Panel hears testimony in wake of jail death

by | Aug 6, 2015 | Opinion

By Ed Sterling

The Texas House Committee on County Affairs met on July 30 to hear testimony on Sandra Bland and jail standards.

Bland, 28, was pulled over by a state trooper in Hempstead on July 10. Soon after, she was placed in the Waller County Jail and was found dead in her cell on July 13. Investigators ruled the death a suicide. The story, covered by local, state, national and world news agencies, has emerged in the context of other tragic outcomes involving black citizens and law enforcement.

“How does someone get pulled over for not signaling and end up dead three days later? It just does not compute,” said Committee Chair Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, in opening the hearing. Coleman called for discussion on how such an event might affect the Texas Department of Public Safety’s training of officers and how Texas county jails might adjust their practices in the incarceration of mentally ill inmates.

Brandon Wood, director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, said mental health has become the commission’s top priority and that state funding to add beds for inmates with mental issues is forthcoming. Wood testified that there have been 140 in-custody suicides in Texas since 2009 and 22 in 2014. He recommended enhancements to mental health screening processes, such as the addition of personnel who are qualified to assess mental health and deliver mental health care.

Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steven McCraw said the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Texas Rangers are investigating the arrest and death of Bland and suggested the public release of the arrest video was an act of transparency on the agency’s behalf.

Yannis Banks of the Texas NAACP testified, suggesting that transparency issues include official documents that could be altered and video recordings that do not capture everything that happens. Several audience members spoke about their personal experiences related to racial profiling by law enforcement.

Greg Hansch, public policy director of National Association of Mental Illness of Texas, called for Texas to better address racism in law enforcement. And, while acknowledging increases in the Texas Legislature’s attention to mental health issues generally over the past couple of legislative sessions, Hansch said Texas still has long way to go in addressing needed improvements in its mental health system.

Planned Parenthood is discussed

The state Senate Committee on Health and Human Services on July 29 met to receive invited testimony concerning Planned Parenthood and its Texas affiliates in light of recent news.

In opening the hearing, committee chair Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, said, “Senators, I am sure all of you have seen the recent videos and news stories showing top Planned Parenthood executives casually discussing donation and potential to sell fetal tissues and organs. The cavalier attitude portrayed in these videos was alarming and disturbing to many people throughout the nation and of course here in Texas.”

Attorney General Ken Paxton testified that the state is conducting its own investigation of Planned Parenthood affiliates in Texas and that a federal investigation of Planned Parenthood also is in progress.

Texas Department of Health and Human Services representatives testified about the agency’s role in regulating abortion practices and explained that the agency has no authority in the sale or donation of fetal tissue, but it can report suspected abuses to other agencies that have jurisdiction.

Agency urges conservation

The Public Utility Commission of Texas on July 30 urged consumers to conserve electricity because of record electricity demand and higher than normal temperatures throughout the state.

The agency asked residential and business customers to adjust air conditioning thermostats at least two degrees higher and turn off unnecessary lighting and also to run dishwashing and laundry appliances after sunset or later.

When the weather gets hot, electricity usage peaks between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m., according to the PUC.

Grand jury indicts Paxton

A Collin County grand jury last week indicted Ken Paxton, a former state representative from McKinney and current state attorney general.

Felony counts against Paxton reportedly are expected to be unsealed sometime on Monday, Aug. 3.

Paxton has been accused of encouraging investments in a McKinney-based technology company without telling investors he was a stockholder in the company and that he was making a commission on the investments.

 

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