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The Texas lawmakers who led the Sandra Bland Act are pushing to reinstate the police reforms stripped from their original bill

After Sandra Bland’s death in a rural Texas jail drew outrage across the nation, two Texas lawmakers filed a comprehensive bill to address racial profiling during traffic stops, ban police from stopping drivers on a traffic violation as a pretext to investigate other potential crimes, limit police searches of vehicles and other jail and policing reforms.

But by the time the Legislature passed it, most of the sweeping provisions related to policing had been stripped out.

Now, on the heels of the death of George Floyd, those lawmakers say they’re determined to try again to push those reforms through when the Legislature reconvenes in January 2021.

State Sen. John Whitmire and state Rep. Garnet Coleman, both Houston Democrats who chair relevant committees in their respective chambers, said in a joint news release Tuesday they would continue to work together on criminal justice reform efforts next year. Whitmire’s chief of staff and Coleman confirmed to The Texas Tribune that they will begin with pushing again for measures they hoped to achieve with the 2017 law — like investigations into racial profiling and officer consequences. Many provisions were removed from the bill after law enforcement opposition.

The announcement comes weeks after Floyd, a black man, died after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck up until and long after he had lost consciousness. Floyd’s death sparked demonstrations across the nation, with people taking to the streets in many Texas cities to protest police brutality and racial inequity.

“The recent murder of longtime Houston resident George Floyd by a law enforcement officer in Minneapolis is a painful reminder to us that though we have traveled so far, there is still a long way to go,” Whitmire and Coleman said in the release.

Coleman told the Tribune on Tuesday that he and Whitmire will start with filing legislation that was removed from the Sandra Bland Act in 2017, such as measures to increase the standards by which law enforcement can stop and search a vehicle and ban law enforcement from stopping drivers for minor traffic violations to allow an officer to look into other suspicions. Coleman said they will also look at filing measures related to what constituents are asking for in the wake of Floyd’s death, “specifically getting rid of choke holds” and ensuring that, “if a peace officer is standing around watching their colleague do something wrong, that they must intervene.”

Bland, a 28-year-old black woman, was found dead in 2015 in an apparent suicide at the Waller County Jail three days after she was arrested during a routine traffic stop. Dashboard camera footage disproved the state trooper’s stated reason for arresting her — assault on a public servant — and showed him threatening to drag her out of her car and tase her after she refused to put out a cigarette. Her death and the released footage led to demands for police and jail reforms.

In 2017, the version of the bill that made it into law included jail reforms like diverting inmates with mental health and substance abuse issues into treatment and mandating that independent law enforcement agencies investigate jail deaths.

But the original version also would have required officer training on racial profiling and implicit bias, suspension for any officer found to have repeatedly engaged in racial profiling, and limiting arrests for offenses that at most would end in a fine with no jail time. Those measures stalled the bill’s progress because of opposition from law enforcement groups and lawmakers concerned about unfunded mandates.

After Whitmire removed much of the language related to police encounters — though de-escalation training remained — the bill passed both chambers. The version of the Sandra Bland Act signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott had become mostly a mental health bill, and lost its support from Bland’s family.

A second attempt to pass a bill to limit nonjailable offenses in 2019 as a follow-up to the Sandra Bland Act was again killed after opposition by one of Texas’ largest police unions, confusion and procedural snafus in the House and an apparent disinterest among Senate leadership.

Since Floyd’s death, Abbott has repeatedly touted the 2017 law as an example of Texas’ great strides in criminal justice reform efforts. And on Monday, Abbott raised the idea of the Legislature passing a “George Floyd Act” when it reconvenes in January 2021 for its regular session.

Abbott floated the possibility to reporters before meeting privately with Floyd’s family in Houston, saying that the state “has a legacy of success, whether it be the Timothy Cole Act, the Sandra Bland Act and now maybe the George Floyd Act, to make sure that we prevent police brutality like this from happening in the future in Texas.”

