The Texas House County Affair Committee will hold a hearing next week to study "jail standards, procedures with regards to potentially mentally ill persons in county jails, as well as issues stemming from interactions between the general public and peace officers." That sounds to me like the first state-level public hearing on the policy issues surrounding the Bland case and it's worth considering what policy responses might look like look like beyond placard-sized slogans.
Sandra Bland's death highlights at least three major policy changes needed to keep the public safe from its protectors.
- The officer should not have had grounds to arrest her in the first place.
- Even if arrested, she should have been booked and released, not jailed.
- Once in jail, she should have been more closely monitored (assuming her death was, in fact, a suicide.)
By a 5-4 vote in 2001, the Supreme Court upheld the arrest of Gail Atwater, 45, stopped by Lago Vista police driving slowly along the roadside helping children look for a lost stick-on ornament from the Austin Ice Bats hockey team.
Justice David Souter wrote in the majority opinion that any arrest involving a violation is not “unreasonable” search or seizure.
University of Texas Law School professor Michael F. Sturley was another of Atwater’s lawyers.
“Here was a mother and her kids looking for a toy, and she got thrown in jail,” Sturley said.Long-time Grits readers may recall that the Legislature passed a law in response to that Supreme Court case disallowing arrests for most Class C misdemeanors, but the bill was among Rick Perry's first round of vetoes in 2001. In 2003, Perry vetoed another bill which would have required law enforcement agencies to have written policies stating when their officers could arrest for Class C misdemeanors, and the Legislature has not seriously addressed the issues since.
“Police experts say the last thing you want is to arrest someone over a traffic stop. It’s expensive to jail people, takes officers away from duty and imposes a lot of costs on the system. But police say it’s a tool when they want to throw someone in jail.”
In Texas, police don’t need a good reason. Just a reason.
With a new governor and momentum from this episode (the trooper was a complete jerk, making the video viral gold), perhaps it's time to revisit the Legislature's 2001 rebuff of the Atwater decision. Your correspondent has long considered that one of Rick Perry's most egregious and harmful vetoes.
On arrival at the jail: Once dragged out of her car and taken down town, she could have been charged, booked and released. Remember, this all started with a traffic violation. Grits for years has harped on egregious, needless levels of pretrial incarceration at Texas' county jails -- currently 60.7% of statewide jail populations are incarcerated pretrial.
Consider that percentage that for a moment in light of Sandra Bland's death. Like Bland, more than half of the people in jail haven't been convicted of anything. Grits has spent considerable blog space over the years promoting alternatives to big, expensive new local debt issues for jail expansion. The simplest: you don't actually have to jail most people pre-trial.
While lots remains unknown about Sandra Bland's death, she would probably be alive today if she had been booked and released on a personal bond with a date to return to court for her hearing.
On detention: the last policy issue bound to get more attention - particularly if the murder allegations fail to stand up - is suicide prevention in jails. The Texas Tribune reported that suicides are by far the most common cause of unnatural deaths in jails and most of those are hangings. (See additional Trib coverage of regulatory and mental health issues arising from the case.)
Last year in Texas there were 615 in-custody deaths; 410 were in TDCJ (excluding 10 executions) and the rest were police shootings or deaths in jails. (Here's the AG's running list.) Suicides are the most common source of jail deaths besides natural causes. As I've written before, while advocates worldwide focus on Texas' death penalty, few advocates or media similarly prioritize confronting this far more common way to die behind bars:
These deaths were never scheduled, thus never delayed, and for the most part no newspaper reporter ever told their stories. But they remain just as dead as the men and women killed in the execution chamber, their families grieve as ardently. Dead is dead, even if humans seem to suffer from a desire to make some deaths matter more than others. It's all the same to the deceased.Sometimes Texas jails have struggled with this problem, sometimes they've ignored it. But now the issue has moved to the front burner. The Bland case raises the question: What obligations are incurred by a jail when they learn through the intake process that an inmate has an acknowledged history of suicidal thoughts? The Commission on Jail Standards issued Waller County a red card over inadequate monitoring:
The jail was also cited for failure to personally observe an inmate at least once an hour, according to the Commission's executive director, Brandon Wood. The jail was previously cited for violating the 60-minute observation standard in 2012, after an inmate hanged himself with a bed sheet.So this happened before, they were cited, but they didn't fix the problem. Even so, it's unclear that even checking in once every 60 minutes would have prevented what happened. Should there be requirements for video monitoring for inmates at risk of suicide? That would require more money for equipment and staffing, but nobody ever said it should be cheap and easy to take away someone's liberty.
Those are just a few examples of policy issues arising from the Bland case and I bet the County Affairs hearing next Thursday will identify more.
Sandra Bland's friends and family are raising a ruckus because she was a special person. Unfortunately, the circumstances surrounding her unjust detention and preventable death weren't special at all. One can can learn much from what's unique about this young woman's case, but perhaps even more from what it has in common with dozens or hundreds of others. Viewing the episode analytically can be difficult amidst the natural reactions of anger, shock, and grief, not to mention understandable defensiveness on the part of authorities. But it's necessary and implicitly those broader lessons are why her death matters to every Texan, in addition to the people who knew and loved her.