By Johnathan Silver
HEMPSTEAD – Waller County needs a new jail, local officers need body cameras to record their activities and the sheriff's office needs to promote civility, a study committee formed after the death of Sandra Bland said Tuesday.
The county came under national scrutiny in July when Bland was found hanged in her jail cell three days after being arrested by Department of Public Safety trooper Brian Encinia, who says she assaulted him during a contentious traffic stop. Her death was ruled a suicide, but her arrest and subsequent jailing triggered accusations of racism. Bland's family has filed a civil lawsuit in federal court against the county, several of its employees and the now-fired Encinia.
Encinia is facing a perjury charge in Waller County, after a grand jury indicted him for lying about why Bland exited her car. The former trooper is also fighting to get his job back.
At Waller County Sheriff R. Glenn Smith's request, local attorney Paul C. Looney formed the study committee at the end of July to review the operations of his office and the county jail. Civil rights attorneys Craig Washington and Randall Kallinen, former Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Morris L. Overstreet, and criminal defense attorneys Juan L. Guerra and JoAnne Musick served on the committee and had unrestricted access, some of the members said Tuesday. Looney served as a nonvoting member.
With a small group of protestors gathered, the committee released its findings on the steps of the Waller County Courthouse. It recommended:
--Inmate screening for mental health and medical problems: employ EMTs to triage and assess medical and mental health issues while creating the ability for physician review and videoconferencing.
--Body cameras: develop a written policy for the use of video recordings, and purchase body cameras to document interactions to protect both the officer and the citizen accused.
--Language and demeanor: create a zero tolerance policy against the use of demeaning or derogatory language.
--Counseling and fitness to serve: anger management courses and psychological evaluations should be implemented as a matter of routine to maintain acute mental fitness within the office.
--New jail: new jail facilities are necessary as the current facility does not address the safety and security required.
--Booking process: invest in technology for an electronic booking process to facilitate access to information on inmates.
--Digital reporting from the field: invest in technology to allow deputies to access records electronically and enter offense reports without the necessity of returning to the office.
--Public information officer: a single point of contact for public information allows the office to present information more clearly and accurately.
--Separate jail administration and policing duties: to the extent possible, jail administration and policing should be separated.
--Bland's death added to a long-running conversation about race and policing in America. Locally, protestors and citizens have called for Smith's job, as well as indictments of Waller County and DPS officials.
Washington said the recommendations are specific and will make a difference.
"We think they will go a long way to providing better relations between all the citizens of Waller County," said Washington, who presided over the committee. "Not even dividing them down into police and public but just to all of God's children, to ensure that this community is a shining beacon of light for perhaps other community toward a more just society."
Smith said building or rebuilding a positive relationship with the community requires law enforcement to be aggressive and to show that officers are there to protect everyone.
"We've got to be on offense," he said. "Step up and convince the public that we're open minded ... we're gonna make changes ... we're gonna reach out to regain your trust."
Smith said from what he's read, he supports most of the recommendations, but some items won't just happen in a few months. In the case of the new jail, for instance, land has been picked out but funding has not been approved, he said.
Nevertheless, Smith said, the recommendations will be taken seriously.
"It won't be dust settling over the report," the sheriff said.
Bland family attorney Cannon Lambert said it's unfortunate that it took her life for the issues the committee highlighted to come forward.
"I'm glad that they're echoing the concerns that we've had," he said.
But it's troubling that anger management is being prioritized, the attorney added. An officer shouldn't be on the job if they have anger issues, Lambert said.
"You would hope they'd be discharged," he said.
Though Bland's death led to the committee's formation, members made few references to her case and said the focus was on improving operations and the relationship between the community and law enforcement. The report, though, does reference Bland's words from one of her inspiration-themed videos that she occasionally filmed.
"The committee was driven by Sandra Bland's words: 'I am going to Texas to make it better.'"