The Tim Cole Act in 2009, named after a black man who died in prison after 23 years and was posthumously exonerated of the crimes, did not address policing, but it did make Texas one of the most generous in terms of compensation for those who had been wrongfully convicted. In 2017, after the temporary Timothy Cole Exoneration Review Commission studied five years of exonerations, the state passed a comprehensive law targeted at reducing wrongful convictions.

Abbott did not, however, mention any specific proposals, and has not addressed the policing aspects that faced harsh opposition by law enforcement — and how, if at all, that will change in 2021.

Meanwhile, the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, which includes Coleman, announced Tuesday morning that members will host multiple town halls next week focused on racism, criminal justice and policing in the black community across different parts of the state. The series will begin Monday and end June 19 with a statewide town hall.

School feeding programs continue into summer; Midway sees record need

The curbside feeding programs that started in March after schools closed will continue through summer, and school districts are reporting record numbers of meals served and steady demand.

Waco ISD served 30,000 meals last week at its various pickup locations, and Midway ISD served 1,000 meals a day in the last week. The curbside model is a major departure from a traditional summer feeding program, which would require students to congregate and eat together at a set location.

Midway ISD spokeswoman Traci Marlin said after tinkering with its pickup locations throughout the spring, the district has hit its stride and likely won’t add or remove feeding locations for the rest of the year.

“We have had tons more this year than we’ve had in past years, kind of a continuation of all the meals we had going out during [the school year],” Marlin said.

The outbreak of the coronavirus hit McLennan County during spring break in early March. Schools were delayed from reopening after spring break on March 16, and eventually campuses were ordered closed for the remainder of the school year.

Marlin said the district typically served only 100 meals a day during summer and is now up to 10 times that number. The district, which is offering the meals to all children regardless of whether or not they attend a Midway school, now has three pickup locations and four buses that act as mobile sites.

“As soon as the schools closed in March, we had a tremendous response to having meals,” Marlin said. “At first we couldn’t seem to do enough of them. We were hitting 9,000, 10,000, 11,000 meals. As we were going along it just kept going up and up and up.”

Like many districts, Midway opted to send home breakfasts and lunches for several days on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Unlike Waco ISD, the district isn’t permitted to serve dinners under USDA regulations because not enough students qualify for free and reduced lunches.

‘For all kids’

Marlin said the district served 12,125 meals during the last week of the school year in May.

“It’s for all kids, they don’t have to be a Midway ISD student or from a low income family,” Marlin said.

Marlin said when the program was new, the district received messages and calls from onlookers concerned that not everyone picking up a meal was really in need, either because their vehicles seemed too expensive or for some other reason.

“There’s no way for us to know, we don’t need to ask what their situation is, they just need to have children,” Marlin said.

Cliff Reece, Child Nutrition Services Director for Waco ISD, said despite the upheaval of the last several months, the district is serving roughly the same number of children that it would serve during a typical summer. He estimates the district served 30,000 meals last week, but the numbers fluctuate as new sites are added and dropped.

Waco ISD also serves all children, not just those enrolled in the district.

“We had a site that started Monday, and we may have two more that are starting, and we may change around our mobile sites,” Reece said. “It’s kind of a moving target this summer. It’s obviously different from anything we’ve done in the past.”

He said it’s been a challenge to make sure the district is reaching everyone who needs the meals. Waco ISD provides meals at 30 sites, fewer than the 50 or so that would usually be running if students were attending in-person summer school. When schools closed in March, the district set up feeding sites at city community centers that later closed as well.

“That obviously had an impact, so we’ve tried to do our normal program to cover those areas a little bit to pick up students that might not have access to meals in those areas,” Reece said.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte  

Francisca Hernandez helps distribute lunches at West Avenue Elementary on Tuesday afternoon. Curbside pickup has replaced on-campus summer meals around Waco ISD due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Waco ISD’s program is slightly different. Parents fill out a card detailing how many students they’re picking up for instead of bringing their children with them every time. Waco ISD is also providing snacks and supper through the end of June, but will require USDA approval to continue providing that extra food. Breakfast and lunch will continue until the end of August or the beginning of school, whichever comes first.

