If you’re a waiter with a friendly attitude or a high school senior who plays football, the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office is trying to get you in jail. But at least this time, it’s for a job.

The sheriff’s office is on a recruiting blitz for deputies to staff the jail. The methods are many. The sheriff is offering a new $2,000 hiring bonus. He’s christened his deputies as talent seekers, tasked with passing out recruitment cards to efficient service employees and sociable strangers. And, in an unusual move for a government entity, his office has become a primary sponsor of Thursday Night Lights, the weekly broadcast of high school football on local television.

“Hi, I’m Sheriff Javier Salazar, and I hope you’re enjoying the Brandeis versus O’Connor game this evening,” began a commercial during the Aug. 26 halftime show. The sheriff grins in a crisply ironed black uniform and the office’s signature cowboy hat, standing in front of a patrol SUV with its lights flashing. “You’ll be hearing a lot about the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office and employment opportunities we have to offer right now during every game.”

In the commercial he goes on to plug the office’s new “Career Camp,” a monthly meetup for high school seniors to learn more about a career in the sheriff’s office and participate in trainings for defensive tactics, handcuffing, and more.

When these students graduate, the only job at the sheriff’s office they’ll be able to take is for a detention deputy, after the age requirement was dropped from 19 to 18 three years ago. Meanwhile becoming a patrol deputy requires a peace officer’s license that can only be obtained at age 21 and above.

Salazar hopes to get 20-30 recruits out of the new high school program.

John Benitez completes a portion of the fitness test during a recruitment event hosted by the Bexar County sheriff’s office in August.
John Benitez completes a portion of the fitness test during a recruitment event hosted by the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office in August. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

It’s one of the sheriff’s office’s “hooks in the water,” as Salazar calls it, to attract new applicants. And there are others, such as a street campaign. He and his chiefs, as well as patrol deputies, carry business cards with recruiting information. Salazar tells his deputies that if a waiter serves them well at a restaurant, hand them a card. If the young cashier at H-E-B has a good personality, give them a card.

“We tell our deputies, every last one of us — whether you work in the jail, or in SWAT, or on mounted patrols, or on a motorcycle — your number one job right now is recruiting,” he said.

Continuing the fishing analogy, he also said the department is casting its hooks in a bigger pond. Recruiters have in recent months traveled the state to draw new recruits, from Dallas to El Paso and McAllen.

Brochures these recruiters pass out advertise that starting pay for detention deputies is nearly $38,000, with yearly pay raises. After four years, these deputies can earn nearly $44,000.

The jail currently has 193 job vacancies, according to the sheriff’s media office, though that doesn’t count the number of cadets in training. Doing so puts the gap closer to 150, a figure Salazar said he’s overshooting for to accommodate natural attrition, as deputies continue to leave.

Chronic understaffing at the jail has consequences, especially during a pandemic that requires more staff for special protocols. Earlier this year, the Bexar County Commissioners Court approved Salazar’s request for an additional $3.9 million to provide overtime pay. That’s on top of the $8.8 million the county had already approved in its annual budget.

And although there’s not a direct link, chronic staffing shortages likely didn’t help in the security lapses leading up to the escape of three capital murder suspects three years ago, or when 14 inmates were mistakenly released throughout 2019.

The need for deputies is likely to continue in the future, as the department faces what Salazar calls a “retirement tsunami,” in which deputies who joined during a massive surge in law enforcement hiring in the 1980s and 1990s are now beginning to retire.

Salazar said recruiting has been more difficult the last couple of years, and the politically charged atmosphere is only part of it. Millennials and Generation Z need a different sort of pitch than the action-oriented one he got in the ’90s. Instead, he said, millennials want to know they’ll have good pay, good benefits, and a work-life balance that allows them time for families or a second career.

But the shift shouldn’t be overstated. The allure and action promised by a career in law enforcement continue to prove a powerful hook for recruiting efforts at the jail, where many get their start.

Sheriff Javier Salazar participates in a fitness exam during a recruitment event hosted by the Bexar County sheriff’s office on Saturday.
Sheriff Javier Salazar participates in a fitness exam alongside job candidates during a recruitment event hosted by the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office in August. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

On a recent Saturday, 30 of the department’s latest applicants dragged weights across the hot pavement of a parking lot as part of the physical fitness test.

“Push yourself! Push yourself!” a recruiter shouted. “You’ve got only 30 seconds left!” Some were more equipped for the task than others.

Joshua Arenivas, dressed in a Puma-branded T-shirt and a do-rag, lay panting on the ground. He had completed his run just a few seconds over time. Still, he was allowed to pass. Trainers will run him again and again until he makes the time.

“I don’t run as much as I should,” he managed to squeeze out between heavy breaths.

Arenivas wants to become a SWAT officer. But to do so, he plans on first becoming a detention deputy.

Waylon Cunningham covered business and technology for the San Antonio Report.