Meet the Candidate: John Sisson
Sheriff candidate calls for end to S-Comm
In March, Greg Hamilton announced that he won't run for re-election as Travis County sheriff, a position he's held since 2004. Thus far, four candidates have announced they're in the race for his seat. The Chronicle will visit with each candidate through the summer.
John Sisson spent over 30 years with the Austin Police Department before retiring as a lieutenant in 2009. After a brief run as an investigator with the Texas Workforce Commission, he became a deputy in Precinct 3 Constable Richard McCain's office. In 2012, Sisson ran against Sheriff Hamilton on an anti-Secure Communities platform (see "New Name; Same Game," July 10). "It destroys families, destroys young adult lives, and destroys a community," Sisson said about the federal initiative, under which local law enforcement agencies honor U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) requests to detain certain immigrant arrestees for 48 hours after they would have otherwise been released, in order for ICE to have time to check their immigration status and assume custody.
"When you do something like this, you lose the trust of the people," says Sisson. "You lost the trust of the immigrant population. I worked around the minority community [with APD]. We'd get calls about immigrants being robbed or having their money taken, because they didn't trust banks or the police. I feel like that trust went away when S-Comm came out." No surprise he's hinging his hopes for this election on the same issue.
Austin Chronicle: What does opposing S-Comm and PEP look like in practice for a sheriff?
John Sisson: The sheriff's department is not in the business of doing ICE's job. As sheriff, I will do my own job. I will do my best to protect the citizens [of Travis County] from any threat or anyone who poses any threats. This program destroys families, destroys lives, costs taxpayers money.
All the counties and states that have opted out, my understanding is that you just end the voluntary relationship with ICE. There's a memo of understanding between the sheriff's department and ICE that says you'll help [ICE] out. What I want to do as sheriff is end that participation and allow everybody – even immigrants – the due process of law that they deserve. Put policies into place and assist other agencies. You'd work with ICE like you'd work with the FBI, the police departments. But your job is to not bring ICE into the jail, let them have an office in the jail, and hold every immigrant, no matter how minor the violation is.
For too long, our sheriff's department has not had a compassion in their leadership for people. We're talking about immigration, visitation. My mom is an immigrant from Amsterdam and a Holocaust survivor. Talking to her, I know how hard it was for her when she first came over – to survive in a land that's strange to them, with a language that's strange to them.
Travis County had the highest rate, or pretty close, of deportations in the United States. [Editor's note: In 2010, Travis County had the highest rate of noncriminal deportations.] I want to create a new reputation for the sheriff's department that's more compassionate, more liberal, and for the people. If you implement a program, and the people don't like it, you get input from the people.
AC: You've been an outspoken opponent of video visitation practices. The Texas Legislature recently passed HB 549, which should cut down on the severity of those practices by requiring correctional complexes to allow inmates two free 20-minute in-person visits each week. How do you plan to change video visitation should you be elected?
JS: I will do whatever I can to work with the Commissioners Court to bring back in-person visitation. If I had it my way, I'd say that people should be able to visit their loved ones any time they want. If the resources allow that, then yes. I don't feel like you should limit them to two 20-minute [sessions]. There are circumstances that come up. The prisoner might get depressed, or he may have a personal family problem that he needs to talk to his family about. You have to play it by ear.
AC: Where else will you focus?
JS: I'm concerned with the mental health and the medical issues within the jails. The sheriff's department will tell you it has one of the best mental health facilities around. I disagree with that. There was a story in the Austin Monitor that explained how a company came in and did an assessment and basically said the sheriff's department had enough beds and adequate personnel, but they don't manage it well enough such that there are enough beds for mental health patients. As sheriff, I want to create an atmosphere that treats the mental health patients with dignity and adequate care.
Another thing is the diversity in the ranks. I feel that the current diversity doesn't reflect the community that we live in. There are 12 positions appointed by the sheriff, from captain on up. Recently, the sheriff put in three Hispanic males and two females. Before that, there was only one or two females and maybe one Hispanic. This does not reflect our community, especially when it comes to women on the force. They have almost 1,700 employees, and 30% are female. But out of the 215 supervisors, only 20% are female. Austin has a lot more women in the population than 30%. I'm going to diversify the ranks from top to bottom to reflect the community.