A committee formed as a result of the death of Sandra Bland in a small county jail in Texas has just been released. The report makes recommendations on inmate screening, jail procedures, inmate mental health problems, and other law enforcement related issues.
Sandra Bland is the young black woman who died in a Waller County, Texas jail. Her death and arrest made national headlines.
Bland was found dead in her cell after she was arrested as a result of a traffic stop. Her death was ruled a suicide by a Harris County (Houston) Medical examiner. An autopsy report concluded that Bland committed suicide by hanging herself with a plastic bag. The autopsy revealed there was no evidence of a struggle. No one had posted the $5,000 bond for her release and she was going to miss her first day on a new job. Miss Bland had come back to Texas to take a job at her alma mater, Prairie View A&M University in Prairie View, a predominately black institution located 48 miles from Houston.
The trooper who arrested Bland has been fired and is facing criminal charges for perjury, as reported by Breitbart Texas. Darrell Jordan, one of five special prosecutors appointed to oversee the investigation into Bland’s death spoke with Breitbart Texas following the announcement of the indictment. Jordan said the grand jury did not believe Encinia’s statement in the probable cause affidavit where he said, “I had Bland exit the vehicle to further conduct a safe traffic investigation.”
In December, Breitbart Texas reported that a Texas grand jury had declined to indict the Waller County Sheriff or his staff.
Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) trooper Brian Encinia stopped Bland after she ran a stop sign on campus in front of him and then changed lanes without signaling as his vehicle approached hers. He told her the reason for the stop was the improper lane change. A dashcam video shows that he told her he was about to give her a warning ticket but the situation escalated after Bland refused to put out a cigarette per the officer’s instructions. At one point, then Officer Encinia told Bland he was going to “Light” her up with a Tazer gun.
Breitbart Texas reported in July 2015, that soon after the death of bland in the Waller County, Texas jail, Waller County Sheriff R. Glenn Smith called for the formation of an outside sheriff’s commission to look at jail procedures, jail personnel, and any other issues that the independent commission wanted to investigate. Sheriff Smith asked Paul Looney, a lawyer from Hempstead and Houston to appoint committee members to investigate.
Looney told Breitbart Texas that he had no prior personal dealings with the Sheriff prior to his being asked to look into best practices for the jail and to make recommendations. Looney also said he was not told what to investigate, and was not limited as to the scope of the investigation. None of the committee members know the Sheriff.
In a statement obtained by Breitbart Texas after the Sheriff’s call for an investigatory committee, Waller County Sheriff Smith said, “The death of any person in the custody of any governmental entity should experience great scrutiny and be thoroughly investigated by an outside source.” At that time he said he had provided, and will continue to provide, any and all documentation to outside investigative agencies. Paul Looney told Breitbart Texas that Smith allowed his committee access to all personnel, including peace officers, all files, procedures, and other paperwork, and committee members rode with law enforcement officers in their patrol cars. They had access to whatever they deemed necessary to conduct the investigation and make recommendations, Looney said.
The committee released the report on Tuesday afternoon. The recommendations were widely diversified and designed to generally “improve operations both from public safety and efficiency perspectives.” The report states “[t]he recommendations are intended to be practical and capable of implementation without extensive expenditures, and in some cases may save taxpayer money.”
The report issues the following recommendations (among others):
- Inmate Screening for Mental Health and Medical Problems: Employ EMTs to triage and assess medical and mental health issues while also creating the ability for physician review and videoconferencing.
- Body Cameras: Develop a written policy for the use of video recordings, and purchase body cameras to document interactions to protect both the officer and the citizen accused.
- Language and Demeanor: Create a zero tolerance policy against the use of demeaning or derogatory language.
- Counseling and Fitness to Serve: Anger management courses and psychological evaluations should be implemented as a matter of routine to maintain acute mental fitness within the Office.
- New Jail: New jail facilities are necessary as the current facility does not address the safety and security required
- Booking Process: Invest in technology for an electronic booking process to facilitate access to information on inmates.
- Digital Reporting from the Field: Invest in technology to allow deputies to access records electronically and enter offense reports without the necessity of returning to the Office.
- Public Information Officer: A single point of contact for public information allows the Office to present information more clearly and accurately.
- Separate Jail Administration and Policing Duties: To the extent possible, jail administration and policing should be separated.
When asked which recommendation stood out for him, Mr. Looney told Breitbart Texas that he thought that early access to physicians and pharmaceuticals was a “game-changer.” He said the report suggests a plan that is affordable to accommodate this, in particular, having an agreement that shares resources among counties.
Breitbart Texas spoke with Sheriff Smith after the indictment of Officer Encinia. Smith sounded sad when talking about the death of Bland in his custody. “This is the second person that has died in jail since I became sheriff,” Smith said. “I don’t want this to happen again.” He also said that the Waller County Commissioners Court has approved a new budget that increased funds for the jail. “We have promoted Captain Brian Cantrell to chief deputy in charge of jail operations,” Smith explained. “He is making changes that include a new electronic logging system where jailers will log, in real time, their hourly visits to the jail to check on the inmates’ welfare.”
Paul C. Looney of Looney and Conrad told Breitbart Texas that the Waller County sheriff had already made changes in the county and has implemented some of the recommendations covered in the report. He also said that Sheriff Smith is in agreement with 100% of the recommendations and hopes to implement all of them.
Paul Looney served as a non-voting ex-officio member and only formed the committee. The five-person racially diverse committee was composed of civil rights attorneys Craig Washington and Randall Kallinen, former Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Morris L. Overstreet, criminal defense attorney Juan L. Guerra, and criminal defense attorney and president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association JoAnne Musick.
Breitbart Texas’ Bob Price has reported about other inmates who have committed suicide in Texas jails.
Breitbart Texas was also at the Texas Capitol at a House committee investigatory hearing when a conservative Texas legislator told the director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, Steve McCraw – “A lot of people are afraid of you guys.” The hearing was called in the wake of the arrest and death of Sandra Bland.
As reported by Breitbart Texas, the Texas House Committee on County Affairs held the hearing to question law enforcement and jail officials about jail standards in the state. They also questioned them about procedures for dealing with potentially mentally ill people in county jails. Another purpose of the hearing, and expressly stated in the hearing notice, was to examine the interaction between the general public and peace officers in the state.
Lana Shadwick is a writer and legal analyst for Breitbart Texas. She has served as a prosecutor and associate judge. Follow her on Twitter @LanaShadwick2