The family of Sandra Bland announced Thursday it had settled its wrongful death lawsuit against officials in Waller County for $1.9 million. The settlement includes changes in jail procedures designed to prevent suicides, including having on-duty medical professionals during all shifts and increasing training for jailers.
Cannon Lambert, the family's attorney, told CNN that Waller County has promised to support legislation to increase funding for suicide prevention efforts in county jails throughout Texas. This will be part of a broader effort during the Legislatures's spring 2017 session to address the state's high rate of suicides in jails.
It has been a year since the death of Sandra Bland at the Waller County Jail in east Texas. In a time in which a number of deaths of black men at the hands of police have sparked protests and public debate over policing and race, she was an unusual rallying point: a woman whose death was officially ruled a suicide.
But what made her death even more rare was the way it galvanized a political response that cut beyond the acrimony over Black Lives and Blue Lives.
The anniversary of her death is passing at a particularly fraught moment, with police officers feeling under siege in the wake of an ambush that killed five Dallas officers last week, as well as growing protests in Baton Rouge and St. Paul over the most recent police shootings. So it is worth looking back at the way the aftermath of her death has spurred an unusual amount of open political dialogue, at least in Texas.
In July 2015, having traveled from Chicago to begin a new job, Bland was pulled over in Hempstead, Texas, by state trooper Brian Encinia for failing to signal a lane change. Tensions escalated after he ordered her to put out a cigarette — “I will light you up,” he says in dashboard camera footage — and he arrested Bland, bringing her to the Waller County Jail. She was found dead in her cell three days later. An autopsy ruled her death a suicide, but jailers were faulted for not adequately screening her as being at risk, since Bland admitted in an intake form that she had previously attempted suicide and was feeling “very depressed” after the arrest.
Encinia was indicted for perjury, a misdemeanor, because a grand jury decided he had lied when he said he removed her from the car purely to conduct a “safe traffic investigation.” Few other details of his indictment were made public. He pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial. He was fired by the Texas Department of Public Safety after the indictment. “The citizen has a right to be objectionable — they can be rude,” agency director Steve McCraw told The Texas Tribune. “We have an obligation not to react and be pulled into that.”
Bland’s family, who initially doubted that her death was a suicide, is currently bringing a wrongful death lawsuit against Encinia, as well as the Waller County Jail (read the complaint here). A trial is currently scheduled for March.
Bland’s death spurred calls for change at the Texas Legislature in a variety of policy areas that reflect the steps between her traffic stop and her death. The bi-annual legislature is not scheduled to meet until January, but lawmakers are already discussing improvements to how jails deal with mental health problems, reforms to the bail system so people arrested for minor infractions are not held in jail, and changes to laws that allow people to be arrested for minor traffic violations.
After Bland’s death, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards inspected the Waller County Jail and found that officers were not checking on inmates often enough and not all of the jailers had completed a required yearly suicide prevention training. A local committee assembled by county Sheriff Glenn Smith made additional recommendations. Smith promised to make changes in how the jail dealt with mental illness, and began training employees in de-escalation.
The state jail commission also released new intake screening forms, which are now being used throughout the state, and which give jail staff more guidance on how to identify suicidal inmates. The old form asked, “Have you ever been very depressed?” while the new form included more specific questions like, “Are you feeling hopeless or have nothing to look forward to?” “Prior to arrest, did you feel down, depressed, or have little interest or pleasure in doing things?” and “Have you lost/gained a lot of weight in the last few weeks without trying?”
Many of these reforms were discussed by an interim committee created by Dan Patrick, the state’s lieutenant governor. "Suicides in our jails have been in the news," Patrick announced last August. "It's drawn the attention, quite frankly, of senators on both sides of the aisle.” Last week, by contrast, Patrick explicitly blamed the Dallas shooting of officers on the Black Lives Matter movement and their criticism of police on social media, saying they “encouraged the sniper.”
Last week, Pat Nolan told The Marshall Project that the fact Bland was so clearly innocent of any real wrongdoing made her death particularly galling to some conservatives. Cases like hers “have raised concerns among conservatives about whether we have we gone too far with being tough on crime,” he said. “Especially with religious legislators, since they have so much concern about the power of government.”
An earlier version of this article incorrectly listed a previous trial date in January that has since been rescheduled, and incorrectly indicated that Bland was driving from Chicago at the moment when she was arrested. She had traveled in order to interview for a temporary job at her alma mater, Prairie View A&M University, and was hired shortly before her arrest.