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Candidates for sheriff cite experience, vision in Democratic primary

Wednesday, February 17, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

Late Tuesday, just hours after early voting had begun across Texas, close to a hundred criminal defense attorneys slowly tromped into a large banquet room in downtown Austin. Among rows of desks and musty chairs, they found conversation partners, sat down and dug into plates of catered barbecue.

The Austin Criminal Defense Lawyers Association had collected all five candidates, including the lone Republican, for Travis County sheriff into one room to hear their pitches and appeals for support. The moderator clarified to the crowded room that the event, advertised as a debate, would be more like “speed dating” – not a terribly accurate assessment given that the five candidates fielded only two questions each before being asked to make their closing arguments.

If the whirlwind affair was light on substance, it did demonstrate how comfortable the candidates have become in the routines of the campaign trail. For months now, Democrats Sally Hernandez, Todd Radford, Don Rios and John Sisson have been crisscrossing the county to shake support from voters.

Each is aiming to take the reins from outgoing Sheriff Greg Hamilton. Since he was first elected in 2004, the midpoint of the George W. Bush administration, Travis County has known no other sheriff. More than a decade later, he leaves under a cloud of controversy related to his policies toward federal immigration enforcement and video visitations at the county jail.

Whether or not Democratic voters are eager to see him go, they are faced with a tough decision in March. Among them, Hernandez, Radford, Rios and Sisson have something approaching a century of law enforcement experience.

At Tuesday’s debate, there were few points of departure among the candidates when it came to policy specifics. However, in a series of recent one-on-one conversations, the Austin Monitor drilled down to find fracture points that set each candidate apart.

The only current employee of the Sheriff’s Office in the race is Sergeant Don Rios, a soft-spoken veteran of the force since the early 1990s. During that time, Rios has worked in the corrections unit, on the SWAT team and with the underwater recovery team, among others.

Rios manifests his broad experience within the Sheriff’s Office with his familiarity of its inner workings. He explained to the Monitor that the force has only four dedicated DWI patrol officers.

“That’s from Webberville to Lago Vista to Pflugerville to Manchaca,” Rios said. “Basically, we need more. We need more resources.”

Rios also pointed out that there’s a glaring problem with diversity within the ranks. “We look very well on paper, but that’s because corrections and law enforcement are viewed together,” said Rios. “When you look at just law enforcement, since 1992 when I started, we have had zero African-American women in our law enforcement bureau. That means zero patrol, zero sergeants, zero lieutenants, zero detectives.”

Rios said he would work to change that and to bring transparency and trust to the Sheriff’s Office. He has repeatedly pledged to create a citizen advisory board and has promised to promptly turn over any officer-involved shooting investigations to the Texas Rangers.

On Tuesday, Rios pushed out a press release calling for the legalization of marijuana. “It’s time to re-focus and concentrate resources on the causes and treatment of addiction and the eradication of poverty and hopelessness in our community, not continue putting those citizens in jail,” concludes Rios.

The move echoes a similar though more specific policy paper issued by Hernandez in January. In that document, the Travis County constable from Precinct 3 pledged to de-prioritize marijuana arrests for first-time offenders.

That stance aligns with her general stance toward a kinder, gentler Sheriff’s Office. When asked by the Monitor why she’s running, Hernandez quickly replied, “It’s because I care.”

She added, “I think we could do better as far as partnerships and reaching out to our community. … I think we have to be seen as a friend, not a foe.”

Hernandez is quick to cite her experience as the only elected official in the race. She also cites her leadership in the Precinct 3 Constable’s Office as proof of her reformer bona fides.

“It’s highly respected now, but in the past other law enforcement agencies wouldn’t work with us,” Hernandez told the Monitor. “Now we’re getting recognized from Bee Cave, Sunset Valley and Austin police departments for working and partnering with law enforcement in the community.”

Hernandez also emphasizes her unique leadership of a county department and the familiarity that has given her with the processes of working with other agencies, including the District Attorney’s Office (in which, incidentally, she worked as chief of investigations before running for constable in 2012). But she falls short of calling herself a seasoned politician.

“I don’t like the p-word,” she said. “You say ‘politician,’ I say ‘partner.’ My slogan is, ‘Partnership and prevention promote public safety.’”

A Hernandez victory would make her the second woman to call the shots at the Sheriff’s Office, a considerable appeal to many voters likely to participate in a primary with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a competitive race at the top of the ticket. However, John Sisson is looking to make history of a different kind as the first openly gay male sheriff of Travis County.

The former Austin Police lieutenant has reached for the office before, running for the first time against Hamilton in 2012. Back then, he opposed Hamilton’s collaboration with a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement deportation program that critics argued was not mandatory. The program has since been put on hiatus by President Barack Obama’s executive action on immigration.

“I’ve been advocating for this longer than any of the other candidates,” Sisson told the Monitor. “The other candidates were in a position to speak up against ICE while Hamilton had this program in place, but they never did until they decided to run.”

Sisson also largely agrees with Rios and Hernandez about marijuana, though he pointed out that the sheriff has relatively little power in the matter. He explained that directing deputies to hand out citations rather than make arrests is technically illegal. Sisson said that instead of mandating citations, he would simply encourage them. In the meantime, he would also work with other county police agencies, including APD, to do the same, while also lobbying the Legislature to soften the law.

“I believe in the legalization of marijuana,” Sisson confidently declared.

One point of distinction Sisson is quick to note is that, among the candidates, he is the longest-tenured law enforcement officer. Also, as the head of APD’s property crimes division, he was in charge of 65 employees and a $6.5 million budget, an operation larger than the entire Lakeway Police Department over which Radford is chief.

Radford, of course, dismisses any notion that his department is insignificant in size. As the only department executive in the race, he says he has exclusive experience in managing all aspects of a law enforcement agency, including dealing with the tragedy of a fallen officer.

Radford also points out the large feat his suburban department accomplished in being the first in Texas to equip its officers with body cameras. He says this puts him in a better position than his opponents to bring the same technology to the Sheriff’s Office.

“It would be really good – not only for deputies on the street but also for those who could wear them in the jail without any violation of those kinds of rules – because I think it just makes us better, makes us more transparent and gives us a higher level of transparency,” Radford explained to the Monitor.

When pressed on how he would find the money for an expensive program like that in an already tight county budget, Radford said he would work with the Commissioners Court just as he had worked with the Lakeway City Council.

Radford also struck a philosophical note about crime fighting. “You go all the way back to Sir Robert Peel,” he said, citing the 19th-century British politician, “and the whole idea of the police force is prevention and being proactive in what we do in law enforcement and not having the warrior mindset but rather the guardian mindset. It’s knowing that you’re part of a bigger thing, part of a community.”

Radford, Sisson, Hernandez and Rios have less than two weeks to canvass that community, working hard for every vote they can get on March 1. In the likely event of a runoff, the top two vote-getters will advance to the May 24th runoff. The victor of that showdown will face Republican Joe Martinez in November.

This story has been corrected to reflect the fact that former Travis County Sheriff Margo Frasier was the first openly gay person to serve in the office.

Photo by Eric (HASH) Hersman made available through a Creative Commons license.

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