They Shot the Sheriff

Only two years ago, Lupe Valdez was an obscure candidate for sheriff, pledging to reform a department marked by scandals and plunging morale. At the midpoint of her first term, however, Valdez's decision not to fire one of her top chiefs for keeping an automatic weapon in his storage cabinet is inciting the same kinds of criticism from her rank and file that dogged her predecessor Jim Bowles.

Last month, the sheriff demoted Assistant Chief Deputy Larry Locke for not following proper procedures when a Thompson submachine gun was turned over to him a few years earlier. Locke did not sign the gun into the agency's property room and instead secured it in a locker, because, he said, he feared someone in the department might steal it. According to several accounts, Valdez's highest-ranking employee, Executive Chief Deputy Jesse Flores, wanted to fire Locke after the internal affairs investigation into the incident ended, but the sheriff chose a milder course.

Coming around the same time Dallas Police Chief David Kunkle fired an officer for absconding with a few rolls of toilet paper, Valdez's gentler brand of discipline has incited cries of a double standard from many of the department's employee groups.

"There's a lot of turmoil over this right now," says Ben Roberts, president of the Dallas Sheriff's Fraternal Order of Police, who had been very supportive of the sheriff. "I guarantee you, if this were me, I would be fired."

While police and sheriff's associations are notoriously grumpy--Kunkle isn't exactly adored by his employee groups either--their complaints about money and discipline are often self-serving. This time, the department's main labor groups are protesting a decision the sheriff made about a member of her command staff that won't have any direct effect on their livelihoods.

At first blush, it seems as if many of their complaints are overstated. The case against Locke is not as clear-cut as they suggest and, besides, Valdez is hardly the first boss to go easy on a long-term employee who otherwise has a clean record. But for several reasons, the sheriff has a slim margin of error. From her recent failure to pass a state police licensing exam on the first try to her lack of any type of managerial experience in her federal law enforcement career, Valdez doesn't have a surplus of credibility at her shop. Her oft-repeated campaign pledge to be an agent of change also has come back to haunt her.

"The sheriff got elected saying she was going to end the good old boy system," says Stan Thedford, president of the Dallas County Sheriffs Association. "She made a lot of campaign promises about fairness and equality. And we're waiting for her to do it."

Thedford adds that while Valdez means well, she doesn't understand the scope and demands of public office.

"She's not a mean-spirited person; she's so far in over her head," he says. "I've heard her say, 'I'll file charges against someone if I hear they're talking to the press.'"

Surprisingly, given Valdez's stature as the county's highest-ranking Hispanic official, the sharpest criticism of the sheriff and how she handled Locke's discipline comes from the local chapter of the National Latino Peace Officers Association. Mike Ramirez, who serves as the second vice president of the group, says that the sheriff badly mishandled the Locke investigation, chiefly by not handing it off to an outside agency. Given that Locke was a member of the sheriff's command staff as well as a campaign contributor, the department should not have been investigating one of its highest-ranking employees, he says.

"Her inexperience is what is getting her in these jams," says Ramirez, whose association has filed a grievance against Valdez, claiming civil service rules don't allow her to demote Locke one rank. "Our department is going downhill fast."

Ramirez also cites other issues with the sheriff, including how she failed the mandatory state licensing exam and then blamed a subsequent bureaucratic snafu--turns out she hadn't turned in the right paperwork to take the test--on an underling. Also, on the heels of Locke's discipline for not turning over a submachine gun, the department is investigating the disappearance of two other guns. All law enforcement departments contend with these sorts of issues, but like many of his peers, Ramirez is not willing to give the sheriff the benefit of the doubt.

"There is a lot of unethical behavior in our department, and it's not being addressed properly," he says. "It's not that she's hiding it, but her lack of experience on how to run a department of our size is bringing us down."

Amazingly, while the sheriff's decision not to fire Locke has angered her subordinates, it hasn't exactly stopped Locke himself from taking shots at Valdez. Although Valdez referred to Locke as "a friend" in her public statement announcing his demotion, he turned around and portrayed her as an absentee sheriff in an interview with KDFW-Channel 4 news last week. He also blasted her for demoting him at all given the circumstances of why he had the gun in the first place.

He reiterated his story of innocence to the Dallas Observer, saying that he kept the gun in his storage cabinet on the orders of his direct supervisor. Larry Forsyth, then the executive chief deputy, told Locke to lock it up and keep it safe, he says. Locke says it was no secret he had been storing the gun in his storage cabinet. The department lawyer, Leslie Sweet, knew exactly where it was, he says.

"I'm going to do everything I can do to show that I didn't do anything wrong. The gun was never lost and was always in the care, custody and control of the Dallas County Sheriff's Department," he says. "I'll go through whatever I've got to, go as far I have to go. That's how much it means to me."

Locke did acknowledge that were it up to Flores, he'd no longer have a job.

"He told me I could resign or be terminated, and I responded, 'You must be out of your mind,'" he says.

If Locke's account is true, that still doesn't put him in the clear. Once Valdez was elected sheriff, why didn't he immediately tell her about the gun? Here Locke's story might not win a lot of people over.

"I bet you there was a period of time I didn't open the cabinet for a year and a half," says Locke, who has filed a grievance protesting the findings of the investigation. "I wasn't thinking about that gun."

Because of the murky circumstances surrounding the case, the department's employee groups have filed public records requests to review the investigative file on Locke. In short, this is a mess that's not going away. (Valdez declined to comment about the Locke investigation and the subsequent outcry.)

The Locke imbroglio comes on the heels of another incident that roused the department's employee groups. Last month, Jesse Flores met with the executive board of directors for the Dallas County Sheriffs Association after rumors spread that he talked about wanting to replace "white faces with brown faces" and that he wished to turn the department into the Alamo, only without the bloodshed. He explained to them that his comments were misunderstood and taken out of context. Here is the story he shared with us, which was first published on the Observer's blog, Unfair Park:

A few months ago, he was speaking in Spanish to a Hispanic employee about his ancestors. Flores was regaling her with a tale of how his distant relatives fought for Texas against Mexican troops at the Alamo and that "both brown faces and white faces" lost their lives. Another Spanish-speaking employee heard that story, Flores says, and took it out of context, perhaps interpreting it as a modern-day battle cry rather than a clumsy homage to diversity.

"I have never in my life discriminated against anybody because of their color, religion or ethnicity," he said at the time.

In fact, Flores is well-liked by many of the same employee groups who are critical of the sheriff, but they say Valdez's decision to overrule him on Locke limits his effectiveness. How can they believe what he tells them if they don't know whether he and the sheriff agree? Regardless of whether their concerns are justified or not, the department's employee groups are not happy with their boss.

"I wouldn't say that morale is as low as it was when Bowles was here, but I've heard people say that," Thedford says. "She's not a bad person; she's just not capable of doing this."

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Matt Pulle
Contact: Matt Pulle