Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar
Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar is nearing the end of his first term. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

After a first term marked by jail and staffing challenges, Sheriff Javier Salazar acknowledges the problems that beset his department but points to progress being made. He must, however, defeat four Democratic challengers in the March primary to have a chance to win reelection in November.

The four Democratic candidates running against Salazar cite erroneous releases from the jail, detention officers working mandatory overtime, deaths of jail inmates, and a spate of deputy arrests as signs that Salazar has not run a tight enough ship.

“The arrests that occurred – those are symptoms of a systemic problem,” said José Treviño, sergeant investigator at the Texas Attorney General’s Office, at a candidate forum earlier this month. “From the administration, we need to bring accountability from the top. While we don’t condone the behavior, we need to look at the whys.”

Candidate Pete Lozano, who worked at the Texas Department of Public Safety for 23 years before retiring, said he was disappointed with the way Salazar has handled deputies’ arrests for an array of alleged offenses, including domestic abuse and DWI.

“If one of the deputies got into trouble, Sheriff Salazar didn’t take any blame and has not taken any blame for that misfortune [or] violation of the law,” Lozano said. “He’s always blaming everyone else for the way that the sheriff’s department or office has functioned under his watch.”

Candidate Sharon Rodriguez, a former deputy who left the sheriff’s office in 2017, said it was “unacceptable” for the county to fail its annual jail inspection last year. The jail was back in compliance by November.

“We need to have the manpower,” Rodriguez said. “… We need to reform the hiring process [of deputies] and revamp the entire booking process as well.”

It’s been a rocky first term for Salazar, who defeated Republican Susan Pamerleau in 2016 for the top job in a department of nearly 1,900 employees that includes responsibility for one of the largest jail populations in the state. But the incumbent sheriff told the Rivard Report that he rejected the premise of any candidate who said they knew how to fix all the jail’s problems.

“For any political candidate to tell you they’ve got the magic fix for that, it just ain’t happening,” he said. “Not without a whole bunch of effort.”

The understaffing and overcrowding issues at the jail predated Salazar and mirror trends in detention facilities across the country. He said he is actively working on lowering the jail population through methods such as looking for people who have committed low-level misdemeanors to release on personal recognizance bonds. By trying to take people out of the jail, he can try to alleviate the pressure on detention officers, Salazar said.

“It’s true. Detention officers are working too many hours,” he said. “I wish they were working fewer. But they’re not working those hours because I want them to work those hours; they’re working those hours because by state law, if you have a certain number of inmates in your jail, you need to have a certain number of deputies in the building.”

Salazar also has been criticized by the union representing sheriff deputies. The Deputy Sheriff’s Association of Bexar County (DSABC) chastised Salazar earlier in February for failing to fill the approximately 200 vacancies at the Bexar County Jail.

“This staffing crisis has resulted in over-worked and over-stressed deputies who are having to do an already tough job in increasingly dangerous conditions,” said DSABC President Jeremy Payne in a statement. “We’ve seen detention officers brutally assaulted and a record number of inmate deaths and ‘erroneous’ releases. We’re calling on the Sheriff to fix the staffing crisis at the jail and keep our officers and our community safe.”

Bexar County Sheriff’s Office and Detention Center Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Salazar said he currently has around 100 potential new detention officers in his recruiting and training pipeline. This system takes accepted applicants and gives them one week of training and a temporary jailer’s license, he said. Those temporary jailers then work in the Bexar County Jail for several weeks, providing relief to full-fledged deputies who can trust them to help with simple tasks. After six to eight weeks of working in the jail, the temporary jailers go through a 10-week course in the sheriff’s department training academy to become official detention officers.

The new training process also allows the sheriff’s department to stretch overtime funding that county commissioners allocate. Salazar requested 61,000 hours in overtime pay for his detention officers on Jan. 7, the most recent of many similar requests. Deputies started getting overtime pay toward the end of Pamerleau’s tenure, he said; before then, they would be given extra vacation time, which often expired before they could use it.

