Dallas County’s gay Latina sheriff on changing the good ol’ boy system.
What are the unique challenges you face in holding this office?
A lot of the Texas law enforcement is still the good ol’ boys, and the good ol’ boys never, never want to be managed by anyone other than good ol’ boys. I’m always going to have that challenge. I’m going on my fourth term, and I’m still having that challenge. But I think the group that does that is getting smaller and smaller. There are more and more who understand that if we’re going to be the law enforcement of the land, the land is made up of different people. … I’ve always said that if we’re going to serve the community, then we have to be like, and be in, the community.
Have you faced insubordination or other challenges to implementing your vision for jails?
Not intentionally and not as much as when I first started. Twelve years ago, when I first started, this department was known for beating up inmates, for taking equipment that didn’t belong to them. It was known for the good ol’ boy system. One of the neatest things I heard was when I was travelling to a city meeting. I saw two of my deputies’ cars at a McDonald’s, and it was two of my big old white guys. I sat down with them and we were talking back and forth, and [one] said, “We didn’t have any idea what you were like, but we’re glad you got rid of the good ol’ boy system.” Two big, old boys told me that. How do you think that made me feel? Extremely proud. If I hadn’t been in front of two big, old guys, I would have probably cried. Here’s the thing they were saying: “We’re so glad you made it fair for everyone.” In spite of all the struggles, it made me feel like I was doing the right thing.
Describe the appearance of the jails when you took office in 2005 and the changes since then.
It was at a real low point. It wasn’t that they didn’t care. They didn’t have the resources or the training. It was a struggle. As I mentioned, it was not uncommon to beat up inmates. Nobody will admit it to you, but when nobody is listening they will tell me, “They trained us to beat them up when nobody was looking.” There are a lot of things that changed, but I’ll give you one example. They had what they called a lance sergeant, which was, “Oh, I like you, now you’re a sergeant.” Guess who was getting all those positions? One of the first things I did was get rid of that. Now in order to be a sergeant, you have to take a test, you have to do what we call a situational — “If this is going on, how do you respond?” We went to an outside vendor. It used to be their buddies who made the decision on who got promoted. I had to get the approval for an outside vendor, the money for an outside vendor, and then we had to tell them what the skills were so they could make up the test. Then on my choice, they would grade the individual without knowing name, sex or ethnicity. All they did was grade the learning. I joke and say, “It’s amazing how smart the minorities got.”
For almost four years of your term, the jail was found to be noncompliant and the Department of Justice (DOJ) had a court order to improve mental and medical health care. Did the DOJ help or hinder what you were trying to do?
They were helpful. Nobody likes to spend more money than they can get away with. The reason some of the things were like that in the jail is because nobody would put in the money. Who cares about putting money in the jail? You want the highways, the potholes [fixed], the mosquitoes stopped. Who cares about the jail? I don’t know this, but I think it would have been a lot more difficult for the county to put in the money if the DOJ didn’t tell them, “You either put in the money or we’ll shut you down.” So to a certain extent I think they made it possible for us to do the right thing and do what we wanted to do. [The county has] put millions into this. I would like to think they would have done it anyway. Some of the commissioners who were there in the beginning, I don’t think they’d have done it. The ones that are there now, I have more faith in them because they know they have to, so they do it. But nobody wants to put funds into something the rest of the world neglects. And the DOJ being here more or less forced the hand. In the long run, we’re all really glad it happened.
Dallas is the county’s largest and the state’s second-largest mental health provider. What role should jails play in providing mental health services to inmates?
I’ve said this from the very beginning: The mentally ill do not belong in a jail. But nobody else will take them. In the winter, when they want to get warm because they’re freezing, they’re going to break a door or window to get in. So what do you have? Vandalism, somebody in there you don’t want. It’s an act of inconvenience, it’s not criminal. If somebody breaks the window in your car, now we want them punished. Why? Because it inconvenienced me. I have to go to the insurance, take a day off, go get it fixed. They do have to be held accountable but I don’t think they need to be punished.Locking up everybody is not the solution. But that shouldn’t be law enforcement’s problem. We’re social workers, mental health workers and hospice providers. That shouldn’t be our responsibility. We should go back to decent mental health facilities. [President] Reagan, in his term, just opened up the gates and shut up the mental health institutions. Mental institutions were not working correctly. You don’t have people in mental health institutions to abuse them. Instead of solving that issue, they just let everyone out.
Last year, Joseph Hutcheson died after being restrained by your deputies in a jail lobby and it was widely reported, based on surveillance video, that officers placed their knees on Hutcheson’s back and neck.
Never. It was on the shoulder. You are taught, in order to control them and not hurt them, you put your knee on the shoulder. You can zoom in and see that it was never on the back. If by accident it got there when he was struggling, you can see that he immediately moved it back when he was struggling. Who said the knee was on the back or the neck? The media. They didn’t get it from us. You can see it frame by frame that never did the knee stay on the back or the neck, because they’re taught never to do that.
Do you feel the criticism was unfounded?
Who was the criticism by? The [district attorney] didn’t criticize us. The judge didn’t criticize us. Who criticized us? The people who wanted to sue the county. Why did they criticize us? Because they want to sue the county. In all honesty, Mr. Hutcheson was deserted by his family until the day that happened. All of a sudden, he’s the best thing alive. We had evidence that they had tried to help him but they just gave up. It’s reasonable, you give up after a while. Honestly, some lawyer got hold of them that night and everything changed.
I’m not criticizing [the family] for whatever they did. The guy was long gone. The grand jury heard all of this, and the doctor testified. That guy wouldn’t have lived no matter what. The doctor said that. Could we say that? No, because it would bias the jury. We knew it, but we couldn’t say it, because we could be sued for biasing the jury.
Did you see the film? The people were getting away from him. There were several people you could see yelling to the cops, “Come help us!” They didn’t do anything wrong. They came to the help of the people that were calling for help. Of course, we’re going to get criticized and I understand that, so you just have to sit back and let it go.