Five years later: The death of Sandra Bland continues to demand police reform from local and state officials across Texas

HOUSTON – Monday marks the sobering five-year anniversary of the death of Sandra Bland, a Black woman who died in police custody after an alleged traffic violation in Waller County. Three days later, Bland, 28, was found hanged in a jail cell on July 13, 2015.

While her death was ruled a suicide and the charge against the arresting officer was dropped, Bland’s death caused a nationwide outcry for police and jail reform that rings louder than ever before.

In 2017, two Houston-area lawmakers, state Rep. Garnet Coleman and state Sen. John Whitmire, filed comprehensive pieces of legislation that tackled racial profiling during traffic stops, consent search and consulting for police officers who profile drivers, in addition to jail reform, according to a report by the Texas Tribune.

However, during the negotiations, the language related to encounters with law enforcement were stripped away from the Senate bill, focusing mostly on mental health and de-escalation training for officers. The bill ultimately passed both chambers without opposition, and Gov. Greg Abbott signed it into law.

Despite criticism from those who said the bill doesn’t address systemic racism, the Sandra Bland Act was monumental, Coleman said.

The law sought to end some of the injustices that activists continue to push for, despite Texas being a state that has a number of active police unions. The bill also symbolically acknowledges Bland’s untimely death, who critics argue should never have been jailed for a minor traffic ticket.

Yet, even Coleman will admit, the act doesn’t go far enough.

“I tried to do a bill in 2017 that encompassed most of the things that people are talking about, but I couldn’t get everything,” Coleman said.

The death of Houston native George Floyd, who died in Minneapolis after an officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes, reinvigorated the calls for police reform across the nation. Coleman and Whitmire recently announced plans to refile the bill in the 2021 legislative session, seeking to pass the measures that were taken out of the original 2017 bills.

Coleman, who is currently writing the bill, said he is going to throw in “the entire kitchen sink.”

“You don’t go out there and file the bill that you think is going to pass. You file the bill you want to pass,” Coleman said. He represents Houston’s Third Ward, where Floyd was raised and attended Jack Yates High School.

The 2021 bill will include measures such as ending the use of chokeholds, requiring a duty to intervene, investigating complaints of racial profiling, increasing standards of stop-and-search of vehicles and banning law enforcement from using minor traffic violations to look into other suspicions.

This time around, activism for police reform is much more sophisticated and focused on city officials, Coleman said. He said he will be monitoring major cities and counties to see if they pass ordinances regarding policing. He argued that the process is easier on the local level compared to passing similar standards on the state level.

“We know we will have a better opportunity if the major cities do the types of things that we think are important that means there is an appetite for it,” Coleman said.

During Floyd’s funeral in Houston, Mayor Sylvester Turner announced he planned to sign an executive order banning chokeholds and strangleholds, requiring de-escalation, providing a warning before shooting and mandating officers to have a duty to intervene. While the Houston Police Department had abided by many of these rules for many years, Turner said they had never been codified. The city also discussed reallocating about $12 million in underutilized funds to be redirected to city programs and enhanced training for HPD.

In June, Turner also appointed a 45-member task force for policing reform in Houston. The task force will present a final report, which will outline the assessment, findings and recommendations, by Sept. 30.

While Coleman doesn’t advocate for defunding the police, he said more funding should go to alternative styles of policing. He also pushes for community police oversight commissions with subpoena power.

“The people should judge the police on their actions,” Coleman said.

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