SAN ANTONIO – Editor’s note: This story is part of a series reporting on the latest Bexar Facts poll. Find more coverage on our Bexar Facts page. You can also find more election news on our Vote 2020 page.
Javier Salazar is seeking to become the first sheriff in Bexar County to be re-elected since 2004, and the odds appear to be in his favor according to the results of a new Bexar Facts-KSAT-San Antonio Report poll.
Salazar, 49, a Democrat, narrowly defeated Susan Pamerleau in the 2016 election. He will face Republican challenger Gerard “Gerry” Rickhoff in the November election.
In the recent Bexar Facts-KSAT-San Antonio Report poll, more than 600 registered Bexar County voters were asked by phone and internet who they would vote for in the sheriff’s race this November.
Salazar had 59% of the vote compared to 27% for Rickhoff, with 14% still undecided. Salazar was helped in the poll by 29% of Republicans and 50% of independents who said they plan to vote for him.
Prior to winning four years ago, Salazar had never run for office, but had served 23 years with the San Antonio Police Department.
Rickhoff, 67, was the Bexar County clerk for 24 years before he decided to run for sheriff. Despite never holding a position in law enforcement, Rickhoff defeated veterans Willie Ng and Gary Garcia in the March primary without a runoff election.
Rickhoff has leaned into the criticism, saying that his lack of law enforcement experience is an asset. He said he would bring new ideas to the sheriff’s office and improve the morale of deputies. Rickhoff has also pledged to assist deputies with their mental health.
“As Bexar County Sheriff, the public’s safety will come first, and I have developed a solution to fill BCSO’s decimated ranks and restore the morale of our current force,” Rickhoff said in a statement to KSAT in September. “I intend to involve our entire community – the public sector, private sector, and non-profits – in partnerships that reduce stressors on deputies new and old, increase recruitment and improve Bexar County’s safety.”
During his first term, Salazar dealt with many of the same challenges and issues that plagued the jail and sheriff’s office for years, including numerous arrests of deputies and jailers, mistaken releases of inmates, escapes and deaths at the jail.
Last year, the county jail also briefly fell out of state compliance after failing a Texas Commission on Jail Standards inspection.
Salazar has said the instability and turnover of the sheriff’s position dating to 2004 has been part of the problem, and he has already made strides to correct many issues.
Salazar said there is now a higher standard of hiring for deputies and jailers, and there are more safeguards in place to prevent accidental inmate releases.
He also points to his record of prosecuting and firing deputies who have been arrested and convicted for assault or drunken driving.
The Defenders report showed there has been a sharp decrease in deputies being arrested for DWI after what Salazar called a tipping point in 2018 of having to address drunk-driving issues within the agency’s rank and file.
In response to Salazar’s efforts to curb drunken driving within the sheriff’s office, Rickhoff said he believes Salazar is only treating a symptom and not the disease.
Salazar and the sheriff’s office came have come under new scrutiny, including by his GOP opponent, after a deputy fatally shot Damian Daniels on Aug. 25 during a struggle outside his home on the far West Side.
Salazar said deputies showed as much restraint as they could before resorting to deadly force on Daniels, who the sheriff said had a weapon and was mentally unstable.
Daniels' family has said mental health professionals should have responded the scene and not deputies with guns.
Salazar has sought to withhold the body camera footage of the shooting. He did, however, release selected images of the incident and the case is under investigation. To that end, Salazar was the first sheriff in Bexar County to outfit deputies with body cameras.
The sheriff has also had to navigate the office and jail through the COVID-19 pandemic.
In May, the number of cases at the jail reached its peak at around 300 cases. Salazar said the high number was the result of mass testing and more than 90% of inmates at the time did not have any coronavirus symptoms.
The jail population declined to less than 3,000 during that period, but has since increased to levels seen prior to the pandemic.
At one point, Salazar said there were more than 60 deputies that had tested positive, but they have made aggressive efforts to prevent an outbreak among deputies and inmates.
Rickhoff believes Salazar has had more than enough time to right the ship at the sheriff’s office and has failed to do so.
Rickhoff claims Salazar’s mismanagement has led to historic turnover at the sheriff’s office. He said Salazar has jeopardized the safety of the community by failing to fill more than 200 vacant positions, leading to an overworked and depleted staff.
In 2019, Salazar addressed those issues in a Defenders interview and stuck to his belief that he is doing the right thing by tightening hiring standards.
“I’m bringing in the right kind of people into this agency that are not going to hurt us that are not going to embarrass us and put us on the 5 o’clock news,” said Salazar. “There are qualified people that want to be here and I want to make us all proud.”
To address staffing issues, Salazar created the “Blue Shirt Program,” which lowered the age limit to 18 years old to enter the academy and become a jailer.
Those individuals in the program are placed into a soft security role at the jail before becoming full-time detention officers. Salazar has also sought to get better pay and benefits for deputies.
The latest Bexar Facts-KSAT-San Antonio Report Poll also showed Salazar also had a 60% total approval rating among voters polled in September. He had a 24% total disapproval rating among the same voter group, while 16% responded they did not know.
The poll showed that Salazar’s approval rating fell slightly from June of this year when he was at a 64% approval rating. His disapproval rating in June was 19%.
The Bexar Facts-KSAT-San Antonio Report Poll has a margin of error of 4%.
The general election will be held on Nov. 3.