Baylor program

Reece said he’s working with Craig Nash at the Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty to get the word out and figure out where students still need help. Nash said the organization’s seven regional offices throughout the state are reporting an uptick in need.

“The unemployment is so high, there’s kind of a whole new group of people who never knew about the summer food programs available to them and may not have had the need for them,” Nash said.

Nash said the shift from requiring students to eat together on-campus to curbside and mobile services in March made it much easier for people to access the meals.

“So many families rely on school meals during the school year,” Nash said. “The switch over to the summer-style feeding in March made people more aware of it.”

When the USDA made it possible to serve multiple meals at a time, the program became even more accessible.

“It kind of removes the barrier for a lot of families,” Nash said.

Nash said during a typical summer feeding program, the number of meals decreases through July and August as kids leave summer school and families travel. Even as people return to the roads, he said he anticipates the need for meals will remain steady or possibly increase.

“Traditionally, the need goes down as summer goes along,” Nash said. “But if I had to predict, I’d say this would be a different summer.”

Life vests are set up for another day of use at the Waco Paddle Company on the Brazos River near Indian Spring Park.

County reports six new COVID-19 cases, highest one-day count since March

The Waco-McLennan County Public Health District reported six new cases of COVID-19 Tuesday, the highest single-day report of new cases since March 20, when eight were reported.

The new cases, all involving patients younger than 40, brings the total number of cases in McLennan County to 138, 18 of them active.

No COVID-19 cases are reported hospitalized, and 116 patients have recovered, according to the health district. Four have died from COVID-19 since March.

The county has seen 18 new cases over the last seven days with 10 recoveries, but public health officials said the increase didn’t come as a surprise.

“Some increase in cases is expected as reopening occurs,” said the district’s health authority, infectious disease specialist Dr. Farley Verner. “We are watching the daily case count to monitor any trends or steady increases in the daily case count.”

Though hospitalizations of COVID-19 cases are at zero, public health district spokesman Kelly Craine said county residents should still be on their guard.

“The virus is still here,” she said. “We’re very fortunate we haven’t had any outbreaks in nursing homes.”

Since early March, 10,406 tests have been administered in McLennan County.

Statewide, 77,523 COVID-19 cases have been reported with 1,853 deaths.

With several days of high temperatures expected this week, more county residents may find themselves outside and wondering about the safety of using water fountains, which are now in service at Waco city parks. Craine advised caution.

“Hydration is important. People should be aware of high-touch, high-traffic areas, even if they’re cleaned regularly. You don’t know who was there before you,” she said. “Bringing your own water or hydration is definitely recommended.”

Frankie Gonzalez, 2, buried a week after mother's arrest in his death

The family of 2-year-old Frankie Gonzalez laid him to rest in a private ceremony Tuesday morning, one week after his mother was arrested on a charge for fatally injuring her child.

The burial took place at Rosemound Cemetery, 3201 S. 12th St., following a Christian burial mass at St. Francis Catholic Church on Tuesday. The family requested the services be private, an obituary in the Tribune-Herald stated.

Frankie Gonzalez’s mother, Laura Sanchez, 35, of Waco, was arrested June 2 on a first-degree felony charge of injury to a child that resulted in the boy’s death. She allegedly confessed to the crime and led detectives to his body hidden in black trash bags in a trash bin near Park Lake Baptist Church, police reported.

Waco police issued a community alert for Frankie Gonzales initially. The boy’s obituary spelled his name as Frankie I. Gonzalez.

Sanchez, also known as Laura Jane Villalon, reported her son missing June 1 while at Pecan Bottoms in Cameron Park. She reportedly told police she was in the restroom with her son when she turned away for a brief moment before he disappeared, police said.

An extensive search ensued overnight while community members joined efforts by the Waco Fire Department and local law enforcement. A statewide Amber Alert was issued, but police believed foul play was involved.

Search warrants

In newly released search warrants, police searched Sanchez’s vehicle for evidence of her involvement. The search warrant states Sanchez “admitted in a written confession that she caused injury to the victim which may have led to his death” and “(police believe) a forensic examination of this vehicle was used to transport the corpse of the victim.”

