Tarrant County Sheriff Bill Waybourn. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Jail deaths and ICE cooperation have defined the first term of Tarrant County Sheriff Bill Waybourn, who faces a tough challenge in next month’s election.

In Tarrant County, historically a Republican stronghold in Texas, a sheriff election is shaking up the status quo.

Sheriff Bill Waybourn has gained notoriety outside the county, which is home to Fort Worth, for his Trumpian posturing, especially his fear mongering remarks at a White House press briefing on immigration last year. Locally, critics have decried his cooperation with ICE, poor conditions in the county jail system, and his unwillingness to take measures to reduce the jail population during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Next month, Waybourn is facing off against Democratic challenger Vance Keyes, a Marine Corps veteran who has worked for the Fort Worth Police Department for two decades. Keyes believes the nation is “at a tipping point” regarding criminal justice reform, and his platform reflects what would amount to serious changes for the county. He wants to significantly reduce the jail population by making fewer arrests and advocates an end to cash bail. He has committed to changing the jail’s approach to healthcare and diverting more people to treatment facilities. And Keyes plans to get rid of the office’s 287(g) agreement with ICE.

Demographics in Tarrant County are shifting, and electoral politics seem to be following. After going for Donald Trump for president in 2016, the county voted for Beto O’Rourke over Ted Cruz for Senate in 2018. Now both parties have their eyes on Tarrant County, and bigger players have gotten involved in the sheriff race; O’Rourke has stumped for Keyes and former governor Rick Perry has endorsed Waybourn. 

Locally, criminal justice reform advocates see an opportunity to change policies to curb deportations, keep people out of jail, and improve conditions for those who are locked up.  

“In this election, specifically, what we know is that Sheriff Waybourn is a danger to our community,” said Sindy Mata, an organizer with the group New Sheriff Now Tarrant County, which has been trying to replace Waybourn, “whether it’s through 287(g) or the perpetuation of harmful rhetoric or the continuation of a culture that is resulting in deaths of people detained in the jail.”

Since January, 10 people incarcerated at the Tarrant County Jail have died. And many people—including county commissioners—have expressed concerns about a lack of transparency and accountability on the part of the sheriff’s office.

Other local officials, like County Judge Glen Whitley, have defended the number of fatalities at the jail by saying it is in keeping with comparable counties. According to a data comparison done by the Texas Justice Initiative, it is true that there have been fewer deaths in the Tarrant County sheriff’s custody than in counties with similar jail populations during that same time frame. But advocates have countered that even one life lost is a tragedy and that Waybourn’s approach to running the jail has made it more dangerous for the people held there. 

Texas Justice Initiative found that the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office has reported that 67 percent of its deaths in the last 15 years have been from natural causes. But Krishnaveni Gundu, the executive director and co-founder of the Texas Jail Project, does not trust that classification. “If your blood pressure meds are delayed, or you have diabetes and you die and they say it’s a natural cause, that’s not true,” she said. “It’s negligence.” 

Gundu explained that the current system of prescribing and administering medication is divided between a local mental health authority, a healthcare provider, and the jail—an arrangement that often causes patients to fall through the cracks. With multiple entities involved, “it’s very easy for them to point fingers at each other,” she said.

A former jail supervisor who worked in two Tarrant County correctional facilities from 2007 until January of this year spoke to The Appeal: Political Report on the condition of anonymity because he hopes to work in the system again in the future. He told a similar story: “There are not enough caseworkers or psychologists to see every inmate every week. … I’ve gotten complaints from inmates saying their medication has run out and they can’t get any more.” 

The former supervisor also said that misclassification during booking has led to people with mental disabilities or medical needs being placed with the general population or in single cells instead of on the medical floor. He said this has led to incidents of violence and has meant that vulnerable people were not receiving the monitoring they needed. In May, the Tarrant County Jail lost state certification for nearly a week after an internal investigation into a suicide exposed that jailers had been late conducting welfare checks. In the same month, they failed to notice that a pregnant woman had given birth unassisted in her cell; the baby later died.

A spokesperson for the jail said via email that some characterizations of the facility were inaccurate, but did not provide specifics or respond to requests for further details.

