Put to the Test

For Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez, the summer of 2006 could define the rest of her political career, as she'll be forced to retake a licensing test, come up with a plan to quell her department's rising overtime costs and mollify the subtle criticism of her qualifications for the job.

Last week was a tough one for Valdez, as news broke on the Dallas Observer's blog Unfair Park that she failed a mandatory licensing test that the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Education (TCLEOSE) requires of all officers of the law, from the lowest-ranking deputy to the sheriff herself. Valdez scored a 66, a mere four points away from a passing score. Despite enduring a rather public embarrassment, the typically reclusive sheriff didn't duck accountability, answering questions from the press and quickly vowing to retake the test.

"Now I have an idea of what to expect and will challenge the test again in the first or second week in June, in which time I expect to pass," she said.

But it's not going to be that easy. TCLEOSE told the Observer last week that the sheriff was not even eligible to take the licensing test in the first place. She failed to show the proctor who administered the exam that she completed a basic peace officer's class during her federal law enforcement career--a requirement for taking the exam. The sheriff's office now says that they mistakenly thought Valdez only needed an endorsement from the department's training academy to take the test, and she is now retrieving documentation from her former employer, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, that she claims will satisfy TCLEOSE.

Interestingly, if she is not able to do that, Valdez will have to attend a basic peace officer course that could last around four to six months, setting up the awkward scenario of the sheriff sitting behind a desk in a classroom of 18-year-old police recruits. More important, it could make it impossible for Valdez to pass the test before her deadline at the end of the year, which could result in her being removed from office. That may be a remote possibility, but that it exists at all is something that Valdez can't blame on anyone but herself.

Making matters even worse for the sheriff is that TCLEOSE is looking into how she was able to take the test without the proper documentation. Frank Woodall, the director of education and training for the commission, was clearly irritated at the testing snafu and said that his agency is conducting an "ongoing investigation" into what happened. He wouldn't say whether the sheriff's office or the outside proctor who administered the exam is the target of the inquiry.

A surprising development to come out of the news of Valdez's failed test was a remark from Dallas County Judge Margaret Keliher about the lack of defined qualifications for the position of sheriff. Keliher, a Republican who last year pushed for increased funding for the jail and higher pay for Sheriff's Department employees, said that state lawmakers need to outline basic requirements for the office of sheriff in the same way that they do for judges.

"You ought to know how to run a jail; you ought to know jail standards; you ought to be able to know the law; you need some managerial experience," she told the Observer.

Although not mentioning the sheriff by name, Keliher seemed exasperated by the department's troubles of late. While Valdez inherited a troubled sheriff's office, besieged by bad morale and scandal, she has struggled to turn the department around. The Dallas County jail, already the target of a U.S. Justice Department investigation, has failed two consecutive inspections with the state and is the subject of numerous federal lawsuits. In addition, earlier this month, she appeared before a skeptical Dallas County Commissioners Court to explain why her department's overtime costs are millions of dollars over budget. Last week Valdez announced a plan to create a new bureau in her department to monitor the jail and overtime expenditures, but the commissioners were dubious. "The problem is when you have a jail that's not certified and overtime right now that is so excessive, and now you have not passing the TCLEOSE test," Keliher said. "It highlights the fact that there needs to be some qualifications for you to be sheriff of certain-sized counties."

Whether or not Keliher is merely trying to rile up her Republican base in anticipation of a harder-than-expected re-election campaign against unknown Democratic challenger Jim Foster, the county judge's remarks are the strongest criticism of the sheriff yet from a public official. Don Peritz, a spokesman for the department, says that Valdez had no comment on the judge's statements.

The sheriff's supporters were trying to put the best possible spin on Valdez's test results, although they clearly are concerned. "On the one hand, it's obvious she has to take the test and she has to pass it," says Randy Mayeux, a political communications consultant who worked on Valdez's campaign. "On the other hand, from what I can gather on what she's done as sheriff, she has worked nonstop to settle problems dealing with the jail."

If the sheriff qualifies to retake the test and fails it again, expect criticism of Valdez to reach a fever pitch. Already, department and county employees complain that morale is dreadful at the sheriff's office, with one local law enforcement Web site already inundated with anonymous sniping at Valdez's exam saga. There's also a rather clumsy joke about the sheriff making the rounds at the department that plays off her groundbreaking election in November 2004 as the first Hispanic and female sheriff in Dallas County. "The joke today was that Lupe is a woman of firsts, and now she is the first sheriff to flunk her TCLEOSE test," says one department employee.

That's not exactly high comedy, but if the sheriff keeps on stumbling, the jokes, funny or not, will keep on coming.