Police swabbed Sanchez’s 2005 red Kia Spectra5 for evidence connected to the death, the search warrant states. A crime scene technician also took samples of the floorboard carpet, took a blood swab from the front driver’s side mirror and removed a diaper bag, four blankets, one pillow case, one shirt, and a purple fitted sheet.

The search warrant states black trash bags, two bottles of bleach and a laundry scent booster item were removed from the car.

Sanchez told police Frankie Gonzalez died around May 28, and she did not report his death, an arrest affidavit states. Police reported Sanchez kept her son’s body in her home until about May 30, when she disposed of his body in a trash bin near North 27th Street and Alice Avenue.

The state terminated Laura Sanchez’s parental rights to six children in 2015 for prolonged drug addiction and state child welfare workers opened another investigation of Sanchez two years later after hospital tests showed she used drugs before the birth of a daughter.

Filings sealed

It is unclear whether Texas Department of Family and Protective Services child protective services workers had an open case involving Sanchez at the time of Frankie Gonzalez’s death because Associate Judge Nikki Mundkowsky, who presides over Child Protective Services cases, ordered the most recent court filings in Sanchez’s case sealed.

Mundkowsky wrote in a text message to the Tribune-Herald last week to unseal the records, “I have a responsibility to the children that come before me to protect them as best I can from further harm. There are times when broadcasting information can place children in harm or subject them to further trauma. While I understand the news’ interest in these stories, my job is to protect kids.”

Attempts to ask the judge to unseal a redacted version of the court records have gone unanswered this week.

The family thanked the Waco Police Department, the Downsville Volunteer Fire Department and Rudy Cantu, the owner of RockReady Printing & Designs, LLC, for a design placed on Frankie Gonzalez’s casket.

Man charged with murder of woman at her 28th birthday party

A man was arrested on a murder charge late Monday after he allegedly shot and killed his girlfriend during her 28th birthday party, authorities said.

Waco police arrested Gertraveon Demar Wilson, 28, after police were called to Trendwood Apartments, 1722 Dallas Circle, at about 10:30 p.m., when gunshots were heard coming from the complex, Waco police Officer Garen Bynum said. Inside a bedroom of one of the apartments, police found the woman, Crystal Richards, with a gunshot wound, Bynum said.

The woman was pronounced dead at the apartment, Bynum said.

According to an arrest affidavit, Wilson shot his girlfriend after the two got into an argument in front of at least one witness. Wilson allegedly shot his girlfriend in the chest, police stated.

Police at the scene said at least 100 people had gathered for the woman's birthday, including family members. Several fights were reported during the gathering, police said.

Additional officers arrived and gathered more information about a possible suspect, Bynum said. Officers then found Wilson in a breezeway at the apartment.

Officers talked to Wilson, then arrested him on a first-degree felony murder charge, Bynum said. He was booked into McLennan County Jail late Monday night and was released Tuesday after posting a $100,000 bond.

Bynum said although an arrest was made, the investigation remains ongoing.

The shooting was likely an isolated incident around a gathering at the apartments on Monday, Bynum said. The shooting was not connected to previous public safety concerns there that police and the city of Waco have been working toward solving over the last year, he said.

Waco police have attempted to carry out enforcement efforts at Trendwood since last summer after a high call volume and complaints from residents raised concerns about ongoing crime in and around the apartment complex.

In November, the city filed a lawsuit against Trendwood Investors LLC to clean up the property at 1700 Dallas Circle and pay penalties of up to $1,000 a day for each violation until it is remedied. The city claimed the East Waco apartments were “unfit for human occupancy” and that the owners failed to correct dozens of code violations city inspectors identified last summer.

Waco Assistant City Attorney David Shaw said the lawsuit remains pending and the city is continuing to work with the property in correcting the habitation issues. Shaw said code enforcement extended deadlines for the complex to compete its work from the end of March to the end of June because of COVID-19 restrictions in the last two months.

Code enforcement officers will reinspect the property in July to verify if all the improvements have been completed to the requirements of the city before moving forward, Shaw said.