Now in his 26th year as a Houston Democrat in a conservative Texas House, Texas State Representative Garnet Coleman is the ranking member of the Public Health Committee, and chair of the powerful, wide-ranging County Affairs Committee.
He was the sponsor of the Sandra Bland Act, named in memory of the African-American motorist who, while driving in the Houston suburb of Prairie View in 2015, was pulled over by a white Texas State trooper. Both her stop and her subsequent arrest were caught on video, and proved highly controversial. Most striking was how quickly the trooper moved from mild arguing with Bland to suddenly arresting her with no attempt at de-escalation. Later, in an even more contentious development, Bland—who had some history of mental illness—died in custody in the Waller County jail, in what was later ruled a suicide.
The Act, which came into effect this month, has been called an “example for the nation” in setting policies for reform of police practices. Among other provisions, it earmarks money to train law enforcement in de-escalation practices, and requires authorities to divert justice-involved individuals with mental health and substance abuse issues into treatment.
In a chat with West Coast Bureau Chief Joe Domanick, Coleman discussed why he fought so hard for the Act, the peculiarities of Texas criminal justice law, and how legislators in one of the country’s toughest law-and-order states were persuaded to take a major step towards justice reform.
TCR: Your focus in the past has been on children’s issues and mental health, yet you played the key role in passing the Bland Act. Why?
Coleman: It’s very personal. I’m a black, born in the early ‘60s. I grew up at a time when I was a police target for just being me. I was stopped recently [by the police] just before the Bland hearing. And I was scared. All that [police officer] intimidation and worry when you’re stopped. [Editor’s note: In Texas a citizen can be arrested simply for committing a traffic violation, as was Bland.] People react to it differently. But why should someone be fearful for their life when they get pulled over? I have a daughter who is 21, a son who is 25. There were so many other things that this officer [who arrested Bland] could have done to avoid the situation that he didn’t do.
TCR: What advantages did you start out with in getting the Bland Act passed?
Coleman: The County Affairs committee that I chair has wide jurisdiction over [Texas] jails and sheriffs and the department of public safety. I’ve been working on mental illness since 1995, so I knew I could get that piece passed. And that’s the piece that had no opposition. The sheriffs and law enforcement were always for the mental health provisions. So I could say to them—and I did—you are getting nothing if you keep blocking the bill.
[In addition] I went to the [House] speaker and told him that the problem had gotten too big, that something had to be done. [Bland] had died; [there were recent videos] of another woman in Austin being violently thrown up the side of a car; a 14-year-old girl tackled in her bikini by an officer for nothing; and a teenager shot in the back of the head by an officer whom [the state of] Texas admitted was at fault in the civil suit.
TCR: Who were the opponents of the Act?
Coleman: The Sheriff’s Association. We have 254 counties. That’s 254 [very powerful] sheriffs. The Texas Metropolitan Police Association. The Police Chiefs Association. Most of your law-and-order members of the legislature were opposed. They were all opposed. At first, we couldn’t even get it out of the committee in the House.
TCR: Eventually, as I understand it, the governor and lieutenant governor, who are powerful players in Texas, came out in favor of the bill.
Coleman: They did not come out for it [at first]. They asked us to remove some important things from the bill: gathering data on pretext stops, on consensual searches and stop-and-frisk vehicle data—the kinds of things that really lead you to being able to have a provable finding of racial profiling. But once that happened, it passed out of the Senate. And I do believe that once the lieutenant governor and governor said this draft is fine with us, that everyone just backed off.
TCR: So the fact that they were not opposing it, was in itself a message?
Coleman: That’s exactly right. Once it got to the floor of the Senate, it passed unanimously and I picked it up in the house and the bill went through.
TCR: Do you still think the law has teeth?
Coleman: Most definitely. There are [now] more and easier ways to complain about police stops and abuse. Also included is [the requirement to keep] data on every stop and data on [police] violence—whether it’s a death or assault. And then there’s the big increase for de-escalation training.
TCR: Let’s talk about the Act mandated de-escalation training
Coleman: Every peace officer in Texas now has to go through 40 hours of Crisis Intervention Training; meaning they have to undergo 40 hours of de-escalation training in dealing with people who have mental illness; and we also mandated de-escalation training that has nothing to do with crisis intervention—that is to be used routinely in general circumstances. The police departments in Dallas are already using de-escalation techniques.
TCR: Every peace officer statwide?
TCR: Do you think the 40 hours of training, even if it’s best practices, is enough?
Coleman: Most definitely. That’s the ideal number of hours, according to best practices in mental health Crisis Intervention Training. Now it’s the law, part of the suite of training that all peace officers must have.
TCR: Will that 40 hours of training be ongoing?
Coleman: Yes, it’s on-going. They do the training again every couple of years. It’s not just at the academy. And it’s for both styles of de-escalation—mental health and in general circumstances. [The provisions of the Act] are there in perpetuity unless somebody removes them by law.
TCR: What does de-escalation mean to you?
Coleman: Peace officers should not approach people with a command-and-control stance, but use their soft skills to approach in a way that keeps everyone safe. Using distance, using reason to see how that person is at that moment and not rile everybody up, just trying to get everyone to obey what the officer is asking.
Fort Worth just adopted de-escalation training. Dallas is already doing it. So I believe it’s a way to move law enforcement in a different direction rather than just the same old actions every single time.
TCR: Did you give up anything in terms of the de-escalation provisions now?
Coleman: No. We still haven’t instituted the de-escalation rules and protocols yet. We want to make sure the training standards are strong, and meet current best practices in de-escalation training, and that we are not doing something that’s four or five years old.
TCR: So all that still has to be developed.
TCR: You spoke about the mental health provisions bill, which survived and became law?
Coleman: First, [informational] card swipes now have to be posted on the jail cells of people being jailed who are at risk of suicide or have emotional distress [so that jailers will be aware of a prisoner’s status.]
Second, the Act also mandates telemedicine and telemagistrates to be on call so that in smaller areas of the state so that [diagnosis and treatment] can be very quickly available.
TCR: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Coleman: I guess that I’m still in disbelief the first bill in Texas named for somebody that was a victim of the police actually passed.
Joe Domanick is West Coast bureau chief of The Crime Report. He welcomes readers’ comments.