SAN ANTONIO – Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar believes consistency has been lacking when it comes to the way deputies and detention officers have been disciplined at the Bexar County Sheriff's Office.
"Consistency is the key to handling any discipline in a large organization like the Bexar County Sheriff's Office," Salazar said. "When I came in and saw that there was so much inconsistency in that process, it's just something that I couldn't allow to continue to happen."
Salazar is making sweeping changes to the disciplinary process, tapping into his experience from the San Antonio Police Department when he worked in internal affairs and the public integrity unit.
"If you're not handling things consistently, you're allowing the appearance of your discipline process being arbitrary and capricious," Salazar said. "One of our top priorities is revamping that entire process."
When deputies and detention officers violate rules and procedures or commit crimes, they're issued suspensions and sometimes even fired.
One of them, former BCSO Deputy Anthony Thomas, was fired after a deadly road-rage incident back in 2013 that claimed the life of 29-year-old Matthew Jackson.
Thomas was indicted in the case and a jury found him not guilty of murder in 2016. He is now eligible to return to the department if he agrees to terms issued by Salazar. The department said Thomas is not currently employed by BCSO.
Salazar said cases such as Thomas' require two separate and concurrent investigations: a criminal investigation and an administrative investigation.
"If for some reason one is handled and there's a whole bunch of effort put into, say, the criminal investigation, and the administrative investigation wasn't handled to that level, they just kind of took this one and put a cover sheet on it, well you're asking for some trouble at that point. Because if the criminal case goes away for whatever reason now there goes your administrative case, as well," Salazar said. "But if you handle both equally but separately through the same level of care, they're allowed to stand on their own merits and that is where you achieve that consistency that's so needed in this system."
Looking back at old discipline cases, Salazar said he noticed supervisors were using outdated forms, inconsistent language and procedures when doling out punishments.
Deputies accused of the same violation often faced drastically different punishments.
"Knowing that these cases are eventually going to find their way to an arbitrator, or even into a court of law, that sort of inconsistency, that sort of arbitrariness, can't be allowed to stand and so you're going to lose those cases," Salazar said. "Discipline may not stand, criminal cases may not stand, and you may end up losing those cases, and having to bring people back into an organization (where they) have already proven that they can't be part of that organization. The danger is when you're forced to do that, you may be bringing a problem back to the agency that doesn't need to exist."
Salazar has now transferred the power to discipline deputies from first-line supervisors including sergeants and given it to his command staff.
The department has also created a guide to help them as they decide on appropriate punishments and are now relying on the District Attorney's office to review cases that may rise to a criminal level.
"We can't be comparing apples to oranges. It needs to be an apples-to-apples approach and this matrix is going to help us do that. It's going to help us standardize the level of punishment for any given offense," Salazar said. "We're making sure that we're not moving forward on higher cases of discipline without (the D.A.'s) guidance because again, they're the ones that have to defend it after a certain point and so yeah, sure, why wouldn't you want them involved in that process?"
Juan Contreras, president of the Deputy Sheriff's Association of Bexar County, the union that represents deputies, said he agrees the disciplinary process needed some improvement. He just wants it to be fair.
"I believe we are both on the same page. We both understand that there is a need for discipline, and we both understand that it should be fair and consistent and it should be dealt with everyone that's under uniform and not just certain people, so I believe we're in agreement on that," Contreras said. "It's kind of hard to use corrective action on an individual when two people do the same thing, you give one a harsher punishment than the other, then you're not correcting the problem, you're just making a more disgruntled employee. When everybody gets treated the same then you can actually focus on corrective action and not pinning one person against another."
Salazar said the process is just another step he's taking to improve the Sheriff's Office.
"If you can't effectively police yourselves then society is going to have to do it for you, a court of law is going to have to do it for you," Salazar said. "I (would rather) do it correctly the first time out."
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