The sister of Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old woman who was found dead in her Texas jail cell in July 2015, is furious over the “gut-wrenching” ways she says a criminal justice reform bill created in Bland’s honor has been drastically weakened by law enforcement groups and Republicans.
The latest version of the legislation, which unanimously passed the Texas Senate last week, has been stripped of provisions that would require a higher burden of proof for stopping and searching vehicles, as well as those that would ban arrests over offenses that are punishable by a fine. An earlier version of the bill also required officers who have racially profiled drivers to undergo training and included language to make personal bonds more easily attainable for nonviolent arrestees.
Instead the bill, which Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire (D) essentially described to The Associated Press as “a mental health and awareness piece of legislation,” has been slimmed down to focus on providing mental health and de-escalation training for jailers. It will also provide mental health care access to and increased supervision of inmates.
“What the bill does in its current state renders Sandy invisible,” Sharon Cooper, Bland’s sister, told the AP. “It’s frustrating and gut-wrenching.”
Bland’s family was hopeful that the bill would bring comprehensive and sweeping changes to policing in Texas, but loved ones are now outraged over the ways the bill has been altered. They say it will now do little to prevent similar instances with the police like that which Bland experienced.
“It’s a complete oversight of the root causes of why she was jailed in the first place,” Cooper told The Texas Tribune, calling the bill a “missed opportunity.”
Police said Bland, who is black, was found hanged in a Waller County jail cell three days after being arrested by trooper Brian Encinia, who is white, after she failed to signal a lane change. Bland’s family does not believe her death was the result of suicide. This, along with video of her arrest ― which shows Bland being forcibly removed from her car ― and the ongoing deaths of black men and women in police custody, has further amplified the Black Lives Matter movement.
Since Bland’s death, family members and activists have relentlessly fought to help bring justice in her name. However, despite their best efforts, activists who have supported this bill, like organizer Fatima Mann, don’t even believe the revised legislation is worthy of having Bland’s name attached to it. “It should be a bill that actually takes away the issue that caused her death,” Mann told the AP. “Not this.”
Critics like Charley Wilkison, the executive director of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, believed the original bill was a “straight-out attack on all law enforcement over a tragic suicide in a county jail,” according to the AP, and felt that crafting it to focus on mental health was a more appropriate measure.
In April, Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, traveled to Texas to testify before state lawmakers and push for changes in policing that were outlined in the Sandra Bland Act at the time, the Houston Chronicle reported.
“I need this bill to move forward so that it will prove to people who say that Texas is the most awful state to live in,” she told lawmakers. “And to me that’s true, because Texas is a place of pain for me.”
The revised bill will now head to the House, where it has until May 29, when the legislature adjourns, to be signed into law.