On May 17, a pregnant woman delivered a baby alone and locked inside her cell at the Tarrant County jail. After the Fort Worth Star-Telegrambroke the story later that month, Sheriff Bill Waybourn, who manages the facility, explained in a statement that “the inmate did not immediately disclose the birth, but the baby was soon discovered by a corrections officer and immediate action was taken to protect the mother and child.” The infant died 10 days after being found in the cell. In June, a judge ruled the mother was incompetent to stand trial, dismissed the assault charge that had kept her in lockup since January, and ordered her into treatment at a state psychiatric hospital.
The unattended birth is part of a trail of recent horrors inside the Tarrant County jail as Waybourn faces re-election next month. Just days after the baby was born, state regulators found Waybourn’s facility to be out of compliance with minimum jail standards after an investigation into an inmate’s suicide in April revealed that guards weren’t conducting required cell checks. In late July, three of Waybourn’s detention officers were criminally charged after a man incarcerated inside the jail was beaten and left with a broken cheek, fractured ribs, and a collapsed lung; affidavits in the case say one officer positioned himself to block the view of a security camera, while another officer told authorities that such beatings were a “normal thing.” A climbing body count at the jail over the summer has raised even more questions about Waybourn’s ability to manage the facility; 10 people have died at the jail so far in 2020, more than in the past three years combined.
Waybourn’s race is one of several in Texas and across the country that highlight the potential role reform candidates could play in the growing movement to transform the criminal legal system. Unlike police chiefs, who are usually appointed by mayors or other city officials, sheriffs are more directly accountable to a public that can boot them from office. Like the rest of law enforcement, sheriffs now face increased calls for accountability, heating up what might have otherwise been sleepy down-ballot races that typically favor incumbents.
A Republican first elected in 2016, Waybourn was part of a wave of conservative sheriffs across the nation who parroted President Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and adopted policies deputizing local officers to enforce immigration laws. In a White House briefing last year alongside Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) director Matt Albence, Waybourn called migrants in his jail “drunks [who] will run over your children, and they will run over my children.” He used the same broad, menacing brush to refer to the protests for police accountability and racial justice that followed George Floyd’s killing. Waybourn, who didn’t answer questions from the Observer by the time of publication, recently told the Daily Caller that leftists were effectively to blame for the shooting of two Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies in September, saying, “I think it’s part of the socialist movement over to the left.”
Waybourn has pursued national right-wing media stardom even as local critics accuse him of neglecting his duties at home. Last year, Tarrant County activists started a campaign to remove Waybourn from office, calling their coalition New Sheriff Now Tarrant County. Pamela Young, a local activist who helped launch the campaign, says that problems on Waybourn’s watch demonstrate the need for new leadership, transparency, and accountability at the jail. “He’s going on Fox News, the Dana Loesch show, Ben Shapiro, all these conservative talk shows, but they never talk about all the people dying in his jail or his certification getting revoked,” Young said. “People are dying, people are getting beaten by guards. A baby died. The priorities are all backwards.”
Waybourn’s Democratic opponent, Vance Keyes, has vowed to end Tarrant County’s program allowing sheriff’s deputies to act like ICE agents. Keyes, a Fort Worth police officer for 20 years, also chastised Waybourn for failing to report deaths and other problems at the jail to county leaders and to the public. Keyes says he’ll establish a community oversight body so the public can more closely monitor the sheriff’s office.
“We’re a major metropolitan area, we’re the 15th-largest county in the nation, and people deserve professional, responsive, accountable, and transparent law enforcement,” Keyes told the Observer. “And when they don’t get it, you’re going to see these protests, you’ll see this loss of legitimacy, and this loss of trust in law enforcement. That’s what leads to these calls to defund and abolish the police. It’s our fault, the onus is on law enforcement.”
In Williamson County, Republican Sheriff Robert Chody faces re-election while also being under criminal indictment for evidence tampering charges for allegedly destroying a video that showed the arrest and death of Javier Ambler, a Black man in his deputies’ custody. In Bexar County, Sheriff Javier Salazar, a Democrat, also faces re-election amid protests over his deputies killing Damian Daniels, another Black man, during a mental health crisis in August.
In Tarrant County, Keyes’ race for sheriff could help reformers gauge how much traction the movement to transform policing has among local voters, and also more generally whether the state’s last conservative urban stronghold is finally turning blue. Keyes has drawn support from some prominent Texas Democrats, including Beto O’Rourke. “There’s certainly this big debate every election cycle—whether this will remain the largest county in Texas that still votes with a majority of Republicans,” said Emily Farris, an associate professor of political science at Texas Christian University who studies sheriffs. “I think the Keyes campaign has tried to situate themselves within these larger questions of not just police accountability but also where Tarrant County’s going politically.”
If the killing of George Floyd and subsequent calls for accountability in law enforcement have started to shift society’s views on public safety, so too could the coronavirus pandemic. As lockups emerged as predictable hotspots for the virus around the country, threatening inmates and staff as well as the communities they return to, some sheriffs began pushing to lower jail populations and divert low-level defendants. Not Waybourn. “It is business as usual,” he told a conservative talk show in March. “We are not going to let things slide by.” In May, a 67-year old man jailed in Tarrant County on felony DWI charges died from COVID-19. In early September, a 36-year-old corporal assigned to the jail also died from the virus.
Compared to the movement to elect progressive prosecutors, which has seen some successes in recent years, the push for progressive sheriffs is nascent. Candidates like Keyes are largely charting a new path and without much of a template to crib from other campaigns. Still he draws inspiration from sheriffs he sees as reformers, like Ed Gonzalez in Harris County, a Democrat who took office the same year as Waybourn and is a shoo-in for re-election this year. Upon taking office, Gonzalez brought the state’s largest and long-troubled jail into compliance with state standards, advocated for bail reforms that would lower the jail population, and opened his facility to the scrutiny of reporters—even during a COVID-19 outbreak. Keyes says he admires that Gonzalez tries to humanize the people incarcerated in his jail, who he regularly refers to as “clients.”
Keyes says the scandals under Waybourn’s first term, like a mentally ill pregnant woman giving birth in a jail cell alone, are tragic reminders that people who land in lockup are often at their mostvulnerable. Keyes says he hopes the incidents not only lead to reforms at the lockup, but also advance a larger conversation about who should be incarcerated in the first place. “We have to think of confinement as a public service that we provide,” he says. “I know it might sound crazy, but we have to think of people in jail as people we’re serving, that these are people we’re responsible for keeping safe.”
Update: On Tuesday, local media reported another death at the jail that the sheriff hadn’t previously disclosed, bringing the total to 10 deaths in 2020.