Candidates for Travis County sheriff answer our questions

Travis County will have a new sheriff come November. After 12 years as sheriff, Greg Hamilton will step down as head of the Travis County sheriff’s office.

Two candidates vying to replace him are Constable Sally Hernandez, the Democratic candidate, and Joe Martinez, a private investigator who is the Republican candidate.

While both candidates have expressed similar views on a variety of issues, including implementing face-to-face visits for jail inmates and mental health reforms for officers, there is one topic where they differ most: sanctuary cities.

RELATED EDITORIAL: Wanted: Sheriff who keeps Austin out of Legislature crosshairs

During his tenure, Hamilton has been criticized for cooperating with U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Priority Enforcement Program, in which the county detains some inmates longer if federal authorities suspect they are not legally authorized to be in the country.

We reached out to the Travis County sheriff candidates to elaborate on their positions on sanctuary cities as well as on a few other issues.

Below is the complete list of the questions and answers

Statesman Editorial Board: As sheriff, would you honor Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainers?

Martinez: Yes.

Hernandez: Certainly we must deal appropriately with any incarcerated immigrant who is a violent criminal or who poses a national security risk. “ICE detainers” are not like criminal detainers or warrants. Warrants are generally issued by judges who have probable cause. ICE detainer requests do not have those procedural protections. They are not binding, and no penalty applies for not granting a detainer request. When ICE issues a detainer, that does not mean the individual is actually a noncitizen subject to deportation, or that ICE has probable cause to think so. Without those protections, ICE detainers have been criticized for overuse and abuse. However, in particular cases ICE may have justification for a particular detainer request. As I said before, I want to have open communication and cooperation with ICE. So I will consider individualized ICE detainer requests, but I will not agree with abusive, overbroad, blanket ICE detainer requests.

If you are elected sheriff would you establish Austin and Travis County as a “sanctuary city/county” as defined as ending cooperation in the county jail with the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency?

Martinez: Absolutely not. It needlessly and recklessly endangers public safety to proactively make Austin a sanctuary city. It is not the job of the Travis County Sheriff to refuse to enforce federal laws. On this issue, outgoing Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton and I agree. “Sanctuary Sally” Hernandez has an extreme position on this issue and she needs to explain how making Austin a Sanctuary City will impact public safety, national security, and the County budget should the legislature end funding to Sanctuary Cities.

Hernandez: No. I will redefine Travis County’s relationship with ICE. Sanctuary city is not a defined legal term. It is a term used to perpetuate fear and racism, rather than address the real issues related to our immigrant population.

(Editor’s Note: Hernandez declined to provide any further details on how she would redefine a relationship with ICE when pressed for clarification.)

No other sheriff in Texas operates a “Sanctuary City” jail as defined above particularly in light of the changes that the Obama administration made in 2014 by replacing the Secure Communities program with the Priority Enforcement Program, which focuses on deporting from county jails individuals in this country illegally and who pose a threat to national security or have committed a violent crime. Why protect such people from deportation?

Martinez: The Travis County Sheriff’s personal position on federal laws is irrelevant. The job is to enforce the law. The federal government makes immigration laws. As the county’s top law enforcement official, I cannot and will not select which federal laws to enforce and which to ignore. If ICE requests a “detainer,” that request goes before a federal judge. If the federal judge approves the request, the jail must hold the person who was arrested, preventing them from being released if they were set to be released (on bond, on bail, or on evidentiary grounds). Under the Priority Enforcement Program detainers, are now rare. However in Travis County they happen more often than in most counties. If an illegal immigrant is arrested and released because the Sheriff did not follow federal immigration law or ignored an ICE detainer, they are needlessly endangering the community. We saw this in San Francisco with the Kate Steinle murder. That was a preventable crime.

Hernandez: On January 1, 2017 I will take an oath to protect our community. I will fully enforce the laws of the State of Texas. Anyone who commits a crime against our community, regardless of immigration status, will be processed in accordance with state and federal law. Anyone who “poses a threat to national security” will be handled in a manner that is consistent with the law and with national security concerns.

I have been an advocate for victims of crime my entire career. For over 21 years, I’ve worked hand-in-hand with victims through my work as a criminal investigator. I believe everyone, regardless of ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, gender, or mental ability should be protected by the law and treated fairly. I will protect the community, ensure public safety, and respect the rights of all residents of Travis County.

