Meet the Candidate: Sally Hernandez
Or, more accurately, meet the not-yet candidate who's "strongly considering" a run
In March, Greg Hamilton announced that he won't run for re-election as Travis County sheriff, a position he's held since 2004 (though last week, he announced that he may be considering another run after all). Thus far, four candidates have announced they're in the race for his seat – although one has since retracted – while County Constable Sally Hernandez is not yet in the race, but presumed to be planning to enter in December. This profile is the fourth in a series; see our interviews with candidates John Sisson, Todd Radford, and Don Rios at austinchronicle.com/elections.
It's been a busy couple of weeks in the Land of Sheriff Candidacy. Jim Sylvester, a current deputy in the Travis County Sheriff's Office, announced in late August that he's bowing out of the race to spend more time with his father, who's ill. And in a bit of surprising news, Greg Hamilton, the current sheriff who's held post for the past three terms, revealed that he may have spoken too soon on his spring announcement that he won't seek re-election. He told multiple media outlets on Wednesday, Sept. 9, that he's considering another run.
The reshuffling leaves the Democratic ticket for county sheriff with three official names, one (Hamilton) currently thinking about it, and a fifth – Sally Hernandez – "strongly considering." Hernandez's situation is peculiar. As constable for the county's third precinct, she can't officially file for sheriff candidacy until December without stepping down from her current post. Instead, she says, she's "taking this opportunity to get out and meet with community leaders and organizations, and taking advantage of the opportunity to discuss some of the problems and issues that mean a lot to them." And while her website's URL is scripted with a bit of carefulness (www.draftsally.com, as opposed to, say, www.vote4sally.com, which is still dedicated to her race for constable), the messaging throughout has a legitimate air of I'll-be-officially-running-as-soon-as-I'm-legally-allowed-to to it. Here's guessing we'll be seeing Hernandez's name on the Democratic ticket alongside Todd Radford, John Sisson, and Don Rios (and maybe Hamilton) come March 2016. In the meantime, I had a few questions for the constable who's strongly considering.
Austin Chronicle: You just published a working plan on mental health and the need for better treatment in the jails and throughout the county.
Sally Hernandez: We need to rethink how we interact with people with mental illness. We need to do a better job building and maintaining relationships with mental health services and providers. It irritates me when we call the jail a mental health facility. I really don't feel like it is. Travis County is rapidly growing, and so is our population of those with mental illness. We need to divert those who can be diverted to mental health services. Those who can't, because they pose a danger to themselves or the public, we need to provide stronger services in the jail.
AC: It's one thing to work with the correctional officers to ensure that those who get into the system are handled correctly. But there's a certain preventative measure that must be taken to ensure that people aren't getting arrested for having a mental illness.
SH: Corrections officers get a basic training on mental health. Police officers on the street get a basic, but they can also get certified as a mental health officer. The awareness is pushing us toward more training. We need [levels of training]. It needs to be done regularly and it needs to be done by people who care about this.
AC: You've advocated elsewhere for other rights of inmates in jail, whether it's rights for pregnant inmates or visitation policies. What's foremost on your list of priorities?
SH: I think [visitation] adds to the mental health problem if they can't talk with their family. I think they started [with video visitation] because of the sheer amount of people coming into the jail. It started for the right reason. But we didn't evaluate what the impact would be later on down the road.
AC: There's a lot of talk these days about the "War on Law Enforcement." How would you qualify that term, and what can be done to fix that sort of standoff?
SH: We've got to rebuild the community trust nationwide. Law enforcement is a tough job, and it's only getting tougher as we lose more trust from our community. We need body cameras. People were opposed to in-car videos, but then they realized what an asset it could be when an officer knows his or her actions are on camera. But it also helps when a [civilian] knows their actions are on camera. To build community trust, it's going to take that kind of community policing of getting out and getting involved. Precinct 3 was a failing constable's office when I took office. There are seven local police departments there, and the constable's office wasn't working with any of them – nor was it working with the community. We got in and got involved. We took it seriously. The African-American community is fearful of law enforcement. Quite frankly, law enforcement is fearful of the African-American communities. That's because of a lack of trust.
AC: You mention the African-American community. You've also been adamant in your support of the immigrant community by denouncing S-Comm and ICE. Is that part of the same conversation?
SH: I think it is. Nationwide, ICE is totally broken. Victims need to be able to feel and know that they can trust us and we care about them and we're going to do everything we can to protect them. I personally think our resources should be spent on public safety and mental health [rather] than helping ICE enforce misdemeanors.