It Ain't Mayberry

Sheriff Candidates Focus on Prisons and Patrol

Local attorney Margo Frasier was just 23 years old when she became the Travis County Jail's first female shift supervisor in 1977. Not long after settling into her new job, a couple of the 10 male corrections officers she oversaw put her through a little test. As she stood by one of the cell blocks, two guards stationed down the hall set loose a hulking, mentally ill prisoner who was serving time for multiple rapes. "This guy was nude, covered in feces, screaming at the top of his lungs -- sexual things -- he didn't get to see many women," Frasier recalls. "So they purposely let him go after me. I wasn't sure how far they would let it go. This guy could have killed me."

In a calm voice, Frasier stopped the prisoner dead in his tracks. "I told him his grandmother, whom I had let visit him the Sunday before, would be very disappointed in his behavior. We'd had such a nice talk," Frasier laughs. To the offending officers, she issued a warning: "Okay, I passed the test. Don't let there be another."

The other candidate for Travis County Sheriff, Alvin Shaw, who is currently serving as Chief Deputy under Sheriff Terry Keel, is also no stranger to breaking barriers: he was one of the first African-Americans to rise to the ranks of lieutenant in the Austin Police Department. He may have similar stories regarding his 18-year career at APD, but he won't share any anecdotes with the Chronicle -- he refuses a personal interview because, he explains, the paper showed bias when it chose not to endorse a Sheriff's candidate in the Republican primary last March. (Shaw's comments for this article were taken from candidates' forums and a meeting he attended last February with the Chronicle editorial board.)

Both candidates are looking to make history in Travis County this November. If Democrat Frasier becomes sheriff, she will be the first woman to do so. If Republican Shaw wins, he will be the first African-American.

Shaw, 45, is a veteran law enforcement officer who worked his way up through the ranks at APD from 1974 to 1992, before being plucked by Keel to become his chief administrative officer four years ago. While at the police department, Shaw, whose buttoned-down corporate demeanor belies his crime-fighting experience, was the lieutenant in charge of a wide range of assignments, including youth services, narcotics, child abuse, patrol, and robbery/homicide. He also served as field training coordinator and commander of the Austin area regional drug abuse task force, and the street drug narcotics task force. Among the accomplishments of which Shaw is most proud since joining the sheriff's office is his and Keel's successful battle with the Travis County commissioner's Court to increase staffing levels. "Since I've been in the sheriff's office we have increased law enforcement by 45 positions, increased corrections by 97 positions, and support personnel by 33," Shaw says, adding that the increases translate into more time off for officers.

Shaw also credits his and Keel's administration for decreasing the time it takes officers to respond to both emergency and non-emergency calls, and he says that a change the administration made in shift times allows the office to put more officers on the streets during peak hours. Shaw's campaign literature also boasts that while he's been at the sheriff's office, the administration quadrupled the victim's assistance unit, put inmates to work and placed them in tents during the 1993-94 overcrowding crisis, and created a special auto theft unit with a 90% recovery rate.

Shaw says that if elected, he will implement a plan he helped forge to decrease staffing needs at the Del Valle prison by connecting the myriad buildings at the site with secure corridors so prisoners can walk between buildings unescorted. That would feed into another of his top priorities, he says, which is putting more officers on street patrol. Of the department's 1100 employees, about 600 are in corrections and 100 are on patrol.

Currently a partner at the high-dollar law firm of Bickerstaff, Heath & Smiley, the frank-talkin' Frasier, 43, has specialized in representing law enforcement agencies throughout the state on criminal justice matters over the past 11 years. The Travis County Sheriff's office has been among her clients, and Frasier takes credit for helping to acquire "an appropriation from the state that allowed counties to build emergency housing like those emergency beds [in tents at the county prison] in Del Valle that Keel likes to talk about so much." Before going to law school, Frasier worked her way up through Travis County's jail system to become the first female captain in the Sheriff's Department from 1977 to 1982.

While Shaw's literature stresses that he is the only candidate with contemporary corrections experience, Frasier points out that Shaw never worked at the Sheriff's Office until Keel hired him away from APD in 1992, and thus has very little hands-on experience running the jail system. "What I've been doing for 20 years is directly related to the biggest job of the Sheriff, which is running the prison system," Frasier says. "I can return home to the Sheriff's Office and spot where there is tremendous waste in the jail system and know how to run it much more humanely and efficiently." Nearly 80% of the Sheriff's $50 million budget is spent on the jail system.

Among the innovative programs Frasier says she instituted while working at the Del Valle jail is the county's first work release program, to allow deadbeat dads to continue to work to make child support payments. She says that the prison's crop program -- which Shaw refers to in his campaign literature -- began under her watch, as did the practice of linking the work that inmates do, to their gaining certain privileges -- a popular idea that had been difficult to enact because of constitutional restraints.

Frasier says that if elected, she will save $1.5 million by finding alternatives to hauling the hundreds of prisoners who are transported from Del Valle to the downtown courthouse every day only to find that most of their cases have been put off or took only minutes to be disposed.

