The four Democrats vying to replace retiring Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton have nice things to say about their would-be predecessor’s accomplishments. But when it comes to the three-term top cop’s most controversial policy, the candidates are clear: ICE has got to go.
Hamilton has been criticized for continuing the county’s participation in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement program that allows federal officials to monitor who is booked into the Travis County Jail and extends the detention of inmates suspected of being unauthorized immigrants.
The four likely candidates — Constable Sally Hernandez, Lakeway Police Chief Todd Radford, sheriff’s Sgt. Don Rios and former Austin police Lt. John Sisson — all said they would end the county’s involvement in the program, which critics say can tear apart families because of minor offenses. The only candidate who supported the program was Chief Deputy Jim Sylvester, Hamilton’s right-hand man. Sylvester told the American-Statesman last week he is dropping out of the race to spend more time with his father, who is ill.
Ending ICE detainers isn’t the only high-profile issue the candidates agree on. In interviews, they all endorsed a laundry list of progressive policy prescriptions for criminal justice reform: outfitting deputies with body cameras; improving relationships between law enforcement and minority communities; and expanding mental health services at the jail and diversionary programs. With little difference in their policy outlooks, the main differences between the candidates will be their resumés and the political alliances they forge.
All but Hernandez, who must resign her current office before making her candidacy official, have committed to running in the March 1, 2016, primary. No Republicans have joined the race.
Hernandez, the constable for Precinct 3 in southwestern Travis County, said she is “seriously considering” running and will make an announcement in December. Meanwhile, her supporters have organized a “Draft Sally” campaign to lay the groundwork.
Hernandez, in her first term as constable, is the only potential candidate who has previously won an election. Before her 2012 victory, she worked at the district attorney’s office for 21 years, stepping down as its chief investigator.
Both experiences, she said, taught her how to change the culture of an institution — dysfunction at the constable’s office and a “good ol’ boys” network at the prosecutor’s office — by being an outsider, which she would be at the sheriff’s office.
“The problem with being an insider is you don’t realize when the culture needs to change,” said Hernandez, 57, who grew up in Llano County. “It was much easier as an outsider looking in to change that culture.”
Radford has had a varied career in law enforcement, with stints as a patrolman, an academic and an administrator. An Austin native, Radford started at the sheriff’s office and went on to teach at a police training program through Texas A&M University, where he worked with federal agencies to develop courses on anti-terrorism strategies.
As Lakeway’s chief for the past six, Radford has gained a reputation as an early adopter of modern policing techniques. The department was one of the first in Texas to have all of its patrol officers wear body cameras. Neither the Austin Police Department nor the sheriff’s office have bought the cameras, although both are exploring the issue. A new state program to help jurisdictions pay for them may make it possible soon.
“We were that far ahead of the national trend and yet we were able to successfully do this,” said Radford, 48, who ran but lost to Hamilton in 2004, the last open sheriff’s election. “It takes a person with the right kind of quality to bring people together to create trust in the law enforcement entities again.”
Radford has been endorsed by the Travis County Sheriff’s Officers Association, one of the department’s two unions.
The larger union, the Travis County Sheriff’s Law Enforcement Association, endorsed Rios, who previously served as the chairman of the union’s political action committee.
Rios, 46, started as a Travis County corrections officer and is now a sergeant for special operations, overseeing the lake patrol division.
“The sheriff needs to have experience working in our jail as a jailer and working on our street as a patrol deputy,” said Rios, who is from Austin and lives in Pflugerville. “I know the sheriff’s office from top to bottom.”
Rios said that increasing diversity among the ranks should be a major priority for the next sheriff and that he, as the only minority in the race, would be in the best position to accomplish it.
“I think it’s time to elect the first Hispanic sheriff in the history of Travis County,” he said.
Sisson, a sergeant for Constable Danny Thomas and a former Austin police lieutenant, challenged Hamilton in 2012, highlighting his opposition to the ICE program. The top law enforcement office in the county, he said, should demonstrate it can show “compassion.”
“I’m running again because I want to make this change. I want, once and for all, to pull ICE out of this jail,” said Sisson, 59, who also lives in Pflugerville and worked briefly for the sheriff’s office as a jailer at the start of his career. “I’m hoping to bring back the trust of the minority community and the Hispanic community.”
Sisson, who is gay, said he would also focus on improving diversity and making the department a more welcoming place.
“In order to get the respect of the community and to get the community to look up to you, you have to have the diversity in the upper staff,” he said. “I could also bring a comfort to those who are LGBT within the sheriff’s department to come out.”
The Central Texas Democratic Forum will host a lunch featuring the four candidates and potential candidates for Travis County sheriff. The event will run from 11:45 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sept. 22 at the Austin Bar Association, 816 Congress Ave., Suite 700. The cost is $15 for forum members and $20 for non-members. To reserve a seat, email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com, or call 320-0665.