Sandra Bland's family hopes $1.9M settlement results in jail reform nationwide

The family of Sandra Bland has struck a $1.9 million settlement in a wrongful-death lawsuit, according to the family's attorneys. Bland's mother hopes it could eventually result in jail reforms nationwide.

Bland, 28, an African-American woman, died in a Texas jail cell in July 2015 a few days after a white Texas state trooper stopped her for a minor traffic offense. Her arrest was captured on dashcam video and released publicly, adding to an ongoing national debate over how law enforcement treats African-Americans.

Attorneys for Waller County, Texas, insisted the agreement was not yet final and required approval by officials there, but Cannon Lambert, the Chicago-based attorney representing Bland's mother, called the deal "absolute" and that the family's lawsuit would be dismissed in a few days.

Bland's mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, who emerged as a national voice against police brutality as she pushed for answers in her daughter's death — told the Tribune Thursday that the settlement also calls for changes in the way inmates are monitored, which she says is the real victory.

"This is the beginning of a new chapter for the rest of the mothers who felt like they just haven't been heard," Reed-Veal told the Tribune at her attorney's Loop law office, wearing a red dress and a button with her daughter's face pinned near her heart.

"They've been calling out, asking for changes in the criminal system and the jailing system and this is just the beginning of that. I believe there's going to be a ripple effect. If people get together and mobilize, I believe there will be a ripple effect where Waller County won't be the only one to make these changes," Reed-Veal said.

Lambert said that in addition to the $1.9 million to be paid by Waller County and the Texas Department of Public Safety, the settlement calls for changes in how prisoners are handled at the county jail where Bland was held, including the presence of emergency medical technicians on all shifts and increased training of personnel.

"This is what I call God's victory," Reed-Veal said.

Lambert called the settlement historic, but gave credit to Reed-Veal.

"You never see settlements like this," said Lambert, accompanied by fellow attorney Larry Rogers. "It was something that she has fought for since the beginning and she was unrelenting. She insisted that there be changes made and she won."

Bland, a former Naperville and Aurora resident, was in Texas in July 2015 to start a new job at her alma mater, Prairie View A&M University, when state Trooper Brian Encinia pulled her over for allegedly failing to signal while changing lanes. Video from Encinia's squad car and a microphone on his uniform show the two beginning to argue over the trooper's request that Bland put out her cigarette. Encinia then reaches into Bland's car and tries to drag her out before arresting her.

"Get out of the car!" Encinia is heard saying. "I will light you up! Get out!" The two struggled outside the car as Encinia handcuffed her and called for backup.

After being unable to pay bond, Bland spent three days in the county jail before she was found hanging in her cell. Authorities ruled it a suicide.

Bland's family filed a lawsuit, contending among other things that jail personnel should have checked on her more often.

The family's complaint also contended that Encinia falsified the assault allegation to take her into custody and that jail personnel failed to keep her safe. County officials said Bland was treated well while locked up and produced documents that showed she gave jail employees inconsistent information about whether she was suicidal.

Encinia was indicted on perjury charges last January and later was fired from his job. Two jail guards who have since left their jobs admitted under oath to their roles in falsifying a jail monitoring log that indicated guards checked on Bland an hour before she was found hanging in her cell.

Still, many unanswered questions about her daughter's time in custody linger, and while she's pleased with the proposed settlement, Reed-Veal hasn't accepted that her daughter, who was so excited about a fresh start, would kill herself, according to her attorney.

"She does not believe that it was a suicide, by any means," Lambert said.

In July, Reed-Veal appeared on stage at the Democratic National Convention with other black mothers whose children died during encounters with law enforcement.

Despite persistent questions about how her daughter died, Reed-Veal said she's decided to channel her anguish into action. She said she hopes to keep up the pressure and continue for criminal sanctions against Encinia.

"Now the blaring is out there, people are listening," she said. "It's been going on for years, but now the country is listening and so hopefully we can get from just listening to let's get some action going, let's make things happen."

The Associated Press contributed.

wlee@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @MidNoirCowboy

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