The particulars of the settlement are not beyond public concern. The Bland family’s case is one of several legal battles surrounding widely publicized police-related deaths over the last two years. More families may soon follow suit after this summer saw a string of officer-involved shootings and subsequent protests. Future cases could generate similar public criticism, but according to Ranjana Natarajan, director of the Civil Rights Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law, both sides make faulty arguments.
While a monetary payout may seem distasteful, it is often the only way to compensate for something truly irreversible: the loss of a life. Ultimately, the choice for families to file a suit following a police-involved death is a deeply personal decision with a range of motivations, she said. Some families may be looking for an apology or recognition of wrongdoing. Some want to bring wider attention to their case. And for many families, going to court may be the only way to find out the details of their loved one’s death.
Texas law, for example, requires jail operators to investigate deaths that occur when a person is in police custody. But “the law doesn’t require the county jail to provide that investigatory report or other additional material to the family members,” Natarajan said. “So family members will struggle for months sometimes to try and figure out what happened.”
In the case of a jail suicide, like Bland’s, a civil wrongful-death suit is often the best course of action for families to take. Although authorities may not have done anything criminal, they can still make amends for any circumstances that may have contributed a death. That includes failure to provide a mental-health assessment or proper supervision for those who express challenges, said Michele Deitch, a civil-rights attorney and lecturer at the University of Texas Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs.
In Bland’s case, one example of police inaction surfaced when a now ex-guard with the Waller County jail admitted to falsifying a jail log to indicate he had checked on Bland within an hour of her death—in fact, he did not check on her at that time. And Bland was by no means an outlier: My colleague Juleyka Lantigua-Williams reported in July that nearly 7,000 other people died in legal custody in the state of Texas between 2005 and 2015, and 11 percent of those deaths were suicides. That decade, suicide was the leading cause of non-natural deaths for those in custody in Texas.
Deitch, who specializes in prison oversight protocol, said she hopes the Bland settlement will lead to more discussion about jail safety and suicide prevention in jail facilities. Deitch said she recognizes that criminal prosecution tends to better appease the public in police-misconduct cases, but successful civil settlements can lead to substantive policy changes. The Bland agreement in particular looks poised to yield such improvements, given its expected proposals for jail reforms in Waller County. As the Texas Tribune reports:
Legislation in Bland’s honor is a term of the lawsuit settlement, and state Rep. Garnet Coleman, a Houston Democrat and chairman of the House County Affairs Committee, said he will introduce the Sandra Bland Act during the 2017 session. The bill will address protocols for dealing with mental-health issues in the criminal justice system, look for ways to divert people to treatment over incarceration and emphasize police de-escalation.
For Cincinnati civil-rights attorney Alphonse Gerhardstein, the Bland settlement “is an excellent example of what can be done positively out of a tragedy,” but change will not happen overnight. Gerhardstein has worked police-misconduct cases for more than 30 years, and won the landmark 2015 Supreme Court case in favor of same-sex marriage. In his work, Gerhardstein often finds that settlements stipulating jail reforms require a commitment by the defendants to follow through on policy recommendations, in addition to effort by the plaintiff team to ensure the changes are implemented.