AP NEWS

Give sheriff time to fix agency

February 23, 2019

The headlines out of the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office have been troubling of late. Again and again, deputies and civilian staff have been arrested.

Inmates have been improperly released. The county can’t seem to find a qualified chief jailer, and in March three murder suspects escaped from jail (they were apprehended).

This is Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar’s agency, and the buck ultimately stops with him. But it wasn’t always his agency, and it clear these problems have some deep roots, stretching back to prior administrations. Elected two years ago, Salazar deserves a long runway as he attempts a number of reforms. Fortunately, these reforms are already in play.

The agency has been plagued with bad headlines over the last year as 23 deputies have been arrested for DWI and domestic violence (civilian staff have also been arrested), but Salazar said this is because he is aggressively rooting out corruption and bad behavior, and being open with the public when bad stuff hits the fan.

“There is no situation that we have come upon that we haven’t confronted aggressively, that we haven’t been completely transparent and open with the media,” he told us.

His most high-profile change has been hiring psychologist Brandi Burque to address the mental health pressures deputies may be facing. He said his agency recently landed a state grant, so there will be additional mental health hires in the near future.

He has also included Alcoholics Anonymous and a family violence prevention course to in-house trainings — to help deputies address these issues in their lives before they become problems.

Salazar has also doubled the internal affairs unit to eight members and created a four-member public integrity unit, embedding one of those deputies with the FBI’s public corruption task force. This led directly to a former deputy pleading guilty to smuggling what the deputy thought was methamphetamine into the jail, he said.

And Salazar said he is considering requiring a second polygraph that new deputies would take once they finish their introductory training. Deputies would be asked if anyone in the agency has approached them about illegal activity.

It’s amazing that question would need to be raised, but this is the situation in which the sheriff’s office finds itself. We can’t imagine deputies will like these policies, but the additional scrutiny is necessary to right this ship — just as it’s imperative to rely on mandatory overtime to staff the jail rather than hiring less-than-qualified deputies who might tarnish the office and diminish public trust.

Why have faith in these reforms? Because we see a glimmer of hope in Salazar’s attempt to reduce jail suicides. There were eight suicides at the Bexar County Adult Detention Center between 2016 and 2018, but Salazar noted five of those occurred in 2016 before he took office. There were two in 2017, and one in 2018.

His hope is to get that number to zero, and to do this he has created an in-house mental health team and is considering creating a suicide hotline for inmates. He also said he is rewarding deputies who save inmates’ lives.

The sheriff deserves time for these reforms, and others, to take hold. Particularly as he seeks to hire new deputies who will embrace a better culture. But one area where he has failed is in his selection of chief jailer. There has been no consistency at this position over the last year as jailer after jailer has resigned or been suspended.

Salazar has to get this position right because it sets the tone for so much else.

These are challenging and entrenched issues that stretch back to previous administrations. But Salazar should also recognize at some point, the problems at the sheriff’s office will be his, and his alone. Fortunately, he seems to own this.