Several Tarrant County seats are up for grabs during the November 3 general election, including the position of county sheriff. In Texas, the county sheriff manages and operates the county jail and oversees the sheriff’s department, among other law enforcement-related duties. Tarrant County’s current sheriff, Bill Waybourn, a Republican, is seeking his first reelection since taking office in 2017. His opponent is Democrat Vance Keyes, the 20-year Fort Worth police department officer who currently serves as captain of the Tactical Operations Division.
We reached out to both candidates with similar questions. Some of them refer to the county’s 287(g) program, the voluntary pact with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that Waybourn brought to Tarrant County shortly after taking office. The program allows jailors to place detainers (temporary holds) on inmates who are not in the country legally. Instead of releasing the undocumented inmates after their time has been served or bond posted, 287(g) allows the inmates to be handed directly to ICE for deportation.
What was your reaction to the recent vote that renewed 287(g)?
My reaction was not one of surprise but nonetheless disappointment. I felt the vote occurred along party lines and was not taken in the best interest of the county nor public. It was apparent that it would be a three-to-two [commissioners court] decision from prevailing attitudes before and during the hearing on renewal. People needed to show up and voice their concerns, but I felt it was a foregone conclusion that most commissioners would vote to renew the agreement.
Why are you in favor of canceling the agreement?
The 287(g) agreement has no appreciable positive impact on crime, is divisive, and is a political pet project rooted in fearmongering, not best criminal justice practices. It promotes the type of moral panic, minority-threat rhetoric that contradicts the very ethos of community policing. The presentation by the Tarrant County sheriff’s office was itself a strong argument for why the agreement should be canceled. As a major metropolitan area, Tarrant County is an outlier by being a party to the agreement. The agreement is not a mark of good leadership but rather a stubborn commitment to a failed policy.
What are the first steps you will take if elected sheriff?
The first step will be to eliminate the 287(g) agreement and be more inclusive of the entire Tarrant community. The organization will be transparent. To this end, I want a reflective and representative organization. To the greatest extent possible and with respect for personal privacy, data will be made more readily available to the public.
What are the top three concerns you are hearing from locals regarding law enforcement?
The top three concerns I repeatedly hear is that law enforcement is insensitive, fails to take accountability for its actions, and over-policed minority communities with enforcement rather than working with those communities to prevent crime.
What is your impression of the recent protests that focused on criminal justice reform?
My impression is that the protests are emblematic of a frustration that has long been brewing.
The district attorney’s office is often left out of discussions on criminal justice reform. What changes would you like to see in the Tarrant County district attorney’s office?
I would like to see a district attorney’s office that abandons the practice of incarcerating low-level, nonviolent offenders and the mentally ill. Out of necessity, we have jails and prisons, but we should not unnecessarily warehouse people that do not pose public safety threats. We must be good stewards of our limited tax-funded resources by prioritizing public safety.
There are national calls for “defunding the police,” which, in practice, would include sheriffs. What does that term mean to you, and do you see validity in calls to reduce law enforcement budgets?
For me, the call for defunding has been made for three primary reasons. One, people feel that police pose a greater danger than benefit. Two, many police functions are carried out by default, not expertise. Three, funding preventative initiatives is better than funding reactionary enforcement.
In any democratic government, police and elected officials must be responsive to the will of the people, not themselves. We are not a police state. The extent of defunding will be decided within the electorate process. I support our political system, and if police funds are reallocated, governments and administrators will have to respond accordingly. As sheriff, that would naturally include me. Locally, I would advocate for greater public inclusion and even oversight in the sheriff’s budget.
What policies or missteps in the sheriff’s office have most concerned you?
Most concerning has been the absence of transparency both internally and externally, the failure to make the sheriff’s office more inclusive, the commitment to 287(g), and the lack of advocacy for releasing nonviolent inmates during the COVID-19 pandemic. The sheriff is an elected position, but the office should be as apolitical as possible. I am concerned that the sheriff has been too keen on politically motivated national pandering to the detriment of local administrative issues.
Describe how you would work with the county commissioners, DA’s office, and Fort Worth officials to communicate your goals and build relationships.
Government and criminal justice are integrated systems at all levels. I am people-oriented but research-driven. I communicate my goals by clearly stating what my intentions are. I then provide supporting evidence for my intentions. I would welcome feedback and discussion on the merits of my decisions. These intentions will be communicated to the county commissioners, 40-plus city governments, including Fort Worth and the district attorney’s office. The [intentions and goals] will also be available to the public. Again, transparency is key. When I am called to account for failures or mistakes, I will genuinely listen with action and not defend the indefensible. Public servants have an obligation to get smarter and be better.
What does the Black Lives Matter movement mean to you?
What the Black Lives Matter movement means to me is that it is the unapologetic assertion that Blacks have a human right to live, not to have a lesser quality of life or have their endeavors in life arbitrarily denied because of their blackness. It is relative in all contexts but has special relevance for police brutality.
What advantages do minorities and females bring when elected into office?
The cornerstone of democratic government is representation. The advantages of electing Blacks, Hispanics, and females to office is that they represent our diverse community and help fulfill the promise that our nation is truly inclusive. These elected officials also may bring a fresh perspective to government, have inroads into traditionally marginalized communities, and work to address public concerns that might otherwise be unacknowledged or ignored.
We reached out to Waybourn with similar questions and will publish his responses once they are received.