In 2016, the state of police-community relations fluctuated with each deadly encounter between law enforcement and civilians across the country. Texas had one of the most high-profile events of the year, when a gunman opened fire in July on Dallas officers as a Black Lives Matter protest wrapped. The year was also marked by efforts to reform the state’s criminal justice system, particularly jail conditions.
Here are the top criminal justice stories in Texas in 2016:
1. Dallas ambush
A sniper in July opened fire on law enforcement officers in downtown Dallas at the end of a Black Lives Matter protest. The sniper, Micah Xavier Johnson, killed five Dallas officers.
The protest in Dallas was one of several around the country in response to police fatally shooting Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota. Their deaths sparked national outcry about black people dying at the hands of law enforcement. Those events were stacked on top of numerous fatal encounters across the country between civilians and law enforcement officers.
2. Police-community relations
Police-community relations were tense in Texas and across the country in 2016. Activists, lawmakers and other officials lamented and testified to controversial stops and their own encounters with law enforcement. After the Dallas ambush, some officials’ ire rested on protestors, while others rallied around law enforcement.
Some responses to the divide have included policy proposals such as one that would mandate Texas’ youngest and newest drivers learn in school how to act when stopped by law enforcement, and another that would supply virtually all officers on patrol across the state with bulletproof vests that can sustain high-caliber rifle rounds. State and federal elected officials also backed increased punishments for people who attack and kill law enforcement officers. Also, the Texas Department of Public Safety and Austin Police Department agreed during a legislative hearing to make the complaints process easier for civilians who have concerns about police.
3. Prisoner kills corrections officer
Dillion Gage Compton, 21, an inmate at the French Robertson Unit outside Abilene, killed correctional officer Mari Johnson in July. Compton worked in the kitchen area, where Johnson was found unresponsive. After officials identified Compton, he was transferred to an undisclosed maximum-security prison.
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice announced in August it had admonished four employees after investigating the circumstances behind Johnson’s death. The Robertson Unit is an all-male, maximum-security prison.
4. County jail suicide rate drops
Texas county jails saw a sharp decline in inmate suicides since they began using a revised mental health screening tool last December. Between December 2015 and November 2016, 14 county jail inmates took their own lives, a drop from a record 34 suicides between December 2014 and November 2015. In the five years before that record, inmate suicides averaged 23 a year, according to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, which monitors county lockups across the state.
In 2015, Sandra Bland was arrested by a Department of Public Safety trooper in Waller County and died three days later in the local jail, drawing national attention and scrutiny from lawmakers, policy analysts and activists over how jails identify and respond to mental health issues. Last fall, lawmakers and other officials set their eyes on the screening tool, also called an intake form, used by jails to determine if inmates are suicide risks. Officials said the forms and vigilance made the difference.
5. Open-carry law sees local fallout
After Texas’ open-carry law took effect on New Year’s Day, officials in several cities and counties wrestled with Attorney General Ken Paxton over whether people who legally carry a gun are allowed to have their weapons in certain government buildings.
The issue centers on a provision of the law that allows guns to be banned “on the premises of any government court or offices utilized by the court” unless a written regulation or the individual court authorizes it. Paxton and numerous local governments disagree over what qualifies for the exemption. Local officials have argued that if any part of a government building is used by a court, all of the building is exempt. Paxton’s office has said the ban only applies to spaces used by courts.
Paxton’s office has gone after numerous local governments over their bans, including suing Waller County and the city of Austin.
Read more at texastribune.org.