Three candidates running for Bexar County sheriff attacked Republican incumbent Susan Pamerleau during a Monday night debate at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, criticizing her on department staffing, response time, and morale, among other issues.
The challengers – Democrat Javier Salazar, Libertarian Larry Ricketts, and Green Party candidate James Dorsey – each promoted themselves as longtime local law enforcement veterans with the right strategies and skills to lead the sheriff’s department.
The first woman to be elected Bexar County sheriff in 2012, Pamerleau set herself apart Monday as a retired U.S. Air Force major general who has rid the department of its “good ol’ boy” network, modernized the agency, and made its operations more fiscally efficient.
The first half of the hour-long debate, which was held less than two months before the Nov. 8 general election, was broadcast by WOAI-TV, moderated by anchorman Randy Beamer, and live streamed in its entirety.
Throughout her career as sheriff, Pamerleau has enhanced mandatory crisis training for detention officers, created a family violence unit with investigators who are available around the clock, and implemented a state-of-the-art management system for online law enforcement records, she said.
The incumbent sheriff said she looks forward to a full roll-out of body cameras for all patrol deputies. Pamerleau’s administration also helped secure two first-ever permanent substations for patrol and property crimes. These substations, Pamerleau said, will improve response times across the growing county and save almost $750,000 annually.
“These changes didn’t happen overnight. It took leadership,” she said. “This election is about performance.”
Response Time Improvement
The three challengers said quick response times are great as long as the respondents get to their destination safely. Moreover, they questioned whether permanent substations would be as successful as Pamerleau claimed. The two substations would be located in Converse and on the Westside and slated to open in 2017; together, they are budgeted at more than $14 million.
Salazar, a San Antonio Police Department sergeant and 23-year law enforcement veteran, said that as sheriff, he would “continually monitor response times and allocate resources” as needed.
“$14 million substations won’t get deputies out there any quicker,” said Ricketts, who has been a peace officer for 27 years. As sheriff, Ricketts continued, he would dispatch a constable in addition to a deputy to a call. A constable, who is typically already on the road, would get to a call faster, he said.
Later in the debate, Pamerleau said that Ricketts, who worked for the sheriff’s office for seven years, misunderstood the constable’s role. Pamerleau said she hopes the County Commissioners Court approves her budget request for 19 more deputies to help with staffing issues.
Dorsey, an Air Force veteran and former sheriff’s deputy, said that enforcement agencies must be ready to go at any given moment if they want to improve response times.
Jail Suicides: ‘One Death Is Too Much’
The four candidates moved on to the subject of jail suicides as the County jail saw four suicides in less than a four-week span earlier this summer. According to local officials, there had been more than 920 reported suicide attempts at the jail by late July.
The jail reported 1,300 suicide attempts for all of 2015 and had not seen any suicides this year until that spate of summer suicides.
Pamerleau’s administration has emphasized a thorough screening of each inmate at booking time, she said, including making sure staff is aware of any mental or emotional issues an inmate may have.
“One death is too much, but one in every five inmates has some level of mental illness,” said Pamerleau, who has been a staunch advocate for mental health treatment among inmates. The sheriff’s office has a nationally recognized Mental Health Unit that trains deputies to help individuals find the mental health providers they need.
Salazar attributed suicides and suicide attempts at the County jail to lack of morale and manpower.
“You have to be proactive beyond the booking process,” he said.
County jail officers are “mismanaged and micromanaged,” Ricketts said. “They’re not allowed to do their job correctly. They’re not able to search each cell in a timely manner.”
For Dorsey, inmates, especially those with mental challenges, must know from the start that officers are there for their safety and welfare.
“The jail has to be looked at the from inside out,” he added.
All three challengers pressed the need to address a perceived morale problem across the rank-and-file in the department.
Mandatory Overtime and Department Morale
Officials acknowledged that jailers worked 10,000 hours of mandatory overtime this July, compared with 5,001 hours in July 2015. In late July, Commissioners Court approved spending $512,000 on more than 17,000 hours of mandatory overtime for the final two months of the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.
(Read More: County Mulls Salary Increases, Approves Overtime)
“These officers aren’t robots. They have families. They have friends and loved ones,” said Dorsey, who works as a police sergeant with the South San Independent School District.
Salazar said adequate staffing and better management of overtime (OT) hours is critical to the sheriff’s office operations. He said his attention to the issue prompted the Deputy Sheriff’s Association of Bexar County to endorse him during the March primaries and vote “no confidence” on Pamerleau.
“OT isn’t a big deal when you’re not the one working it,” Salazar said. “You can’t force deputies to work so (many) mandatory hours.”
Ricketts also stressed that the issue “isn’t about money, it’s about having time off with family.”
Pamerleau recalled 15,000 to 16,000 hours of mandatory OT and 52 vacancies during her first two months in office – an issue she said could be traced back to her predecessor, Amadeo Ortiz, whom she ousted in the November 2012 election. Some complacency lingered among sheriff’s office staffers between Ortiz’s defeat and her taking office, she added.
“When you go from a ‘good ol’ boys’ system to one with professionalism and merit, some people don’t like it,” Pamerleau said. As for the union’s no-confidence vote, she noted union leaders did not formally ask members to take such a stance.
“But for 15% of deputies to vote in that, I get it. So obviously there’s more work we have to do,” she said, adding that accomplishments made since 2012 should encourage County residents and voters to support her.
Pamerleau has downplayed concerns expressed by deputies and officers, Salazar said, and if things were running more smoothly at the sheriff’s office, “none of us candidates would be up here running.”
Ricketts added that there is plenty of dissent within the rank-and-file. Dorsey agreed that there are unhappy sheriff’s office employees, but he also took issue with Salazar when he said only union leadership endorsed Salazar during the spring primaries, not all of its members.
Each candidate pledged full investigations for any officer-involved incidents and arrests. The sheriff’s office has already instituted counseling and assistance programs for employees who feel the strain of their jobs, Pamerleau said. But the sheriff’s office also needs “the right kind of training and recruiting” to get a more ideal candidate pool, Salazar said.
In closing remarks, Ricketts urged voters to “listen to the solutions, pick the best candidate, lay aside party politics, see who’s not afraid to get their hands dirty.”
Salazar told the audience, “You’re going to decide who among us to move the sheriff’s office well into the future in a positive way, while keeping us safe and secure. I’m telling you that person is me.”
Pamerleau has failed as a leader, Dorsey said, and things within the sheriff’s office are not any better than when she got there.
“As sheriff, I will focus on building that relationship between officers and the community, and also I promise to manage taxpayer money much better, and decrease the number of suicides in the County jail,” he added.
There’s work to be done to build upon progress made in the last three-plus years in business practices, technology, facilities and workforce development, Pamerleau said.
“Walking in the door in 2013 wasn’t just about prioritizing, it was a triage, focusing on the most urgent needs to ensure public safety,” she said. “This race isn’t so much about fixing past practices, it’s about looking to the future.”
The candidates for sheriff will have more opportunities to publicly address campaign issues. Pamerleau and Salazar are scheduled to attend a League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) LGBTQ Council 22198, Orgullo de San Antonio meeting at 6:45 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 15, at Luby’s, located on 911 N. Main Ave. Admission is free and open to the public.
Top image: Participants listen as candidate Larry Ricketts responds to a question by debate moderator and News 4 San Antonio anchor Randy Beamer. Photo by Scott Ball.