Sheriff Who?

Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez was a revolutionary candidate--as a leader, not so much

"I suggested to her that she have some type of public statement during the AIS scandal," Plata says. "She said something derogatory about the public. I said, 'You better remember who put you there.'"

Plata wouldn't reveal what exactly Valdez said, but he's clearly soured on his friend and former client. "She's closed the door to a lot of folks. She's very hard-headed," he says.

But while Valdez was avoiding the public eye, she was doing what she could to deal with the mess behind the scenes. At the height of the AIS foul-up, when the county might have been better served recording its criminal information on Post-It Notes, Valdez was working alongside first-year deputies, relocating inmates whose information was lost in the system. "She just stepped up and said, 'What needs to be done?' And someone said, 'Well, these guys need to be moved to the West Tower,' and she just did it," says Ben Roberts, the president of the Dallas Sheriff's Fraternal Order of Police. "There were guys who had been there for 15 years and they couldn't pick Bowles out of a line-up."

Mark Graham
Criminal defense attorney Deandra Grant says that the 
sheriff was not up to the job, which is why Dallas 
County's troubled jail system hasn't improved on her 
Mark Graham
Criminal defense attorney Deandra Grant says that the sheriff was not up to the job, which is why Dallas County's troubled jail system hasn't improved on her watch.

Still, Roberts acknowledges that the rank-and-file would have liked Valdez to publicly address the situation. "We thought she should be out there, but she didn't think it was necessary to be public about it."

Scott Chase, a recent candidate for county commissioner who served on Valdez's transition team, says that the sheriff had her reasons for not coming out in front of the AIS issue. "I think a lot of her advisors thought she should have been more aggressive stating what the facts are," he says. "But she's not that confrontational a person, and to get out in front of it she would have gotten crosswise with the commissioners who control her budget."

There are times, however, when a sheriff has to be confrontational for the good of her department. A county employee says, with astonishment, that Valdez has never given first-person feedback to the commissioners court about the still-troubled AIS program. Nor did she ever talk to them personally about UTMB even as allegations continued that inmates were not receiving medication. Peritz says Valdez has a liaison to the court on both AIS and UTMB issues. "They spoke for the sheriff at her instruction," he says.

The department's various unions also touch on the theme of Valdez's low profile. For many, Executive Chief Jesse Flores, hired by Valdez last November, has become the go-to guy. "We've been cut off from the sheriff," says Roberts, who likes Valdez. "We're to take all our concerns to the executive chief, but in our opinion that's not such a bad thing. He's a real decision-maker."

Interestingly, the minority unions at the Sheriff's Department are the most troubled by her leadership style. "She's not accessible at all," says Mark Robinson, president of the Dallas County Peace Officers, a largely African-American union. "She doesn't have an open-door policy, which is what we were accustomed to."

The National Latino Peace Officers Association's Dallas chapter feuded with the county's first Latina sheriff last year after claiming that the department's DWI task force selectively targeted Hispanic neighborhoods, resulting in a disproportionate number of Hispanic drivers being arrested for drunken driving. Even Anglo officers have complained that the task force was unfairly going after Hispanics, in part because they were less likely to contest the charges. Peritz says the department ordered an investigation of the union's claims and found them to be unfounded, but the Dallas chapter insists that a problem exists. "This pattern is deeply disturbing, as is your repeated refusal to take corrective measures," reads a letter from a union official to Valdez. "Sheriff Valdez, it is far more irresponsible to allow your deputies to abuse the public trust. It is far more troubling that you have let nearly a year go by without rectifying this situation."

The theme of Valdez's lack of hands-on management style came up again this week when the county auditor's office released the Sheriff's Department's overtime expenses for the first half of the 2006 fiscal year. From October 2005 to March 2006, the department had nearly 35 detention service officers earn more than $15,000 each in overtime, almost as much as they earned in non-overtime pay. One jail employee made an incredible $35,000 in overtime pay for the six-month period, with two others making more than $20,000.

Peritz explains that the department has been forced to pay overtime costs in order to adequately staff the jail and keep up with state standards. Dallas County Commissioner Ken Mayfield, however, says that the department is just about fully staffed and that Valdez, not unlike her predecessor, is paying scant attention to overtime costs.

"Overtime is just ridiculous. These numbers are just ridiculous," Mayfield says. "There's very little management being exercised."

After it became clear that the health care crisis at the jail was not going to magically disappear, the U.S. Justice Department announced in November that it would investigate health and sanitation at the jail. Justice, which finished the bulk of its investigation earlier this spring, is expected to deliver its strongest words about the county's former medical provider, UTMB. The department also will likely single out the county's malfunctioning computer system for sanction. It's not clear what exactly they're going to tell us about our sheriff, although Justice Department investigators have noted problems with the operation of the jail as well, according to a county employee. In any case, whether the Department of Justice chooses to apportion blame among Valdez, the medical provider and county or if it just brands them together as a part of a monolithic jail-health industrial complex, few people expect that the agency will merely slap everyone's collective wrist.
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