Bexar County Sheriff Susan Pamerleau and her main challenger, Javier Salazar, have both pledged understanding and outreach when it comes to issues pertaining to the local LGBTQIA community.

Pamerleau, the Republican incumbent, and Salazar, a Democrat, spoke to a crowd of more than 40 on Thursday in a meeting of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), Orgullo de San Antonio No. 22198.

The event was intended as a sort of meet-and-greet, but quickly turned tense after Salazar claimed that many officers at the Bexar County Jail were forced to work a great deal of overtime and in unsavory conditions, claims Pamerleau vehemently denied.

The meeting, which was held at Luby’s on North Main Avenue, began with Pamerleau and Salazar offering their credentials.

LULAC Orgullo de San Antonio invited only Pamerleau and Salazar to ensure they both had enough time to talk. They are the front runners in a four-way race in the Nov. 8 general election. Green Party’s James Dorsey and Libertarian Larry Ricketts are the other candidates.

Pamerleau, who was elected in 2012, said her leadership experience in business and the U.S. Air Force prepared her for the sheriff’s job.

“Being a sheriff in the 21st century, especially in the 11th largest sheriff’s office in the nation, requires different skills than coming through law enforcement operations and requires additional skills on top of that,” she said.

Sheriff Susan Pamerleau reacts to the audience in attendance. Photo by Scott Ball.
Sheriff Susan Pamerleau reacts to the audience in attendance. Photo by Scott Ball.

Pamerleau also touched on being a survivor of domestic violence and her brother facing institutional challenges due to his mental illness.

“One out of every five inmates at the Bexar County Jail (has) some level of mental illness,” she said.

“Having those kinds of experiences, I believe, make me a better sheriff, make me more qualified to understand the challenges and complexities of what we do every single day,” she added.

Salazar, a 23-year law enforcement veteran, said his career with the San Antonio Police Department has prepared him to take on a higher level of leadership. He emphasized the importance of healthy relationships between civilians and law enforcement.

“That’s how you truly change a culture and help make sustainable change,” he added.

As for the LGBTQIA community, the LULAC chapter’s leadership asked the candidates whether they would support having a community liaison with the sheriff’s office.

“One of the first things I’d like to do upon achieving the sheriff’s office is establish liaisons to many segments of the population,” said Salazar.

Salazar said he’d support having representatives from different communities serve on residential panels to address issues and concerns vital to them.

“There are certain subjects and issues that are experienced by the LGBT community out in the world, but also in the Bexar County Jail,” he said. He said he would also make a concerted effort to target communities such as LGBTQIA for recruiting into the police department.

Candidate for Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar speaks to his experience as a law enforcement officer in his opening statement. Photo by Scott Ball.
Candidate for Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar speaks to his experience as a law enforcement officer in his opening statement. Photo by Scott Ball.

“I’m a strong believer that any law enforcement agency should be a direct reflection of the community that we serve,” she said.

Pamerleau said her agency is already communicating with the local LGBTQIA community on various issues. In 2013, Pamerleau and her colleagues began regular meetings with members of the LGBTQIA community and organizations such as the San Antonio Gender Association (SAGA) and the San Antonio LGBT Chamber of Commerce.

Pamerleau emphasized the importance of such connections as well as her care for individuals of all walks of life coming into the jail. “Our concern is making sure that they are safe and feel secure while in the jail, even if they are a different gender preference or transgender,” she said.

Ongoing communications, Pamerleau said, have helped the sheriff’s office modify its jail intake classification process, so both inmates and staff are aware of housing options. It further helps officers know which questions to ask and which terminology to use, she added.

Salazar said any law enforcement agency benefits from targeted recruiting. He also said prominent current officers who are a part of the African-American or LGBTQIA community could make themselves available to share their experiences to prospective officers – a method already employed by SAPD.

“We have a good, frank discussion and we saw our recruitment efforts skyrocket because of that,” he said. Salazar added that he would revise policy and procedures related to properly detaining transgender individuals.

Pamerleau said recruitment and retention efforts are maximized when recruits and employees are kept up to date on laws and issues, especially those affecting a specific community. Such efforts are ongoing, she added.

“We are recruiting year-round, not just for a couple of classes during the year,” she said. “I look forward to continuing to make sure the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office reflects the community it serves.”

The candidates also answered a couple of other questions of interest to the Latino community and pertaining to current issues such as living wage. Organizations like COPS/Metro have been advocating increasing the minimum wage for City and County employees, both of which were achieved this week.

The County began paying a minimum wage of $13 an hour on Oct. 1, 2015, and will increase it by an additional 75 cents on Oct. 1, 2016. Salazar said ensuring adequate pay is crucial in careers associated with high risks.

“They can take low pay or a low work environment, but they can’t take both,” he added. Salazar said many current county officers work in a “toxic” environment “where they’re being mistreated, forced to work long hours of mandatory overtime.” He added many officers are not allowed to take compensatory time due to inadequate manpower and staffing issues.

Salazar then said male jail officers are forced to use the same bathroom as inmates, and that female officers often refrain from going to the bathroom until their shift ends.

“You cannot continue to immerse your officers in that toxic environment and treat them like a number, otherwise they’ll start treating the public like a number,” he added.

Pamerleau admitted that the jail had poor working conditions – before she became sheriff. She then rejected Salazar’s claims, saying someone was “feeding” him mistruths.

“Women are not made to stay for eight hours and not use the bathroom. So whatever someone is feeding you, I can tell you it is garbage,” she said. The sheriff said that by believing and repeating such “lies,” Salazar is “demeaning great public servants.”

Pamerleau said more than 40% of the overtime hours are being worked on a voluntary basis.

“When you want to state some numbers, have the facts and don’t believe somebody who just wants to feed you untruths,” she added.

When an audience member uttered Pamerleau had not answered the question on livable wage, away from the microphone, she replied, “It didn’t need to be answered.”

After the event ended, the Rivard Report asked the two candidates about the sheriff’s office’s investigation of the arrest of two teenaged girls in a Converse Whataburger last week. The arrest was caught on tape and went viral, prompting an outcry from the black community.

The arrests of Vanae Wright and Leilani Green, both 17 years old, happened after a fight erupted among a group of about 100 people in the parking lot. The girls said they did nothing wrong, and that Deputy Cynthia Hernandez acted unprofessionally toward them.

Pamerleau said she could not comment on the case. She did say the sheriff’s office has been working with community leaders and a few schools to help develop a kind of school curriculum that outlines the ideal way for young civilians to interact with law enforcement officers.

“So often that’s not taught in the home. At some point, we need to teach it,” she said.

Salazar said officers having a better understanding of their community begins in the recruitment phase.

“You’ve got to have the right kind of people with the right kind of temperament (that are) reflective of the community,” he said. “You’ve got to also have the right policies and procedures in place to make sure officers know, from day one, what’s acceptable and not acceptable.”

Top image: Sheriff Susan Pamerleau discusses her past experience with family mental illness and how that relates to her current role as Sheriff.  Photo by Scott Ball. 

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Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.