What is the single most challenging criminal justice issue facing Travis County today?

Martinez: The biggest challenge of any law enforcement officer is recognizing who the enemy is. The most challenging issues in Travis County today mostly traceable to illegal immigration. This includes the drugs and human trafficking across the border, along with violent offenders, who disrespect all laws, not just immigration laws. The Sheriff’s office is not an office for just a social worker or community outreach worker. It is an office that requires a tough-on-crime cop, who has worked in the streets as an undercover narcotics agent, who knows something about violent street gangs, who has been in a gun battle, like I have. My street experience will trump the “misdemeanor only” experience and community outreach experience of my opponent. We need a Sheriff who has street credentials. I am the only candidate who has these credentials, and you cannot get street credentials in a classroom.

Hernandez: The most vulnerable people that we are called to protect have lost trust in our criminal justice system. Nationally, we are seeing the loss of black lives and officers’ lives. I believe that our community can unite against the hate and fear that would otherwise divide us. To rebuild trust, we must enact policies that treat everyone fairly and rethink how the criminal justice system interacts with the residents of Travis County. These issues are not unique to Austin. A national conversation is underway between law enforcement and communities. Keeping those lines of communication open and strengthening mutual understanding and respect are vitally important. I believe that the result can be healthier, stronger, safer communities.

How would you address those challenges?

Martinez: 1. I plan on evaluating the current programs in place before I make any changes. But my position is (the Travis County sheriff’s office) needs a terror strike force, (which) implements state of the art technology to keep my county safe, such as drones, robots, etc.

2. (The Travis County sheriff’s office) needs state-of-the-art equipment for defending our law enforcement officers and our citizens. My opponent is concerned about the uniforms of the officers; that they do not match. I am more concerned that we ensure they have the best police body armor available. I can think of better ways to spend money other than on matching uniforms. I will spend money on keeping everyone safe!

3. Further, I will create an animal abuser registryso that we can keep track of more violent offenders and we will have another population of identification factors to draw from.

4. We need additional training so we can interact with citizens without incident and keep citizens and my deputies safe. I want my deputies to take sign language. I am bilingual and many of my deputies are; but how many of us can communicate with the hearing-impaired?

Hernandez: My law enforcement career is built on partnership and prevention. We must invest in community policing to rebuild trust, enforce laws, promote transparency and prevent crime. This includes the creation of a transparent policy for the implementation and use of body cameras. It also includes establishing partnerships with domestic violence organizations to effectively assist victims of assault family violence.

We need to decriminalize mental illness, and provide access to treatment while in jail and connect individuals with services when they are released. To reduce our jail population and end the cycle incarceration, we must partner with schools, educators, parents and community organizations to provide at risk students with resources. Finally, we must establish a uniform and fair cite and release policy for low-level drug offenses.

What would be your top three priorities if elected sheriff?

1) Transparency our citizens need to be notified of any serious threats that may have an effect in the safety. I want to make sure that are notified in a timely manner as we continue to provide a safe community in Travis County. If you see something “report it”.

2)Police Liaison have each district that is served by the Travis County to interact with the community they patrol to be the “go to person” for any issue(s) that will address the community concern with the Sheriff to resolve the community problem or concern.

3) Training of Officers I am a firm believer of training and more training this will make the officer a better public servant to the community that he is sworn to serve and protect.

Hernandez: First, my top priority will be to ensure the public’s safety and provide support to victims of crime. A strong public safety approach starts with rebuilding trust.

Second, I will work to decriminalize mental illness. The improper, excessive incarceration of the mentally ill is a waste of law enforcement resources and tax dollars. We must divert who we can to service providers and build partnerships to provide treatment and long-term solutions.

Third, I will work to end the school-to-prison pipeline by partnering with educators, advocates, parents, and school resource officers to implement community policing best practices. 70% of students referred to law enforcement are Hispanic and African-American. Studies show a suspension in the 9th grade doubles the chances of a student dropping out of school. I will ensure TCSO Resource Officers receive appropriate training in child behavior, and emphasize the importance of staying in school.

Are you concerned about the fallout – both political and financial – that could hit Austin and Travis County if a policy were implemented that did not align with the state’s definition of a sanctuary city?

