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Texas Lawmakers Who Led Sandra Bland Act Push To Restore Police Reforms Stripped From Original Bill

Austin police officers stand near an overpass on I-35 to prevent protesters from blocking traffic during a demonstration outside police headquarters.
Miguel Gutierrez Jr.
Austin police officers stand near an overpass on I-35 to prevent protesters from blocking traffic during a demonstration outside police headquarters.

After Sandra Bland's death in a rural Texas jail drew outrage across the nation, two Texas lawmakers filed a comprehensive bill to address racial profiling during traffic stops, ban police from stopping drivers on a traffic violation as a pretext to investigate other potential crimes, limit police searches of vehicles and other jail and policing reforms.

But by the time the Legislature passed it, most of the sweeping provisions related to policing had been stripped out.

Now, on the heels of the death of George Floyd, those lawmakers say they're determined to try again to push those reforms through when the Legislature reconvenes in January 2021.

State Sen. John Whitmire and state Rep. Garnet Coleman, both Houston Democrats who chair relevant committees in their respective chambers, said in a joint news release Tuesday they would continue to work together on criminal justice reform efforts next year. Whitmire’s chief of staff and Coleman confirmed to The Texas Tribune that they will begin with pushing again for measures they hoped to achieve with the 2017 law — like investigations into racial profiling and officer consequences. Many provisions were removed from the bill after law enforcement opposition.

The announcement comes weeks after Floyd, a black man, died after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck up until and long after he had lost consciousness. Floyd’s death sparked demonstrations across the nation, with people taking to the streets in many Texas cities to protest police brutality and racial inequity.

“The recent murder of longtime Houston resident George Floyd by a law enforcement officer in Minneapolis is a painful reminder to us that though we have traveled so far, there is still a long way to go,” Whitmire and Coleman said in the release.

Coleman told the Tribune on Tuesday that he and Whitmire will start with filing legislation that was removed from the Sandra Bland Act in 2017, such as measures to increase the standards by which law enforcement can stop and search a vehicle and ban law enforcement from stopping drivers for minor traffic violations to allow an officer to look into other suspicions. Coleman said they will also look at filing measures related to what constituents are asking for in the wake of Floyd’s death, “specifically getting rid of choke holds” and ensuring that, “if a peace officer is standing around watching their colleague do something wrong, that they must intervene.”

Bland, a 28-year-old black woman, was found dead in 2015 in an apparent suicide at the Waller County Jail three days after she was arrested during a routine traffic stop. Dashboard camera footage disproved the state trooper’s stated reason for arresting her — assault on a public servant — and showed him threatening to drag her out of her car and tase her after she refused to put out a cigarette. Her death and the released footage led to demands for police and jail reforms.

In 2017, the version of the bill that made it into law included jail reforms like diverting inmates with mental health and substance abuse issues into treatment and mandating that independent law enforcement agencies investigate jail deaths.

But the original version also would have required officer training on racial profiling and implicit bias, suspension for any officer found to have repeatedly engaged in racial profiling, and limiting arrests for offenses that at most would end in a fine with no jail time. Those measures stalled the bill’s progress because of opposition from law enforcement groups and lawmakers concerned about unfunded mandates.

After Whitmire removed much of the language related to police encounters —though de-escalation training remained — the bill passed both chambers. The version of the Sandra Bland Act signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott had become mostly a mental health bill, and lost its support from Bland’s family.

A second attempt to pass a bill to limit nonjailable offenses in 2019 as a follow-up to the Sandra Bland Act was again killed after opposition by one of Texas’ largest police unions, confusion and procedural snafus in the House and an apparent disinterest among Senate leadership.

Since Floyd’s death, Abbott has repeatedly touted the 2017 law as an example of Texas’ great strides in criminal justice reform efforts. And on Monday, Abbott raised the idea of the Legislature passing a “George Floyd Act” when it reconvenes in January 2021 for its regular session.

Abbott floated the possibility to reporters before meeting privately with Floyd’s family in Houston, saying that the state “has a legacy of success, whether it be the Timothy Cole Act, the Sandra Bland Act and now maybe the George Floyd Act, to make sure that we prevent police brutality like this from happening in the future in Texas.”

The Tim Cole Act in 2009, named after a black man who died in prison after 23 years and was posthumously exonerated of the crimes, did not address policing, but it did make Texas one of the most generous in terms of compensation for those who had been wrongfully convicted. In 2017, after the temporary Timothy Cole Exoneration Review Commission studied five years of exonerations, the state passed a comprehensive law targeted at reducing wrongful convictions.

Abbott did not, however, mention any specific proposals, and has not addressed the policing aspects that faced harsh opposition by law enforcement — and how, if at all, that will change in 2021.

Meanwhile, the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, which includes Coleman, announced Tuesday morning that members will host multiple town halls next week focused on racism, criminal justice and policing in the black community across different parts of the state. The series will begin on June 15 and end June 19 with a statewide town hall.


From The Texas Tribune

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