Sandra Bland Act approved by Texas House 139-0
May 20, 2017 | By Bobby Cervantes
Texas lawmakers resoundingly approved a watered-down bill aimed at improving mental health treatment for people in jails, after months of negotiations between civil rights activists and police groups in response to the 2015 suicide of a black woman in a Waller County jail cell.
The House voted 139-0 Saturday to send Senate Bill 1849 to Gov. Greg Abbott for his signature or veto. The Senate approved the measure in April, also in an unanimous vote.
The bill, dubbed the Sandra Bland Act, requires jails to ramp up around-the-clock monitoring of prisoners and to install sensors or cameras to ensure “timely in-person checks of cells” containing at-risk prisoners. The sensors and cameras would be paid for through a gubernatorial grant program, only required when funding to pay for them is available.
It also mandates additional mental health training for jailers and mental health de-escalation training for police officers, as well as diverting people with mental health issues to treatment.
The House went along with the bill by Sen. John Whitmire, a Democrat from Houston, after a more sweeping proposal from Rep. Garnet Coleman, another Houston Democrat, ran into opposition from police groups. Still, Coleman praised the bill’s passage during a preliminary vote Friday, adding that the bipartisan legislation will help stop jailhouse suicides.
“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,” Coleman said in a statement. “The Sandra Bland Act will have a tremendous impact on mental health in Texas’ county jails and will act as a building block to improve upon in the future.”
The final vote by the House caps a nearly two-year effort to reform how police and local jails train for and respond to mental health issues among those they lock up. The measure is named after Bland, a 28-year-old black woman from Illinois whose traffic stop for a minor violation escalated into a heated exchange with a state trooper and her arrest in July 2015. Days later she was found hanged in the Waller County jail, a death that was ruled a suicide. The Waller County jail was cited at the time for not complying with state standards regarding staff training and observations. The state trooper was later fired and indicted on a perjury charge.
Bland’s death made national headlines and sparked protests, coming at a time when the use of police force against African-Americans drew growing attention. It resulted in changes in jail procedures regarding suicidal inmates and a statewide campaign by criminal justice and mental health advocates to improve mental health supervision and training in local jails to prevent suicides.