At a time when law enforcement agencies and their practices are under a microscope, the candidate challenging incumbent Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar is looking to turn a liability into an asset.

Gerard “Gerry” Rickhoff, who served more than two decades as Bexar County clerk, has no experience working in law enforcement, but touts his “competent leadership” in his campaign against Salazar, who won his seat in 2016 and brought two decades of experience from the San Antonio Police Department.

But with the heightened scrutiny on law enforcement agencies and practices, Rickhoff’s candidacy could attract some voters, according to Jiletta Kubena, who teaches criminology and criminal justice at Our Lady of the Lake University.

“Anybody can become sheriff, really,” she said. “They don’t have to have the law enforcement background. It kind of works in the past county clerk’s favor now, because there’s so much attention focused on policing and the bad things that police are doing and how policing should be reevaluated and changed. So I see where that might give him an advantage.”

San Antonio and Bexar County, like many cities around the United States, reacted in horror and outrage to the death of George Floyd in May. Protesters marched downtown for weeks to bring attention to police brutality and racism. Questions about the sheriff’s department’s use of force surfaced in August after a sheriff’s deputy shot and killed Damian Lamar Daniels, a Black man who had previously called for mental health assistance for himself and whose family had called on his behalf.

While Salazar maintains that his deputies followed the correct protocol, Rickhoff criticized the sheriff’s office response during an August editorial board meeting with the San Antonio Express-News.

“This man did not have to die,” Rickhoff said in the meeting.

Now, Bexar County voters will have a chance to cast a ballot in the highest-ranking elected officer that serves in law enforcement: the county sheriff. Rickhoff appears to have an uphill climb: Salazar has a 60 percent job approval rating, according to September poll results from Bexar Facts, a partnership among Bexar Facts, KSAT, and the San Antonio Report. That was a slight dip from June 2020, when 64 percent of respondents either somewhat approved or strongly approved of Salazar’s job performance, while in February, 59 percent of respondents said they approved of his performance.

Salazar said that his job approval rating numbers “speak for themselves.”

“I think the vast majority of folks want an experienced law enforcement officer to be the sheriff,” Salazar said. “You need a sheriff who can draw on his or her experience and make a decision.”

Rickhoff, a Republican, spent most of his public career as Bexar County clerk, serving for more than two decades before losing to Lucy Adame-Clark as part of a Democratic wave in 2018. He also worked as an educator and administrator.

In March, both Salazar and Rickhoff avoided runoffs by winning the Democratic and Republican nomination outright, respectively. Rickhoff told the San Antonio Report during the primary election in March that his lack of law enforcement experience allows him to bring an outsider’s perspective to the sheriff’s department, an advantage that he thinks voters will respond to. Rickhoff declined to be interviewed for this article, but provided a statement to the San Antonio Report.

“Everyone acknowledges that for 24 years, I was an excellent and award-winning administrator as Bexar County Clerk,” Rickhoff said in the statement issued Monday. “Previously, Mr. Salazar never managed a large office, not one day. He is known for his many jail scandals and his lack of leadership has lost the faith of this community and the men and women under his command.”

Michael Smith, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Texas at San Antonio and former police officer, said while it’s not unprecedented for someone without law enforcement experience to be elected sheriff, it’s “fairly unusual.” He pointed out that the county sheriff’s duties are twofold: The sheriff not only oversees policing duties but also county jail operations. While having business and administrative experience might be helpful in some of these aspects, understanding general policing services is a big part of the job, Smith said.

“The Bexar County Sheriff’s Department is a full-service department,” he said. “They provide general policing services for unincorporated parts of the county. That’s why it’s a bit unusual to have somebody running for sheriff in a large metropolitan county that doesn’t have law enforcement experience because that [policing] component of the job is pretty darn important.”

And law enforcement experience doesn’t always mean being a police officer, Smith said. 

“It comes in a variety of fashions,” Smith said. “Sometimes it’s at the federal level, sometimes these guys are former prosecutors. There’s a variety of career paths to the office as an elected sheriff, but I think it’s most typically true that that career path, whatever it looks like, at least at some point has crossed into law enforcement.”

All the major metropolitan area sheriffs in Texas have law enforcement backgrounds, Kubena said. And besides former sheriff Susan Pamerleau (who now works as the U.S. marshal for the Western District of Texas and had retired as a two-star major general from the U.S. Air Force), previous Bexar County sheriffs have typically had some kind of law enforcement on their résumé.

“Most people when they go to vote for a sheriff, they’re going to look for advanced law enforcement experience,” Kubena said.

But because this is a down-ballot race, a more likely influencer in the race will be how voters turn out for particular political parties, said David Crockett, the political science department chair at Trinity University.

“If I were to guess, I would say 80 percent of the electorate is going to vote their party identification, no matter who’s running,” he said.

And while Rickhoff’s name recognition from his past county service may help boost his profile, he’s still running against an incumbent, Crockett said. 

“I think what’s gonna drive this … is turnout at higher level races that will affect down-ballot races,” Crockett said. “It’s interesting to think that if there’s discontent with or distrust of the police that that prompts people to elect someone with no law enforcement to head up a law enforcement agency, which is not how I would think about things.”

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.