SAN ANTONIO – Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar is keeping his promise to work mandatory overtime shifts with his deputies and detention officers until he finds a solution to a nagging manpower shortage at the Bexar County Jail.
According to the Sheriff's Office, there are currently 96 open detention officer positions, up slightly from July 2016, when 92 positions were open.
The shortage is costing the county extra money in overtime payments.
Last July, county commissioners had to sign off on an additional 17,075 hours in overtime pay at a cost of $512,000. At the time, KSAT reported, "that's more than double the amount of overtime pay budgeted for annually in an agreement between county leaders, the Bexar County Sheriff's Office and the Bexar County Deputy Sheriff's Association."
Based on data provided by the Sheriff's Office, detention officers worked 19,928.31 hours of mandatory overtime over a 13-week period from the end of October 2016 to the end of January 2017.
In his first full month in office, Salazar has also been working extra long hours on Mondays. He hopes his presence sends a message to his troops that he's not afraid to roll up his sleeves and make the same sacrifices as them.
"Typically, my day will start at about 6:45 a.m. I'll probably get off about midnight, so these are pretty long days," Salazar said. "I may not be able to take away (their) mandatory overtime for the time being, (but) I'd like to get there as an agency. In the meantime, if you're working, so am I."
Salazar is hard to miss Mondays. He said he attends each shift's roll call and updates detention officers on what's going on inside the jail and throughout the Sheriff's Office.
He said he typically splits his visits to the jail between official meetings and his other duties. He makes surprise visits to the various detention units, asking officers questions and interacting with inmates.
Salazar admits the first few weeks as sheriff have been like trying to drink from a fire hose when it comes to the learning the ropes of running a jail. He's picked some veterans to help him.
He hired Laura Balditt to be the chief deputy over detention. She's spent 30 years working in the jail. Balditt's boss, Assistant Chief Bobby Hogeland, spent 31 years with the U.S. Marshals before retiring and joining Salazar's team in late January.
"They make a very good team. She knows the rules and regulations like the back of her hand," Salazar said. "Chief Hogeland is someone I've worked around for years. When you're trying to rebuild the morale of an organization, you need people like him who are just supreme team builders."
Salazar identified low morale as a big problem when he was running for sheriff last fall. He hopes improving morale will result in less turnover and attract more recruits. He's restructuring his recruiting unit and asking Balditt to reorganize her command staff to find more officers to fill vacant positions.
"All the morale that we can improve, all of the conditions that we can improve, goes to hanging on, and then if we can recruit the right folks then, that drives our manpower up," Salazar said. "With the goal of giving (Balditt) more bodies to plug into the units with the ultimate goal of decreasing suicides, decreasing mandatory overtime and making sure the morale is where it needs to be."
Salazar's weekly jail visits give him a chance to see firsthand what's broken and gives officers an opportunity to share concerns and ideas. He said he's already taken some of their ideas and made changes.
Based on the feedback, Salazar said he's been able to identify several maintenance issues, improve food choices and even make changes to uniforms. Salazar said he was approached about getting rid of arm patches that identified detention officers.
The complaint was the patches made detention officers feel like they were not part of the same team as deputies. Instead of having one badge for "detention" and one for sheriff's deputies, everyone will wear a patch that reads "Sheriff."
"To me, that's an easy fix. It's just authorizing them to wear the sheriff patch. There really is no reason not to. Anything we can do to make their life a little bit easier, if it's manageable and it fits within our budget, then why not do it?" Salazar said. "The troops feel like they've got a voice because they bring issues to us and they get solved."
One problem Salazar said he'd like to solve is getting officers more breaks. Many officers had complained about not getting enough time to even take a bathroom break, let alone have a meal break away from their work stations in the jail.
"We're able to get the bathroom breaks back. They're able to do that. My next goal is to get them to the point where we can take a 30-minute lunch break to go eat somewhere else other than your work station," Salazar said. "If I can get that officer away from there long enough to go have a meal, they're putting their mind in neutral. They're able to reset just a bit. You know, maybe call home, check on a sick child, whatever the situation is. I want to get them away from that work station physically and psychologically and to where it lasts longer on them, and they keep their morale up."
While still in his honeymoon period, it appears Salazar's troops enjoy seeing him in the trenches, and he said they'll continue to see him.
"Just the fact that we're coming through as a command staff and saying, 'Hey, thanks for doing what you do on a daily basis.' I don't want that to change. I would like for as long as my tenure is, whether it's four years or 24 years, I want to keep doing that for them," Salazar said. "We'll never be at 100 percent staffing, but if I can get it to the point where we can at least start managing this mandatory overtime a little bit better, that's when we may slow down on our end of it. But until then, I'm with them."
Salazar's command staff will also continue working mandatory overtime shifts once a week until they find a solution to the manpower shortage. Salazar said he's also requiring his command staff to obtain a Texas Peace Officer's license and a state jailer's license if they don't already have one.
"It's just another thing that puts us in the shoes of the frontline troops," Salazar said.