Meet the Candidate: Don Rios

Longtime TCSO officer runs for sheriff

Don Rios (Courtesy of Spank Mills)

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 through the summer. See our interview with John Sisson in our July 17 issue, and with Todd Radford in the July 31 issue.

Austin native Don Rios has been with the Travis County Sheriff's Office for 23 years, the entirety of his career in law enforcement, having worked under Dan Richards, Terry Keel, Margo Frasier, and now Sheriff Hamilton. He started as a corrections officer, and for the past seven years has worked as a county sergeant. He's seen the way the office has evolved from a number of different vantage points and believes he's the right candidate to adapt it moving forward.

"I think we can improve the trust in our community and accountability with employees," he said. "Hiring a diverse work force is going to be one of the priorities, along with the new training academy. It starts with the training academy, where we can train to de-escalate situations and build trust within the community. Morale in the office is currently low, and that affects our community. Our officers deal with community members, and you don't want them to be working on low morale."

Austin Chronicle: You've had a long time to see the way that things work, and worked under four different sheriffs. What are the more systemic changes you'd implement to make the office more efficient and better prepared?

Don Rios: I want to establish a sheriff's advisory board. I'd be the first sheriff to do that, and I'm the only candidate talking about that. What I'm envisioning is having the Travis County Commissioners each appoint someone to the board, along with myself. This will allow the community to have direct contact with myself and the command staff.

AC: What do you mean by "accountability with your employees"?

DR: Law enforcement agencies, in general, retain officers who should be fired. We have officers who break the law and are untruthful at times. That's unacceptable. Not only does that break the trust of the employees, it affects the trust employees have in their leadership. Nobody wants that in our office. Not everybody responds to corrective measures, either. I think, too often, officers are being allowed to resign instead [of getting fired]. That only moves the problem to someone else's community, where they get employed with another office. I want to show our community that we won't hire those officers, and we won't allow our officers to resign when there's a charge pending.

AC: The big issue among candidates right now is ICE and the Secure Communities program. How do you plan to handle that should you be elected sheriff?

DR: Since the beginning I've said that my top priority is getting rid of ICE. We haven't been dealing with immigration nationwide the way that we should. That's why you see over 200 cities not complying with ICE detainers. When I'm elected, I won't either. Not only does it tear the families apart, it causes the community to mistrust law enforcement. It's also a violation of the Fourth Amendment. The detainers are not probable cause.

As far as keeping ICE out of the jail, my leadership is going to be about bringing people together and bringing elected officials together. That's why, when I'm elected, I'm going to sit down with Judge Eckhardt, Mayor Adler, and County Attorney David Escamilla and truly talk about this issue. Leadership isn't just "I'm going to get rid of ICE." It's bringing the people together and having a policy that reflects our wants and needs.

AC: It's also your intention to preserve (or, in some cases, bring back) in-person visitation at county jails.

DR: When I started in 1992, I started in Building 1 [at the Travis County Correctional Complex]. We had in-person visitation. I watched children come into the jails and hug and play with their parents. I saw the inmates respond. I know there were positive benefits for the inmates and the family members visiting. I believe there are instances in which video visitation is helpful. It can be positive. We don't need one or the other. It's a mixture of the two.

AC: You've been very vocal about putting a clamp on mass incarceration. How do you swiftly influence that issue on a local level?

DR: One thing that pops to mind is speaking with the judges and assuring them that they can take steps to keep people out of the jail. A lot of the people in jail just don't have the money to hire an attorney or post bond to get out. We're talking about the non-violent offenders here. The judges need to take more steps to [issue] people more personal bonds. When you start having those discussions with the judges, I think that's when we'll start making a difference.

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Don Rios, Travis County Sheriff, ICE, Secure Communities Program, March 2016 Election, November 2016 Election

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