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Revised Version of Sandra Bland Act Doesn’t Address Cause of Her Arrest, Family Argues

The Sandra Bland Act would require a higher burden of proof for officers to stop and search vehicles. (Image courtesy of Ashley Anderson)

The family of Sandra Bland expressed disappointment Saturday, May 14, after lawmakers chipped away at a criminal justice reform bill named in her honor.

Senate Bill 1849, better known as the Sandra Bland Act, was filed following the high-profile death of 28-year-old Bland, who was found hanged in her cell at the Waller County Jail just days after a routine traffic stop. She was arrested after getting into a heated argument with former Department of Public Safety Trooper Brian Encinia.

Bland’s mysterious death was ultimately ruled a suicide, but her family still had doubts, which prompted them to craft a bill focusing on mental health disorders and county jail operations, according to The Texas Tribune. The Texas Senate unanimously passed the legislation on Thursday, May 11. However, Bland’s family argued that state legislators stripped the bill of several key provisions.

“It’s a complete oversight of the root causes of why she was jailed in the first place,” Sharon Cooper, Bland’s sister and family spokeswoman, told the newspaper, adding that her sister’s traffic stop shouldn’t have resulted in more than a citation.

“Finish the stop and send the young woman on her way,” she said. “Don’t prolong the stop because you’re not satisfied with what she’s saying.”

Under the Sandra Bland Act, county jails would be required to point persons with mental health and substance abuse issues toward treatment, make it easier for those people to receive a personal bond and mandate that independent police agencies investigate in-jail deaths, the Texas Tribune reported. The legislation would also require officers to complete de-escalation training.

Provisions of the original bill were axed, however, after Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire caved to mounting criticisms from police groups who felt that the bill would hinder law enforcement’s work. For instance, the Bland bill would require a higher burden of proof for officers to stop and search vehicles.

Whitmire described the pared-down version of the bill as “a mental health and awareness piece of legislation.”

Cooper disagreed, arguing that the revised bill could put civilians at risk, as lawmakers moved to omit the provisions that demanded police accountability. She charged that the legislation ultimately “isolates the very person it seeks to honor.”

“What the bill does in its current state renders Sandy invisible,” she said in an interview with the Associated Press Friday, May 12.”It is frustrating and gut-wrenching. It painfully misses the mark for us.”

Democratic state Rep. Garnet Coleman, who drafted the bill and named it in honor of Bland, said he understood the family’s disappointment. Still, he maintained it’s no small victory for the state of Texas to be so close to approving a bill in remembrance of Bland.

“The legislative process has a lot of ups and downs,” Coleman said. “[This bill] recognizes what happened to her and what’s happening to people of color around the country.”

Authorities said Bland hanged herself with a plastic bag inside the Waller County Jail just three days after a traffic stop in July 2015. Dash cam footage showed former Texas state trooper Encinia ordering Bland out of her car and threatening to “light her up” if she didn’t comply.

Bland had reportedly acknowledged having mental health issues, but her family remains skeptical that she committed suicide. That’s why they and other activists have taken issue with the fact that Bland’s name is attached to a bill that primarily focuses on mental health and not police reform.

The Sandra Bland Act will now head to the state House for consideration.

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