Thursday, October 09, 2008

Local Texas law enforcement elections on the November ballot

With most voters focused on the presidential election, I thought it'd be worthwhile to scout about for news on the various law enforcement-related races in Texas, particularly in the largest counties.

The biggest prizes undoubtedly are the two top law enforcement spots in Harris County - Sheriff and District Attorney - whose jurisdiction is more populous than a majority of American states. Both incumbents are Republicans but the county's demographics have recently shifted strongly to favor Democrats. Incumbent Sheriff Tommy Thomas faces a strong Democratic challenger and suffers from what the Houston Chronicle called "the most troublesome year for the sheriff's department under his watch." I'm in the Anybody-But-Thomas camp on this one.

The Harris DA's race features former Houston police chief Clarence Bradford vs. a former judge, Pat Lykos - I was hoping for a Bradford v. Rosenthal dogfight this fall to keep us entertained, but Rosenthal's resignation this spring after a series of embarrassing revelations paved the way for this much tamer contest. Bradford is saying all the right things to attract my support, though I was no great fan of his tenure as police chief. (See Life at the Harris County Criminal Justice Center for coverage of the DA's race along with local judicial contests.)

I don't particularly have an opinion yet over which candidate would be better in the Dallas Sheriff's race. The Dallas News' endorsement of Republican Lowell Cannady was essentially a recitation of the failures of incumbent Lupe Valdez, most of which I'd agree with on its face. But Cannady has no experience that tells me he'll be able to step in and immediately run the jail any better than Valdez. What's more, even the News admits "she has shown some improvement." My concern would be that Cannady, or anybody, who didn't come straight outta jail management, would be able to step in to the Dallas jail's byzantine problems without a steep learning curve the county can ill afford. Things are a big mess there right now, and not all the fault falls on the Sheriff's shoulders. But Valdez's reign has been disappointing, so I'd be open to hearing more specifics from Cannady to convince me he has a vision of where to take the department and how to get there.

I've seen virtually no coverage of the Bexar County Sheriff's race, but the clear choice in terms of what's best for the county and its jail overcrowding crisis would be Dennis McKnight, the GOP candidate and former First Assistant Bexar County DA who managed the jail day-to-day under the previous Sheriff. McKnight exhibits a profound understanding of the system's problems. Even better, he's not afraid to propose bold solutions (he was an early backer of the idea for giving citations instead of arresting for low-level misdemeanors). He would step in on day one with innovative plans to reduce jail overcrowding, knowing exactly where are the levers of power within the organization and how to operate them - skills Lupe Valdez in Dallas, for example, hasn't been able to master in four years. Go Dennis!

There's a contested, open Sheriff's slot in El Paso which, like in Bexar, has received only sparse news coverage (that I've seen) so far. Unlike some other Texas counties, El Paso's jail problems aren't the only dominant issue, though still an important one, because the Sheriff provides plenty of actual on-the-ground enforcement in rural areas. I know little about either candidate. Democrat Richard Wiles is a former El Paso police chief who won his primary despite opposition from the local police union because of "tough discipline standards" when he ran the place. That doesn't sound too bad. The Republican, George Stoltz, was an El Paso police officer for 18 years befor spending "the last 18 months in Iraq as a contracted police adviser." His website contains more information about Iraq than his plans or El Paso. I'd be interested in learning more about the candidates from any readers following the race.

Out in East Texas there's a contested Sheriff's race in Gregg County (Longview) that received good coverage in The East Texas Review. The Democrat in the race criticized a long-term undercover drug sting targeting multiple, mostly black offenders for two years before securing a single arrest (they finally busted everyone at once in a big roundup). His concerns mirror those of theoreticians concerned that widespread use of confidential informants may actually increase crime, declaring, "
Gregg County has the highest crime rate of any county in east Texas with drug dealers selling drugs for 2 years ever before there was a raid. During this time he said, 'Burglary increased.'" I'm particularly glad to see a critique of such common but problematic tactics making its way into electoral debates in a Sheriff's race.

Who do you support in these races and what other contested Texas Sheriffs or DA elections are you watching this November?


Anonymous said...

I don't like C.O. Bradford for Harris DA.

He presided over a corrupt police force he wasn't qualified to run (, mismanaged police resources ( and his subordinates ( and then took a large chunk of taxpayer money when he left office (

His smile is also very creepy - see his picture. He should have ran against Thomas...

Anonymous said...

According to C.O. Bradford’s ex-law partner, buddy and close friend's - Lloyd Kelley - online Resume, [found here:] Bradford HAS ONLY practiced law for 2 YEARS (1993-95), ironically this was while he was an Assistant COP on HPD(how is that even possible?). I guess when he was named Chief he had to give that up.

