Abbott signs ‘Sandra Bland Act,’ bolstering training for officers

Sandra Bland
FILE - In this undated photo provided by the Bland family, Sandra Bland poses for a photo. A grand jury indicted Trooper Brian Encinia on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2016, with the misdemeanor charge. Encinia has been on desk duty since Bland was found dead in her cell in July. Her death was ruled a suicide. (Courtesy of Bland family via AP, File)

AUSTIN (KXAN) – Starting Sept. 1, all future law enforcement cadets in Texas will be required to undergo 40 hours of mental health training. This step comes after a KXAN investigation last month revealed a widespread lack of training for officers interacting with people experiencing mental health crises in the field.

The increase in training is part of a major law enforcement bill, dubbed the Sandra Bland Act, signed by Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday. Bland was an African-American woman found dead in the Waller County Jail in 2015. After being arrested during a routine traffic stop and a lengthy argument with a state trooper, police say she committed suicide.

Now, Texas requires just 16 hours of mental health training. Only seven percent of all peace officers in the state have the optional, advanced Mental Health Officer certification. KXAN’s analysis showed only a quarter of officers shot and killed in the line of duty by someone with mental illness since 2000 actually had that training.

While the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement will soon update the curriculum to meet the new training standards outlined by lawmakers, the basic idea is to ensure better de-escalation skills and response during and after a mental health call.

The Sandra Bland Act also mandates that county jails divert people with mental health issues to treatment.

“[The law] will prevent traffic stops from escalating by ensuring that all law enforcement officers receive de-escalation training for all situations as part of their basic training and continuing education,” said Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, who helped push the legislation to the Abbott’s desk. “Furthermore, the Sandra Bland Act requires all jail deaths to be investigated by an outside law enforcement agency instead of the agency in charge of the jail where the death occurred.”

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