When Sandra Bland was found dead in her jail cell just days after a Texas state trooper pulled her over for a traffic stop last July, her death sparked national outrage and became a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement. So earlier this year, Texas lawmakers named a sweeping criminal justice reform bill in Bland’s honor — but her family says the Sandra Bland Act, finally passed by the Senate last week in a revised version largely stripped of those reforms, is “gut-wrenching.”
Critics say the Sandra Bland Act, which now primarily focuses on local jail operations and making sure authorities are better equipped to deal with mental illness, addresses the wrong issue.
“The legislature is refusing to acknowledge the fact that the state is at fault here,” Ashton P. Woods, Black Lives Matter: Houston organizer, told VICE News. “Once it took all of the teeth out of that bill and called it a mental health bill, it was offensive to her family.” Her death was ruled a suicide.
Brian Encinia, a white state trooper, stopped Bland in July 2015 for allegedly failing to signal a lane change on a road near Houston. During their heated encounter, which was caught on a dashcam video, he threatened to drag her from her car and use his stun gun to “light [her] up.” Encinia ultimately arrested Bland on charges of assaulting a public servant. Three days later, she was found dead in police custody.
Originally, the Sandra Bland Act sought to enact drastic changes to improve police accountability and fight racial profiling. It proposed banning both so-called pretext stops, when officers use minor reasons to stop people suspected of a different offense, and consent searches, which are conducted without a warrant but after officers get permission from the subject. It also included provisions for data collection on both policing tactics, among other initiatives.
State Sen. John Whitmire, who did not return VICE News’ request for comment, told the Associated Press that the act was now “a mental health and awareness piece of legislation,” as it increases inmates’ access to mental health care and mandates that jailers receive mental health and de-escalation training.
Texas State Representative Garnet Coleman, who introduced the Sandra Bland Act this legislative session, compared the galvanization in Texas around his act to the feeling that fueled the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act, named for an East Texas man who was chained to a pickup truck and dragged to death by three white men in 1998. But law enforcement organizations and Republicans objected to the original version of the Sandra Bland Act, Coleman said, and so the Texas House of Representatives version of the bill languished in committee. The Senate ultimately passed the bill last week, but only after most of the law enforcement reform measures were taken out.
“I think that’s a very positive thing if a bill passes with her name on it,” said Coleman, who is a Democrat, calling the bill a “blueprint for the future.” He told VICE News, “You don’t get everything at once. But you don’t quit either.”
But he conceded frustration with the end result: “Am I happy that the criminal justice reform measures came out? No. I’m not happy at all.”
Bland’s family also called the government using her name for a bill related to mental health a “missed opportunity.” While officials ruled Bland’s death a suicide, her family does not believe the 28-year-old killed herself. Bland’s family ended up settling a $1.9 million wrongful death lawsuit against the Texas county last September.
“What it looks like in the Senate is that they’re hinging on the statement that she allegedly stated that she thought about committing suicide once and they’re riding on that, not all of the things that led to the arrest and led to her being in jail,” Woods said, adding that while he found the mental health provisions important, they should not be included in a bill named for Bland.
In an interview with the Associated Press earlier this week, Bland’s older sister and family spokesperson Sharon Cooper did not say Bland’s name should be removed from the bill. Still, she said, “What the bill does in its current state renders Sandy invisible. It’s frustrating and gut-wrenching.”