Sandra Bland's death launches new hearings on jail suicides

AP News
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Posted: Aug 18, 2015 9:39 PM

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The death of Sandra Bland in a rural county lockup launched a new review of jail safety in Texas, but state lawmakers were noncommittal Tuesday about whether Bland's family would be part of the process.

Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick did not say Bland's name while announcing that legislative hearings on jail suicides would begin in September. He said a new Senate committee is not focused on any one death, and when the question of whether Bland's relatives would be involved was raised, noted that the family had recently filed a lawsuit.

But Democratic Sen. John Whitmire, who will chair the committee, made it clear that Bland's death July 13 in a Waller County jail was the impetus. Authorities say Bland hanged herself with a garbage bag, a finding her family has questioned.

"There's no question that Ms. Bland's tragedy has led us to this point," said Whitmire, who added that he has yet to determine who will be invited to the hearings.

Bland's family would welcome involvement in the panel's study, family attorney Cannon Lambert of Chicago said.

"I can tell you they are unequivocally interested in testifying to the committee," he said Tuesday night.

Texas has seen an average of 25 suicides in county jails each year since 2012. There have been 29 this fiscal year, including Bland, who was found dead three days after she was arrested. She had been pulled over for signaling a lane change, but the routine traffic stop quickly became confrontational after the trooper asked her to put out a cigarette in her car.

Authorities have said that Waller County failed to keep a close watch on Bland and that jailers didn't get additional mental health training that they were supposed to receive. Bland indicated on a questionnaire that she had previously attempted suicide.

Bland's family filed a wrongful-death lawsuit earlier this month against the trooper who stopped the 28-year-old Illinois woman and other officials, including the Waller County Sheriff's Office and two jailers. The lawsuit seeks a jury trial for unspecified damages.

Patrick said nearly half of jail suicides in Texas occur during the first week of custody and that half of those occur within the first 36 hours.

"Our goal would be to have a zero tolerance on suicides," Patrick said.

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Follow Paul J. Weber on Twitter: www.twitter.com/pauljweber

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Associated Press writer Terry Wallace in Dallas contributed to this report.