Suicide at Texas Jail Results in Firings, Lawsuit, Investigation and Legislation
by Matt Clarke
On July 10, 2015, Sandra Bland was stopped while driving in Prairie View, Texas. The 28-year-old Illinois native was in the process of moving to Waller County when she was stopped by Texas State Trooper Brian Encinia, allegedly for changing lanes without signaling.
A verbal altercation ensued over whether Bland had to put out the cigarette she was smoking, and Encinia arrested her for allegedly assaulting him. Three days later Bland was found hanging in an isolation cell at a jail operated by the Waller County Sheriff’s Office (WCSO). Her death was ruled a suicide. [See: PLN, Jan. 2017, p.44].
In January 2016, a grand jury indicted Encinia for perjury after a review of his vehicle’s dashboard camera footage showed him reaching into Bland’s vehicle to pull her out and threatening her with a Taser – directly controverting his official report that she cooperated with his request to exit the car on her own before assaulting him. Encinia was fired shortly thereafter, and he and Waller County were sued by Bland’s family.
The county and Encinia’s former employer, the Texas Department of Public Safety, reached a $1.9 million settlement in September 2016. According to attorney Cannon Lambert, Bland’s mother was pleased with the settlement, particularly its “non-economic components.” The settlement agreement required the use of electronic sensors during cell checks at the Waller County jail to prevent document falsification, employment of an on-duty nurse or EMT for all shifts, and additional employee training on booking and intake screenings.
Additionally, on May 2017 the WSCO terminated Deputy Dormic Smith, the jailer responsible for monitoring Bland when she committed suicide. Although named in the suit filed by Bland’s family, Smith, 30, was fired in connection with an unrelated incident that allegedly occurred during a patrol arrest in March 2017. At the time of Bland’s death, Smith was working under a 3-month-old temporary jailer’s license.
Bland’s suicide occurred the same year as a number of other high-profile deaths during or after police encounters, and sparked protests outside the WCSO. On July 31, 2015, Waller County Sheriff R. Glenn Smith asked local attorney Paul Looney to form a committee to investigate the WCSO’s practices and policies related to patrol and jail functions, and make recommendations for improvements.
Looney tapped Houston civil rights attorneys Craig Washington and Randall Kallinen, former Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Morris T. Overstreet, Houston criminal defense attorney Juan L. Guerra and JoAnne Musick, president of the Harris County Criminal Defense Association, as committee members.
On April 12, 2016 the committee published an eleven-page report critical of operations at the Waller County jail, which included nine recommendations.
The one most pertinent to Bland’s suicide was that medical and mental health evaluations during the jail’s booking process should be performed by EMTs instead of deputies who are untrained in properly evaluating the medical needs of incoming prisoners. Bland admitted she had a history of suicidal thoughts when she was admitted to the jail, though she said she wasn’t having any at that time.
The report also recommended developing a written policy for the use of video footage and purchasing body cameras to be worn by law enforcement officers. In Bland’s case, it was only after reviewing Encinia’s dashboard camera footage that officials realized his version of events was false.
The commission further recommended anger management training and psychological evaluations for deputies along with the adoption of a zero-tolerance policy regarding the use of demeaning and derogatory language, noting that some deputies called suspects “turd,” “thug,” “gangbanger” and “piece of shit.”
Addressing a proposal for a new jail in Waller County, the report said construction should be accelerated because the current facility does not meet safety and security needs; it also made a number of other suggestions related to improving paperwork and booking procedures, and hiring additional staff.
Critics claim the sheriff used the committee and its report to harness the outcry over Bland’s death, to generate favorable publicity for the new jail.
“After all the praises went up for Sheriff Glenn Smith, it became clear that the overriding theme to the campaign, disguised as a jail investigation, was merely to exploit the death of Sandra Bland to get a new Waller County jail,” said DeWayne Charleston, a community activist and former prisoner.
“Not one thing has changed [since Bland’s death],” added LaVaughn Moseley, a friend of Bland’s family. “Always all talk and no action.”
But Diana Claitor, director of the Texas Jail Project, an Austin-based group that advocates for those incarcerated in the state’s jails, called the report’s recommendations “a very good idea.”
“It should help them do their jobs, and it might help weed out officers who’ve developed problems on the job,” she added.
Still, the committee’s report did little to dissuade criticism. Hannah Bonner, an activist who held an 80-day vigil outside the Waller County jail, called the committee’s work an attempt to distract from calls for a federal investigation into the sheriff’s office.
“We will [be] and are demanding a Department of Justice investigation,” she said.
Committee member Craig Washington, a former U.S. Representative with an impressive civil rights record, strongly denied any allegations of impropriety.
“You think I can ever be used for PR purposes?” he asked. “Hell no.”
The final chapter in Sandra Bland’s tragic death occurred on June 15, 2017, when Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed the “Sandra Bland Act.” The law requires county jails to divert people with substance abuse and mental health problems into treatment programs, mandates that jail deaths be investigated by independent agencies, makes it easier for mentally ill defendants to be released on personal bonds and requires de-escalation training for law enforcement officers. The statute will go into effect on September 1, 2017.
The original version of the bill was more expansive, including provisions that addressed racial profiling during traffic stops; however, it faced opposition from law enforcement agencies and some lawmakers, and thus was scaled down.
Sources: WCSO Committee Report, Texas Tribune, www.click2houston.com, www.houstonpublicmedia.org, www.theguardian.com, Houston Chronicle, www.therivardreport.com