Texas Measures Regarding Law Enforcement Interaction with the Public
Since the murder of George Floyd, law enforcement both at the local and federal level has been in the news. Admittedly, it is not fair to judge all law enforcement officers based on the illegal, racist, or unprofessional behavior of a few but many states, including Texas, have had police encounters that have led to the death of a black person stopped or detained. It is fair and certainly timely to analyze how law enforcement and lawmakers are addressing law enforcement encounters that end in death.
Discussion in Washington D.C. and nearly every American city has begun regarding necessary change to address how the public and law enforcement should behave and engage with each other. In a few cities, now the issue is how does the city and its police force interact with federal officers from the U.S. Marshals Service, Customs and Border Patrol, and other agencies of the Department of Homeland Security.
In 2015, Sandra Bland was pulled over by a state trooper with the Texas Department of Public Transportation (DPS) for changing lanes in front of him without using a turn signal in Hempstead, Texas, about 45 miles from where I write this blog.
The simple traffic stop became confrontational and the officer took her into custody. The outcome is well known: Bland was found hanging in her cell and her death was ruled a suicide. The jail was run by a different agency (County Sheriff) and it was determined numerous in-custody procedures were violated. Later, in 2019, it was discovered that a 39 second video was made by Bland on her cell phone. Everything about the video is disturbing. The officer was only charged with perjury as he lied about the stop in June 2017, and that charge was dropped in return for his agreement to permanently end his law enforcement career.
How did the law enforcement agencies and lawmakers in Texas act or react?
The Sandra Bland Act took effect on September 1, 2017; it requires county jails to divert people with mental health and substance issues toward treatment, eases the way for defendants to receive a personal bond, and requires law enforcement to investigate deaths in their jails. The Senate version of the bill, by state Sen. John Whitmire of Houston, removed much of the language related to encounters with law enforcement (de-escalation training remained) and became a mental health bill, which ultimately passed both chambers without opposition.
That same legislative session produced the Texas Community Safety Education Act adding Sec. 28.021 to the Texas Education Code. This new law required the State Board of Education to adopt rules to include mandatory high school courses for how to deal with law enforcement. The State Board adopted Sec. 74.39 in Title 19 of the Texas Administrative Code; “Requirements for Instruction on Proper Interaction with Peace Officers”; effective as of the Fall 2018 school year. The Board went further and Sec. 74.5 that requires clear indication on the academic achievement record of completion by high school students that they received proper instruction on proper interaction with peace officers.
Last month, the Houston Chronicle reported that the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement neglected to include the race of the driver stopped in the mandatory reporting filed by Texas law enforcement agencies. The Sandra Bland Act was supposed to result in better tracking of why every traffic stop is made, whether driver searched, if anything found and a report of the race of the person stopped.
Also in June 2020, Senator John Whitmire and Representative Garnet Coleman – both from Houston – in a joint news release stated they will work together to reinstate the police reforms that were removed from the Sandra Bland Act by lawmakers in 2017 due to law enforcement opposition. Texas Governor Abbott met with the family of George Floyd and pledged to institute police reforms.
Since Bland’s death, measures taken by Texas include teaching high school students how to deal with police officers, new policies for individuals detained that may have mental or substance abuse problems, and increased officer training in general de-escalation and mental health de-escalation tactics. The 87th Texas Legislative Session convenes in 160 days, hopefully we will see more.
Please do not rely on this article as legal advice. We can tell you what the law is, but until we know the facts of your given situation, we cannot provide legal guidance. This website is for informational purposes and not for the purposes of providing legal advice. Information about our municipal law practice can be found here.