After he 'retired' from HPD, he went to work for for Lee Brown’s cosulting group as a Senior Associate and NOT as a lawyer

…so I ask - WHEN DID CO BRADFORD FIND TIME TO GET ALL THE LEGAL EXPERIENCE TO RUN A CONTY LIKE HARRIS? He surly isn't trying to run for an office like DA on only 2 years of spotty law practice that was over a decade ago.

Anonymous said...

I got a survey call a few weeks ago about the Dallas County sheriff's race. The questions all seemed to be testing possible ad campaigns for both candidates to see what was sticking. None of the approaches really changed my mind, although some (not jail-related) made me slightly more inclined towards Valdez. I think we're faced with a choice here of someone that's trying but not doing enough and someone that might make things worse. I can only hope it doesn't get worse before the next election, and we'll have a better choice then.

Anonymous said...

In El Paso, the Democratic primary/runoff was the race. Stolz will be doing well if he gets 40% of the vote.

Stolz's current approach is to attempt to capitalize on a public corruption scandal and run as a reformer. He recently filed an ethics complaint against a city council representative that went nowhere.

Wiles skipped a recent debate, I assume to avoid giving Stolz any attention.

Wiles has continued to fight against the police union as a candidate/citizen. He spoke before city council against a new association contract that gives officers involved in a shooting a 48-hour waiting period before investigation and effectively eliminates the use of polygraph in internal affairs investigations.

There has been talk at the county of expansion of the jail annex, but I haven't followed it and it wasn't an issue during the campaign.

The most contentious issue was DA Esparza's DIMS program that avoids the use of a magistrate upon arrest. Under the program, a prosecutor receives a report upon arrest, decides whether to press charges, and--if charges will be pursued--sets bail. Wiles supports the plan; I do not know Stolz's position.

Anonymous said...

Sheriff Valdez had no previous working experience in a sheriff's office environment. What you see today at Dallas County SO is generally what happens when someone w/o SO experience is elected.

I'm a retired Texas deputy sheriff Texas with no dog in this fight. I know that experience as a municipal police officer alone does not qualify a person to be Sheriff.

And if you are going to run for sheriff, you should have some knowledge of basic jail standards, know that the proper name is SHERIFF"S OFFICE, not SHERIFF"S DEPARTMENT, and have some working knowledge of estray laws, bail bond procedures and civil process.

None of these traits did Sheriff Valdez have when she was first elected.

I know that Sheriff Valdez's opponents municipal police experience alone does not qualify him for this position. I've seen many people elected to this position who have no concept of the operations of a sheriff's office. And because of a lack of basic knowledge of SO operations, especially in jail operations, many people elected to this position are sued in the area of open records, strip search policies, mental health and suicide intake screening, wrongful terminations because of political preferences, and the list could go on and on and on.

Anonymous said...

No contested race for sheriff in Swisher County (Tulia), but Sheriff Stewart chose not to run for reelection, his deputy Benavidez had no contest in the Democratic primary, and the Republicans didn't even have a primary in Swisher County this year. Interesting that while Swisher dependably votes GOP in national elections, locally it's still a one party (Democratic) county. I don't know much about our sheriff to be Benavidez. I suspect he doesn't have the Fundamentalist zeal of Sheriff Stewart, which should/could make him a little more even hand at the tiller. For those who don't know, Sheriff Stewart was one of the prime movers in the infamous Tulia drug sting. I'm glad to see him retire. I think he could have been reelected as long as he chose to run.

Thankfully, DA McEachern (another master mind/culprit in the Tulia fiasco) was defeated in the 2004 primary for his reelection run.

Charles Kiker, Tulia

Anonymous said...

I do not really have a sense of the absence in your presence. Sorry I ran across your *GRITS*

Deb said...

You may recall Wiles was the runner up for the police chief position here in Austin over a year ago--in the eyes of the community, if not the City Manager's. You can see more about how we rated him at in the "Results from the Cluster Group" chart where we compare him to whom we did hire. (fwiw, in retrospect, our rating on the 4th on our chief was too giving, meaning Wiles might have actually turned out better).

It's good to hear we were right on with our community-minded assessment with reading Mr. Venhaus' anecdote about testifying against the 48-hour rule (which we just got in our contract, darnit). That takes some real principals.

I know Texas Civil Rights Project also had good opinions of him, especially for his improvements in relations with the mentally ill.

That he wasn't as flashy and charming as our new chief ("Hollywood" I often call him) may have been the real deciding factor in it all... we might have been better off in getting community-minded policies if we'd hired him here (grass is always greener, eh, now that the 'honeymoon's over'?).

I'd think he'd make a fine Sheriff, imho -- bringing some much needed progressive law enforcement values to west Texas.

Anonymous said...

A white Sheriff in Bexar County? When pigs fly!!! The 62% Hispanic population won't let it happen., even though McKnight is the BEST and logical choice for moving the Bexar County Sheriff's office foward!

Anonymous said...

Dennis McKnight is the far superior choice for Sherrif in Bexar County. That, unfortunately, may spell his doom.