Q&A with Sheriff Bill Waybourn
Tarrant County voters will decide the winners of several county seats during the November 3 general election. Arguably the most closely watched county race is between Sheriff Bill Waybourn, who took office in 2017, and his opponent, Fort Worth police department captain Vance Keyes.
Two weeks ago, we published responses to questions that we had forwarded to Keyes (“Q&A with Sheriff Candidate Vance Keyes,” July 2). This week, we focus on Waybourn. A U.S. Air Force veteran, he became the youngest police chief in Texas in 1981 when he was promoted to that top rank in the Dalworthington Gardens police department, where his career spanned 31 years.
We sent both candidates similar questions, some of which 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. Through the program, certain jailors can place detainers (temporary holds) on inmates who are not in the country legally. Upon release from jail, the inmates are handed directly to ICE for deportation. The Tarrant County Commissioners Court recently voted 3-2 to indefinitely renew that agreement despite vocal opposition.
What was your reaction to the 287(g) renewal vote?
I was disappointed that the vote was along party lines. I believe the data was clear that the program is efficient and effective. I hope that the commissioners court will work with me to educate the community about the program instead of giving a voice to the opponents of the program who are driving an inaccurate fear in the community.
What are the reasons for supporting the 287(g) agreement?
This program is an effective tool for enforcement of the laws of the United States and the State of Texas. Our program focuses on people who come in the brick and mortar of our jails, which frees up officers from having to concern themselves with possible immigration issues.
Furthermore, the last time we reviewed the inmates with a 287(g) hold, it showed over 70% were considered repeat offenders. Our job as law enforcement officers is to protect the community we serve, and this program is a tool we can use to effectively take repeat offenders off the streets, which makes our community safer.
What are your top priorities if reelected Sheriff?
First, we are currently working on a mental health diversion center. This would allow us 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. Secondly, I hope to bring to fruition a complete reentry program that starts within the jail and partners with private companies and nonprofits to set the table for success as individuals come out of the jail and into the free world. Thirdly, work to create a use of force laboratory that allows our officers and deputies to train on de-escalation strategies and real-life scenarios, allowing our Sheriff’s Office team to keep calm in tense situations. Lastly, implement a strategy based on third-party staffing studies to gain the staff and equipment needed to meet the needs of our community and provide servant leadership to all of Tarrant County.
What areas of the sheriff’s office still need improving?
We are still very behind on providing technology to all areas of our office. We are working to develop a Jail Management System and hope to implement it in April of 2021. Our current system dates back to at least the 1980s, and an upgrade is very much needed. We are also implementing formal servant leadership training to better equip our officers and deputies with the skills and tools needed to serve the citizens of Tarrant County. Lastly, we are working on a staffing study for our detention bureau, which will look at providing much needed assistance to that branch of our team.
What is your impression of the protests that focus on criminal justice reform?
While criminal justice is always evolving, there is a frustration that [things] have been slow to change. I understand that and am willing to work together to help shape criminal justice. However, that message is being lost due to the protests that have turned violent. We must also work together to address core issues that have led people into the criminal justice system.
Editor’s note: Although sometimes disruptive, Fort Worth’s protests have been free of the looting and riots that have characterized protests in large cities like Washington, D.C., and Portland.
Are you satisfied with the performance of the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office?
The district attorney has worked hand in hand with me to bring about some incredible changes to the criminal justice system here in Tarrant County. One of the major changes that we have worked together to put in place is central magistration. This monumental overhaul of our criminal justice system has brought about the fairest and most consistent bonds in the history of Tarrant County.
We have also worked together on issues such as the Innocence Project and on mental health reform, which includes diversion options. Recently during the pandemic, we worked to release first-time misdemeanor offenders who were not a risk to the community.
There are calls for “defunding the police,” which, in practice, would include sheriffs. What does that term mean to you?
Since the early 1960s, we have seen more and more pushed into the law enforcement job description. It is not a question of if law enforcement could handle these things [but rather that] society has pushed it onto law enforcement. It’s what I refer to as providing the best social service after 5 p.m.
The two main issues that arise from defunding police are: A comprehensive plan to replace operational units must be established and (if law enforcement budgets are cut) changes made to the statutory requirements of law enforcement officers.
Have there been any missteps during your first term that you would like to improve upon?
I first came into office with a vision of creating change. There are things that did not develop as fast as I thought they should have because of county bureaucracy. One example of this would be a badly needed staffing study has taken three years to get off the ground. We have implemented nearly 160 changes that were needed in this office.
The other regret I have is not implementing the programs involving the community we have put in place sooner than what we did. Last year, we had our first ever Christmas for the Kids of the Incarcerated. Our department partnered with churches and local community groups to provide children of inmates in our facility or [others] who have been recently released Christmas presents. It showed those children the humanity of law enforcement officers.
Describe how you would work with the county commissioners, the DA’s office, and Fort Worth officials to communicate your goals.
I have shown how to do that over the last four years. I have built a strong relationship with those groups as well as the other municipalities inside Tarrant County. At least once a year, I conduct a mission briefing highlighting an intelligence update and mission-critical areas of the office to the county judge and each commissioner.
What does the Black Lives Matter movement mean to you?
I am in full agreement with the sentiment of Black Lives Matter. As a Christian, it is paramount we honor the lives of all people. If one community feels that their lives are being discounted, we should work together to fix that.
Does your office work to improve workplace diversity?
The Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office is incredibly diverse throughout every rank. We hire and promote the best men and women to every position in our organization regardless of their race or color. I am proud to say that during my tenure as sheriff, we have promoted more minorities and women than any previous administration.