the original bill. “The whole reason for filing it with everything in it was for there to be a pathway for the future.”
Fatima Mann, who helped organize a march for Bland in Austin and supported the original bill, said what’s left leaves out the fact that Bland shouldn’t have gone to jail in the first place.
“I don’t think it’s worthy of her name,” she said. “It should be a bill that actually takes away the issue that caused her death. Not this.”