SAN ANTONIO — Two candidates looking to oust current Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar in 2020 are weighing in on the conditions at the jail after three inmates were erroneously released from custody this month.
Candidates Jose Trevino and Willie Ng boast more than two decades of experience in law enforcement. Both said they feel Salazar has not taken responsibility for the problems plaguing the jail.
"Take ownership of the problems," said Trevino, a retired Bexar County Sheriff's Office Lieutenant. "Stop the finger-pointing, the blaming everyone else and come with long term solutions."
Ng, who was former Bexar County District Attorney Nico LaHood's chief criminal investigator, said that issues of erroneous releases, inmate deaths and escapes will continue to happen unless the root of the issue is addressed.
"(Salazar is) hanging around in the symptoms -- the things that are occurring -- instead of finding out why these things are occurring," Ng said. "I really believe this isn't a people issue, it's a process issue. This is the policies that are in place."
Bexar County Sheriff's Office officials said sergeants Joseph Ward, John Garcia and Stephanie Flores were placed on administrative leave after inmates Esequiel Hernandez, 57, and Erica Morales, 32, were mistakenly released from the jail over a 12-hour period.
Ng said the varying levels of experience possessed by the detention officers connected to the erroneous releases speaks to his theory that the issue is the release process itself.
"You have from the rank of chief, all the way down to deputies being either fired or suspended for the very same issue," Ng said. "The issue has not been addressed."
Salazar said during a Friday press conference that through the more than a dozen investigations, they have not determined why this is happening.
"While I know I have to move with some purpose in these investigations, I can't rush them either," Salazar said. "I've got to make sure we're going by the numbers and we're looking at every possible angle."
He said that while he's not prepared to start "pointing fingers," he reiterated that he also hasn't ruled out that some of the mistakes may be intentional.
Salazar appears to decline Wolff's recommendation to hire 'professional jail administrator'
The Sheriff's Office said Sunday it's overhauling its booking process, placing a captain on each shift. Officials said they will also have chiefs monitoring the process throughout the day.
The change comes after Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff suggested that Salazar hire a "professional jail administrator." Wolff said that such issues seldom occurred under former Sheriff Susan Pamerleau's jail administrator, Raul Banasco.
"Two people within 12 hours? To me it’s reached a crisis point," Wolff said Friday.
Hours later, Salazar seemingly declined Wolff's suggestion of hiring a new jail chief remarking that he already has a professional jail administrator in jail chief Avery Walker.
“I wouldn't pretend to know the job of other county elected officials, and I'd certainly appreciate latitude to do my own job,” Salazar said.
Salazar said that in a nationwide search, Walker, who just last month earned his jail administrator certification from the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, was most qualified. He said he has intentions of adding to his jail administration staff, but that Walker was going to stay in his post.
"I'd like to make it clear that what was here before was someone with a background in for-profit prisons," Salazar said. "From Florida, to be exact. That's not something that interests me ... For-profit prisons, for-profit jails have no place in the Bexar County Jail. I find that practice morally repugnant."
Reached via phone Saturday, Banasco clarified that he worked for the non-profit Bridges of America and that he did not apply for any job under Salazar.
Candidates call Salazar's leadership into question
Salazar said Friday that he is holding deputies accountable for the erroneous releases, but Ng said the discipline is misplaced.
"You can't say that all these different ranks and people who have been there for many, many years that have institutional knowledge are incompetent," Ng said. "The sheriff needs to take responsibility."
Trevino, who spent more than two decades with the Sheriff's Office in various roles, including detention and internal affairs, said Salazar lacks the institutional knowledge to effectively run the agency.
"I know that it's not an easy job," Trevino said. "But there's one thing of wanting to do a job, and there's another thing of knowing how to do the job."
Trevino said the numerous incidents to come out of the jail are part of his motivation to run for sheriff. "When I see substandard performance -- I take it as my obligation to take action, the appropriate action," he said.
Ng said that as an individual who is "not a position driven person," he's seeking the office of Sheriff to restore public safety. "This is not a personal attack on Javier. I’m not saying he’s a bad person. I’m saying he’s a bad leader. I’m saying he’s a bad administrator. That’s what I’m saying and it's time for change."