County attorney discusses local impact of Sandra Bland law
By LYNETTE SOWELL
Coryell County attorney Brandon Belt gave a legislative update and had a warning for the Copperas Cove city council where it concerns the Copperas Cove Police Department’s compliance with newly passed amendments to the law passed by the state legislature, namely the Sandra Bland Act.
He reminded the council of the case of Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old black female who was stopped by a DPS officer in Waller County, taken into custody, and was then found hanging dead in her jail cell three days later in the county jail. A lawsuit followed by Bland’s family, which cost Waller County $1.9 million in damages alone, not including legal fees or the changes in procedures that county was required to make where it concerns the processing and identification of those with mental illness and/or intellectual disability.
Until now, identifying those in custody with mental health issues doesn’t typically occur until an individual is in the custody of the county jail, and not at the Copperas Cove Police Department. The Coryell County Sheriff’s Office has deputies who specifically work with cases involving those with mental health issues.
“It’s always been after they were sent to the county jail and in the custody of the sheriff, and we’ve been dealing with them. Dealing with them has not been new, but for the Copperas Cove Police Department, it is new,” Belt told the council. “I believe that the Copperas Cove Police Department is going to need some more funds to change the dynamics of the way a person is currently housed in custody.”
One of the liabilities is that those in the department’s holding facility aren’t supervised 24/7, Belt said. There are officers who check on those arrested and awaiting transfer every 30 minutes to an hour, but from what Belt understood, there are periods of time when they are not, and the only ones present are the dispatchers.
“Right now what’s happening is I believe is creating a liability for the City of Copperas Cove, which is the reason I’m here. I represent the county, but everybody who lives in the city of Copperas Cove, pretty much, is a resident of the county, pays taxes, pays my salary,” Belt told the council. “I’m doing everything I can to make sure the county doesn’t get sued, that the county doesn’t have any liability. I’m here to help make sure that the Copperas Cove Police Department and the City of Copperas Cove doesn’t get sued.”
Belt called it a problem that should be addressed, sooner rather than later.
One important change to the law is that now, a law enforcement officer has 12 hours from the time someone is taken into custody to request a mental health assessment if they are suspected of suffering from mental illness or an intellectual disability, and that assessment must occur within 96 hours after being requested by the magistrate.
He said local resources have to be spent and local people have to come up with solutions to deal with these issues.
“The state is not helping us and they are not going to help us. They provided no funds for any help at the local level to deal with mental health issues that they have ordered us to now identify and deal with.”
So far, Belt said he has worked with both the Copperas Cove and Gatesville Police Departments, the Coryell County Sheriff’s Office, and the local magistrates to develop screening forms to use for those who have been taken into custody. The County’s courts administration has also had training, he added. He said his office has been trying to get everyone to focus on their segment, with CCPD’s being simple: document it, pass it on, notify the magistrate. The magistrate will then enter the order to have the mental health assessment done.
He lamented the lack of mental health services in Copperas Cove in general and at one point said that Central Counties MHMR personnel will not come to the Copperas Cove Police Department to perform the needed assessments. Instead, those will be provided by telehealth assessments when the need arises.
“Look around Copperas Cove to find an MHMR office, good luck. I’ve hammered on them about getting one down here; y’all have got to have one. It’s ridiculous that they provide no services in a jurisdiction this large. The MHMR office in Gatesville is defunct. Most of the time my phone calls are not returned.”
He said he wants to do what he must for something to change.
“I do not want us to be in a situation where we are not able fulfill our obligation to the law, and more than that, our obligation to these citizens.” Belt said many times, individuals with mental health and intellectual disabilities end up in the system because there is no other option.
“There is nobody, no place to take care of them – they can’t take care of themselves…I call them the inbetweeners. They’re not a danger to themselves or to others, they’re not so bad they need to be committed, but they’re not able to make it day-to-day on their own.”
Councilman Matthew Russell commented that he would like to know the bottom line up front, how many additional staff would be needed. The council gave a consensus at the end of the meeting to request information from the police department for that answer.