Houston DefenderDeath of Sandra Bland: Five Years Later
That’s why it’s so heartening to see the law’s architects mounting a campaign to restore provisions stripped from the original bill four years ago amid opposition from major law enforcement groups.
The next session begins in January, and state Rep. Garnet Coleman and state Sen. John Whitmire are right to get started now, while bipartisan revulsion over the video of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis is fresh on everyone’s mind.
But other, equally needed reforms, needn’t wait. There are many steps cities and elected sheriffs in Texas’ 254 counties can take on their own.
They can start by following the example of the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, which recently revised the method for collecting data on traffic stops to include racial breakdowns on why the stop was made and what is found during searches of motorists. That key piece of information was required under the Sandra Bland Act but had not been included in data submitted by law enforcement agencies.
Changes such as these, and many others, don’t depend on legislative mandates.
“They don’t have to wait, and I would encourage them not to wait,” Coleman told the editorial board. “If we could go into session or if the governor called a special session, we’d go in and do this now. Do not wait. Cities and counties, you have the power to do it, so go do it.”
Coleman and Whitmire want to curtail police searches of vehicles, limit arrests for offenses punishable only by fines and end so-called “pretextual stops,” in which officers stop motorists for minor traffic violations hoping to stumble upon evidence of other, more serious crimes. All of these are measures that got stripped out of Coleman’s original Sandra Bland bill.
Those were urgent reforms then, and they are even more so amid the growing awareness of how such policing practices disproportionately target people of color. A 2005 study found two-thirds of Texas police departments searched blacks and Latinos at higher rates than white drivers. In Houston, where the population is less than 25 percent African American, Black drivers made up a third of traffic stops made last year by police.
According to research by Frank Baumgartner, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina and author of numerous racial profiling studies, departments nationwide almost uniformly search people of color at higher rates.
Pretext stops, in particular, are too often used as excuses to pull over motorists of color, amounting to little more than “stop and frisks in a car,” as Coleman described them. In 97 percent of those encounters, studies show, police found no evidence of a crime.
Far too often, however, they result in tragedies such as Bland’s death. She was pulled over for failing to use her blinker and arrested after a confrontation with an officer who became furious when she declined his request to put out her cigarette. She hanged herself with a plastic garbage bag in her Waller County jail cell three days later.
“Why are we creating confrontation, agitation, among our citizens over things that don’t pose a danger to society?” Whitmire asked.”Are we really wise to have a police officer walk up to the window and challenge someone about not having a front license plate?”
Why indeed. Local officials should take immediate action to rewrite policy and practices to improve policing. Reforms such as banning choke-holds, giving subpoena power to citizens review boards and ending pretextual stops are all within their reach.
Their fast action to implement reforms at the local level will only increase the momentum in Austin come January, when lawyers will get to work restoring the gutted reforms to the Sandra Bland Act.
Now is the moment to answer the call for police reforms, not with promises for the future, but with solutions in the present.
My cousin Keith Wade and Shepherd Manson B. Johnson II, a community organizer I’ve worked with, both died because of COVID-19. Regrettably, knowing someone who died because of COVID-19 is not uncommon for people of color. Last month, a Washington Post/Ipsos poll found that “31 percent of black adults say they know someone firsthand who has been killed by the virus, compared with 17 percent of adults who are Hispanic and 9 percent who are white.”
These disparities are not happening just because we know more people. Evidence supports that the COVID-19 pandemic has hit people of color in the United States more than Whites. A research article by Health Affairs published this week found that “in many areas of the U.S. [Blacks] and [Hispanics] are over twice as likely as [Whites] to die from [COVID-19]. The [CDC] found that age adjusted Black and Hispanic COVID-19 hospitalization rates as of May 30, 2020 were 4.5 and 3.5 times those of Whites, respectively.”
Furthermore, it needs to be recognized that these disparities are happening because of societal issues (i.e. racism) not genetic reasons. It needs to be understood, “genetic variation, moreover, does not come in neatly colored packages. For example, the genes that influence skin color are distributed independently of genes that influence the risk for any particular disease. Given the heterogeneity of groups we call ‘black’ or ‘white,’ treating those categories as proxies for genetic variation almost always leads us astray,” writes Clarence Gravlee, Ph.D. in Scientific American.
Dr. Jay Kaufman, the lead author of the first study to examine available genetic data for evidence that explains a major racial-health disparity, told the Atlantic, “we’re spending a huge amount of money on these studies, but if you are interested in understanding disparities, all this money that’s been spent has come up with basically nothing.” Instead, this time and effort should be spent on identifying the social determinants of health disparities.
I’m proud of the work I have done to address health disparities in Texas, but more needs to be done. First, we need to re-establish the Office of Minority Health Statistics and Engagement (OMHSE). Second, we need to expand the OMHSE’s mission from just individual health topics to a population health framework that addresses the full factors of health, like North Carolina has chosen to do. North Carolina’s population health framework means that the focus will not solely be on healthcare but on all the factors that go into determining health—including education, employment, law enforcement, housing, environmental quality, and of course healthcare access. This type of approach will give Texas a greater ability to address and minimize racial health disparities.
I will continue to work on racial health disparities and keep you informed as this issue continues to develop.