One of the issues that both candidates agree on is that, once in office, they would run things very differently from current Sheriff Keel, the lone Republican officeholder in Travis County, who bowed out of a seemingly sure reelection bid to seek District 47's state representative seat. But while Frasier criticizes Keel for his tendency to attract costly lawsuits and his intimidating management style, not surprisingly, Chief Deputy Shaw, Keel's current second-in-command, defends his boss. "I think that for the most part, the community is extremely happy with the sheriff's office. We were the first in county government to develop a strategic plan to build for the future in terms of where we wanted to go," Shaw says. "Most important of all is we have improved the image of the sheriff's office."

To much of the public, that heightened image is due to Keel's determined, and in his view heroic, efforts last year to force attorney Nona Byington to reveal where her client buried the body of an infant victim. But for many of the 1100 Travis County sheriff's employees, the case is merely a symbol of how the current sheriff treats his employees -- with fear tactics and intimidation.

Shaw, who won an Outstanding Texan Award from the state's Legislative Black Caucus in 1993, makes it clear that his management style differs greatly from his boss's. "Keel's style, be it right or wrong, or whatever, is extremely hands on, sometimes impulsive, and very tenacious," Shaw says. "My management style on the other hand -- I'm a delegator. I believe in empowerment, in pushing decisions down, and I really hope people can come to me with problems and recommend solutions, so our management style is different."

Frasier isn't buying it. "He's got to decide whether he is Keel or not," she says. "He says he's different. But when given the opportunity, how has he acted? Like Terry Keel."

Specifically, Frasier is referring to a decision Shaw made last year to fire sheriff's officer Benny Cureton. Shaw wanted to oust Cureton, then a jail employee, for anonymously forwarding an internal memo to County Judge Bill Aleshire, with whom Sheriff Keel has had several well-publicized run-ins regarding budget requests. The memo warned supervisors to withhold information from county commissioners and Aleshire when contacted, and to notify a specific captain when such calls come in. When Cureton, who is president of the Travis County Sheriff's Officers' Association, was called in by Shaw and asked if he had released the document, he immediately admitted that he had. But what bothered Shaw was the conversation that followed. "My question [to Cureton] was: `If you didn't think you were doing something wrong in sharing an internal document, regardless of the contents, with someone from the outside, why did you do it anonymously?" Shaw recalls. "And (Cureton) couldn't answer. And that he was wrong for."

Shaw told me in a taped interview last February that "It was not my recommendation that in fact we fire Cureton." But at a later civil service hearing, Shaw admitted that he had recommended precisely that. Keel subsequently demoted Cureton, an 18-year department veteran with a degree in criminal justice management, to kitchen duty and stripped him of his peace officer's certification. Cureton is suing Keel for the loss of his commission in the wake of the demotion, and, in a separate suit, for union-busting in connection with firings that took place following the circulation among employees of an anonymous newsletter.

Frasier says that her management approach will mirror the tack she took when she was asked in 1981 to revamp what was then the downtown jail. "What I did at the time is what I intend to do if I'm elected sheriff: Sit down, and ask (employees) three questions: `What's right about this place? What's wrong about this place? And what are the first three things you need to do to improve this place?'" That approach earned Frasier the title of Correctional Officer of the Year in 1981 from the National Jail Association.

Needless to say, the Sheriff's Officers' Association, headed by Cureton, has endorsed Frasier. Both candidates readily debate the significance of that. Shaw points out that only a fraction of the employees actually voted in the association's endorsement process, and "they were disgruntled." He says, "There's an inherent conflict between labor and management... and associations make decisions based upon me and mine... I have to consider what's best for the organization as a whole." Frasier says the endorsement proves that the employees "want a change," from the Keel/Shaw administration, and will therefore work better with her.

Frasier also received the unofficial endorsement of her fellow Democrat, Judge Aleshire, who predicts that taxpayers will be a lot better off with a lawyer than an ex-police lieutenant who worked for Keel. "We spent more money settling lawsuits during the Keel/Shaw administration than in the history of this county," Aleshire says. "It's time for us to return to a civil, working relationship with the Sheriff."

The Austin Police Association, on the other hand, endorsed Shaw. Shaw "wants to take a hard-line on juvenile issues," explains Sean Mannix, the APA's political action committee chair. "We already have a good working relationship with him."

What makes him the best equipped to lead the sheriff's office into the next century, Shaw says, is his three-pronged experience: in law enforcement as a patrol officer at APD; in management as an APD lieutenant and, most recently, as Keel's chief administrator; and in corrections as supervisor of the largest inmate labor project in Travis County history while at the sheriff's office. "It's a job I know, I like, I've done, and I want," he says.

Frasier, 43, is quick to disagree about whose experience is truly the most valuable: "When I was with the department I spent most of my time in a policy-making position," she says. "That, quite frankly, is something new to Alvin... No one runs Keel's office but Terry Keel."

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