The problems of high turnover and overtime have plagued the Bexar County Jail for more than a decade, but officials say the concerns have reached a critical mass in the wake of a state crackdown on jail standards and staffing challenges posed by the pandemic.
Finding a solution to those problems will be one of the major issues facing the two new county commissioners at their first meeting in January.
Commissioner-elect Trish DeBerry, who will be sworn in Jan. 1, along with Commissioner-elect Rebeca “Becky” Clay-Flores, said she wants to get a tour of the jail and speak with deputies, as the county assesses metrics related to staff departure and overtime.
“The jail is going to be an issue, and will continue to be an issue, until we really dedicate time, energy and resources to try to figure out what the problem is. Throwing good money after bad is not a good solution,” DeBerry said.
The issue came to a climax last week as Jeremy Payne, president of the Deputy Sheriff’s Association of Bexar County, pleaded with the Commissioners Court to find relief for detention officers who he said have been worked to exhaustion, sometimes without lunch or restroom breaks, and kept apart from their families.
“I’m asking the court today to step up and stand in for the men and the women who serve you in this community,” Payne told commissioners.
The jail, which typically houses about 4,000 inmates, from homeless people charged with misdemeanors to convicted killers awaiting transfer to state prisons, has been hit with a double whammy. Last year, jail administrators were forced to increase staffing by certified uniformed officers, rather than civilians, to comply with state jail standards. And the coronavirus pandemic forced the jail to spread out or isolate inmates, putting a further strain on staffing.
The county has spent nearly $24 million on overtime at the jail in the past four years, with about $10 million last year alone.
County Judge Nelson Wolff said the county has “gone through this year after year after year.” Commissioner Tommy Calvert requested a follow-up discussion to consider recommendations from staff at the Jan. 12 commissioners meeting.
“It sounds like there’s a real crisis in that detention center that we’ve got to better address,” Calvert said.
The issue has heated up amid negotiations between the county and the deputies union on a new collective bargaining agreement. Payne compared the jail to a foreign “sweat shop” when the union recently released a scathing survey of deputies suggesting a majority working there are dissatisfied and many are overworked.
According to the survey by two local mental health researchers of nearly 350 deputies, including 230 detention officers, “compassion fatigue and burnout present higher risk-taking behaviors in officers,” such as drug or alcohol abuse and domestic violence.
“Such behaviors not only pose a great risk to the agency and overall sense of security among employees, they are also costly to taxpayers and promote a lack of safety for community members,” the report states.
But in the latest collective bargaining session last week, the county’s lead negotiator discredited the survey and chastised the union for acting in “bad faith” by holding a news conference highlighting exaggerated claims in coordination with the Combined Law Enforcement Association of Texas, or CLEAT.
“It’s insulting, and doesn’t help us solve the problem, and it’s more of the old CLEAT-planned ‘drop the bomb and live in the ashes,’” said Lowell Denton, the attorney leading negotiations for the county.
Denton said the union denied incentives in the last negotiations in 2016 that could have reduced staffing turnover, including a $3,000 retention bonus for detention deputies upon a first year of service, and approved an agreement that gave them only a 1.5 percent pay increase, compared with 2.75 percent for other positions.
He said the union has cherry-picked its data, highlighting one deputy’s accumulation of 96 hours of overtime in one month, even though the county auditor’s office placed the average amount of overtime at 14.2 hours per month.
“We’re not saying that’s not higher than it needs to be, because it is,” Denton acknowledged.
According to the county’s website, detention officers currently make just under $40,000 upon completion of coursework at the training academy and a one-year probation period. Denton said the county is offering to accelerate pay increases in the first two years, while providing signing and retention bonuses that will reduce turnover and overtime.
“If somebody’s looking for a job as a detention officer, we think that Bexar County is a highly attractive employer, and we think that the things we’re talking about today will make it even more attractive,” he said.
County officials have said the Sheriff’s Office has received 11,618 applications for detention officer positions in the past four years, including 2,331 this year. Of those, 774 have been hired since January 2017, including 231 this year.
But there are still 250 empty detention slots.
Ron DeLord, a seasoned contract negotiator leading talks for the deputies association, has called the detention tower west of downtown “the worst managed and run jail in the state of Texas.” The union estimates the jail has lost 676 employees through resignations, terminations or retirements since 2017.
“I think you ought to be ashamed of yourself that you had 11,600 applicants, and you’ve still got 250 vacancies,” DeLord said. “You could put out a million people applied … and you still are losing people at a rate higher than you’re hiring — almost.”
Sheriff Javier Salazar said as much in a recent Zoom call with reporters, noting the problem with retention.
But he said the facility still has too many inmates with mental afflictions, drug dependency or other issues who should be getting therapy instead of being in jail. The Sheriff’s Office hired an on-staff psychiatrist two years ago who has formed a peer support group to help deputies in distress. It also offers a health care and benefits package and an employee assistance program that provides up to six free counseling sessions.
The sheriff has defended his policy of requiring deputies to work overtime when needed, saying the county would be “breaking the law” if it left the jail understaffed.
“There’s only so much you can do to make it a pleasant work environment,” said Salazar, who recently became the first Bexar County sheriff re-elected since 2004. “I do hate that people are having to work overtime.”
Story By: Scott Huddleston/San Antonio Express-News