“I go to commissioners court to ask for overtime money periodically,” Salazar said. “This allows us to stretch that. The last time I was at commissioners court, that money was expected to last us through the end of February, and that was it. But now, because of this new method we got with temporary jailers, that money will last us through a good portion of March.”

Michelle Barrientes Vela, the ousted constable for Precinct 2 who was indicted in January on felony and misdemeanor charges, said she was unimpressed by the money spent on overtime pay. She wants to scrutinize the sheriff’s budget, look at resources to support deputies, and figure out why the jail is understaffed.

Candidate Michelle Barrientes-Vela Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“I think at this point in time, the jail is never going to be 100 percent perfect,” Vela said. “But some changes should have been executed and followed through. That’s where [Salazar] lacks the background.”

Salazar, who spent 23 years in the San Antonio Police Department before running for sheriff, seems to have sizable support in the community; a recent Bexar Facts/KSAT/Rivard Report poll found that 59 percent of Bexar County voters approved of the job Salazar has done. The poll surveyed 651 likely voters in Bexar County last week by phone and internet. Find the rest of the poll questions and results here.

Though Salazar felt encouraged by those poll results, he said he wasn’t taking anything for granted.

“Politics is like the NFL,” Salazar said. “There’s a term in the NFL that they use, ‘on any given Sunday.’ Any given Sunday, the champion could lose to the last-place team from the year before. You never take chances. I’ve done the work, I’ve done everything in my power to make sure we’re providing quality service to the community.”

The Republican Primary

Meanwhile, the Republican primary features two career law enforcement candidates and a longtime county clerk who was ousted in the 2018 election.

Gary Garcia has been at the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office for nearly 28 years, but said he has been in law enforcement for 34 years. Garcia said he has worked under six sheriffs and decided to run for the job because he wasn’t satisfied with the current administration or the caliber of the other candidates.

“My dad always told me, ‘If you’re going to complain about something, either do something or stop complaining about it,’” Garcia said. “My knowledge of the sheriff’s office is more complex than everybody else running for sheriff. I feel that I’m the only person able to change what’s inside the sheriff’s office.”

Like most of the candidates in the race, Garcia emphasized the importance of hiring more employees to relieve the stress on detention officers pulling overtime shifts. Fellow Republican candidate Willie Ng said the main issue has to do with morale. Mandatory overtime shifts have eroded employees’ stamina, he said.

“A lot of deputies are unhappy with leadership – that’s what I hear all the time,” said Ng, a former San Antonio police officer who served as chief criminal investigator for former District Attorney Nico LaHood and owns a local security firm. “There are deputies who are resigning to go work at H-E-B and leaving a career they enjoyed. … When you look at that issue, the issue isn’t pay or benefits, it’s how they’re being treated by leadership that’s a problem.”

Ng boasts the highest fundraising haul of all candidates, raising nearly $153,000 in the last reporting period. Salazar raised $78,090, and Garcia raised $675 in the same time period.

Gerard “Gerry” Rickhoff, who reporting raising no funds, lost the county clerk job to Lucy Adame-Clark in November 2018, one of the many Republicans in Bexar County who lost their seats in that election. He served as county clerk from 1995 to 2018 and has no experience in law enforcement, but counts that as a positive. He said he wanted to run for sheriff because he thinks his skills as an educator (he was a teacher for seven years) and administrator would benefit the sheriff’s office.

“My management style says group knowledge is better than individual knowledge,” he said. “My team will be able to put together measurable scientific events to improve law enforcement.”

Democratic candidatesRepublican candidates
Sharon RodriguezGerard C. “Gerry” Rickhoff
Pete LozanoGary Garcia
José TreviñoWillie Ng
Michelle Barrientes Vela
Javier Salazar
The full list of candidates, in the order they will appear on the ballot.
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Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.