Martinez: The Texas Legislature meets in January, and they have pledge to end sanctuary cities in Texas. This comes both as a legislative prohibition but also jeopardizes county funding. This is yet another costly risk to Travis County should “sanctuary Sally” become the next Travis County sheriff. If she goes ahead with her irresponsible pledge to make Austin a sanctuary city, she would be risking valuable dollars in state funding that could be used for training and equipping our deputies across the county.

Hernandez: Currently there is no “state definition” or legal definition of a sanctuary city. My goal as sheriff is to implement policies that create a safer community. Those who want to end local control and threaten state funding because of a political agenda, powered by fear and hate, are wrong. This approach harms the safety of Travis County families. I know most Democrats and Republicans agree on a common sense approach to immigration reform and enforcement, and that public safety must be a top priority. I will work with local and statewide elected officials and with legislators to foster understanding and rational discussion of the problems of immigration in our community.

Give us an idea of how you would put together a leadership team that reflects the needs and the concerns, as well as the diversity, of Travis County.

Martinez: One of my measures I will implement is to establish a Community Advisory Board. This Board will reflect the diversity of the citizens in Travis County. I will establish this board as points of contact for all citizens, who have issues and who feel more comfortable reaching out to another civilian as opposed to a deputy. We will meet regularly so I can get immediate feedback from citizens on how they feel the TCSO is doing their job.

I subscribe to the management school of thought that we continue to improve the process: Total Quality Management. I believe in observing current programs in place and evaluating them before I jump in and shake up the way things are done. Once I am in office, I can review measurements of performance and make my decisions fact-based as opposed to off-the-cuff.

Hernandez: It is vital to have a command staff that is diverse, capable, experienced, and that reflects the community we serve. As Chief Investigator of the Travis County District Attorney’s Office, I brought teams together with diverse backgrounds, including diverse law enforcement experience.

As Constable, I have continued that practice. My command staff reflects the uniqueness of the individuals they lead. The Sheriff’s Office has close to 1,700 employees, who perform a substantial number of different duties and serve many different communities. The success of the Sheriff’s Office is going to depend on having strong and highly qualified leaders who represent the individuals they lead and the community they serve. I want us to have the best Sheriff’s department in Texas, and I believe we can.

What kind of changes would you implement in your first 90 days on the job?

Martinez: I must be in the office as Sheriff before I start making changes. The first 90 days will most likely find me assessing all operations and determining where we need improvements. I need to fully understand where the strengths and weaknesses are before I make sweeping reforms. I am an experienced cop who will make this department better run and more accountable. I will improve the safety of our deputies and of the citizens in Travis County. That is my priority.

Hernandez: Staff my department leadership with a diverse, experienced team to reflect the demographic, geographic, and economic diversity of our community.

Develop best practices for recruiting and hiring staff in order to have an fully operational Sheriff’s force.

Review investigation policies for assault family violence cases with the input of victim advocate organizations to help ensure that the cycle of violence ends.

Establish a Community Policing Advisory Committee to strengthen trust and implement proactive community policing practices.

Create partnerships with mental health organizations to provide resources for those in jail and connect them with services upon re-entry.

Begin the process to redefine Travis County’s relationship with ICE in consultation with victim’s advocate organizations, immigrant organizations, and of course state and federal law enforcement agencies, including ICE.

Modify Travis County’s current cite-and-release program for low level drug offenses so that the program is uniform and applied fairly.

What is your main concern with ICE in the Travis County jail and have you verified the concerns/problems through current data from the Sheriff’s office, federal government or immigration advocates?

Martinez: ICE conducts national security background checks in our jails through FBI databases. If an arrestee hits in the database, they are held on national security grounds. If “Sanctuary Sally” kicks ICE out of our jails, our ability to have that function performed and executed will either be limited or ended entirely.

Hernandez: Over the past two years, I’ve been meeting with immigrant advocates, victim advocates, lawyers, the Sheriff’s Office, and elected officials; there is consensus that some of the current ICE policies are discriminatory and harmful to public safety. Too often these policies prevent witnesses and victims from reporting crime because they fear deportation. Such policies can end up protecting local criminals from detection and prosecution, and thus impeding local law enforcement and punishment.

Any policy that discriminates against a particular group should be reviewed with the input of the entire community, including victim services, law enforcement, community organizations, and state and federal agencies. This is not limited to the issue of immigration, it includes the criminalization of mental illness, unequal enforcement of low level drug offenses, and the implementation of body cameras.

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