Waybourn did not respond to the Political Report’s requests for comment. He told Fort Worth Weekly that he is committed to improving reentry programs and that his office is working on a mental health diversion center that would allow it “to take people who would benefit from mental health care out of our jail and place them in an environment that would help get them the care they need.” Yet local advocates have little faith in this plan, pointing out that Waybourn has thus far instituted few reforms. 

Keyes said he would introduce a model for redirecting people who need healthcare to treatment facilities “in cases where a pre-existing mental or physical condition exists, such as a detoxing or medically ill defendant.” In an email he said that “booking will refuse to accept prisoners until they have received proper medical attention.”

Keyes also said he plans to implement a policy requiring the jail to guarantee that prescriptions are renewed within a week. And he would require classification officers to administer a psychosocial and medical assessment before prisoners are housed, to ensure that those in high-risk categories would be diverted to the medical floor.  

Beyond these reforms, Keyes said he wants to make sure fewer people end up in jail in the first place. 

He said he would work with the local district attorney’s office to advocate for an end to cash bail. And he wants to change the way sheriff’s deputies handle certain low-level offenses so that they arrest fewer people. 

This would take the form of giving verbal warnings or issuing citations instead, he said. For instance, he pointed out that when an officer stops someone for a traffic violation, like a broken tail light, sheriffs in other jurisdictions have partnered “with garages to get the cars fixed so that person doesn’t have to go to court.” He pointed to other minor offenses, including shoplifting and possession of less than two ounces of marijuana, as ones where he would consider implementing such strategies.

Advocates have also been frustrated by Waybourn’s refusal to consider compassionate release for incarcerated people during the pandemic, especially given that jails are known hotspots for the novel coronavirus. “With COVID, Sheriff Waybourn has not made any changes to reduce the amount of people incarcerated by releasing people with minor offenses or those who are the most vulnerable,” said Mata. “And that’s something that needs to happen immediately.” Keyes told the Political Report that he believes in compassionate release for people who are high risk. 

One of the biggest contrasts between the candidates, though, has emerged on another critical issue in Tarrant County: immigration.

During his run for sheriff in 2015, Waybourn said he was opposed to sanctuary cities and wanted deputies to work alongside ICE to apprehend undocumented immigrants. After taking office, he entered into a 287(g) agreement with the agency, which allows local law enforcement officers to enforce federal immigration law. 

During a community meeting in 2018, Waybourn justified the decision by saying his department was “not enforcing immigration laws on the street. We’re going after the child molester, we’re going after the murder suspect.” But last year, the bigotry underlying Waybourn’s immigration policies became clear when he called undocumented immigrants in custody “drunks” who will “run over your children” during a White House event. 

Jonathan Guadian, a member of ICE Out of Tarrant, a coalition of organizations including United Fort Worth and RAICES, said Waybourn has actually used 287(g) to target undocumented immigrants arrested for low-level offenses, like marijuana possession. “We were finding that many of the people arrested … were immediately handed over to ICE before being issued charges from public administrators like judges,” Guadian said. “They weren’t even getting their day in court to dispute the charge.”

Keyes has committed to revoking the 287(g) agreement, which he says has created mistrust between the undocumented population and law enforcement. “If they’re victims, how much less likely are they to come forward if they believe they or a loved one are going to be deported?” he asked.

Immigration rights advocates nationwide are pushing sheriffs to cut off all sorts of modes of cooperation with ICE, though in Texas they are also challenging a state law called SB4 that requires sheriffs to assist the agency in certain ways. In spite of SB4, the 287(g) program remains voluntary in Texas. 

Tarrant County may be part of a burgeoning trend of criminal justice reform becoming an issue in sheriff’s elections, according to Emily M. Farris, an associate professor of political science at Texas Christian University.

“Over the last decade there’s been this progressive reform movement in district attorney’s offices,” Farris said. “We see folks elected to DA offices who have reform ideas and make real change. It’s interesting to parallel that with sheriffs and think, ‘Are we seeing similar types of candidates turn up in sheriffs offices?’” 

Farris noted that a key difference between both offices is that DAs can be elected after serving as public defenders or holding a variety of other jobs within the legal system. Sheriffs, on the other hand, more often have a background in law enforcement. “If you’re going to be an officer you’ve bought into certain ideas of what the criminal justice system is,” Farris said. “The range is much more narrow. But [Keyes], I think, is on the end of pushing what that range is.”