by Anita Miller
Hays County Sheriff Gary Cutler, a Republican, and Democratic challenger Alex Villalobos both pointed to their experience during a League of Women Voters forum Oct. 6, though both expressed significant differences in how they would go about managing a growing and diversifying department.
Cutler opened his statements by noting his 10 years as the county’s top lawman and a total of 46 years in law enforcement.
“I’m a very good administrator and I’ve proven that,” Cutler said.
Villalobos noted he has been in law enforcement for 14 years but also has valuable experience from being the county’s chief of staff, emergency management coordinator and city council member in Kyle.
“Hays County is transitioning to a more urban county,” he said. “I’m running to bring change that serves our community.”
Moderator Dorothy Marchand’s first question concerned the county’s rapid growth and how the candidates would address corresponding law enforcement needs.
Growth, Cutler said, “has been an issue as long as I’ve been in office,” and pointed to the 2018 public safety bond approved by voters and how the jail expansion it funded should decrease the number of inmates outsourced to other jurisdictions.
“We’ve increased patrols, we’ve put supervisors back on the streets. We have a professional to help with mental health issues and we continue to use training to better serve the community.”
Villalobos countered that he would “first and foremost fix our in-house.” He said he would encourage “robust recruitment and retention” and a promotional program for existing personnel. “We need to recruit a pool of specialized people to come in. Growth in and of itself will require us to fix infrastructure, to create an environment where people want to come to work, both in-house and on the front lines. We need to communicate so we can learn what is in the best interests of county policies.”
The next question dealt with the 1033 program, whereby local law enforcement agencies acquire surplus military vehicles, equipment and supplies, including maintenance and associated training, and the cost-benefit ratio.
“The cost/benefit is clear,” Villalobos responded. “We are receiving equipment that will help us on the front lines, help us with emergency response.”
He said his priority with the program would be emergency response and public safety as well as medical and first aid supplies that are “integral to providing high quality service.”
“It’s a great program,”Cutler said, noting that the county’s participation predates his time in office, and agreed that “we need first aid equipment.”
It has been used to acquire weaponry. “Our officers are issued rifles that cost $600 to $800. We picked up 200 of those through the program.
We don’t have any tanks or MRAPs (mine resistant ambush protect vehicles),” Cutler said. “We only get equipment we need to do our job.”
Cutler again cited the most recent public safety bond and practices that predate his election when the candidates were asked about what they would do to reduce jail populations and thereby overcrowding.
“It’s been a real problem long before me,” he said. He said programs like cite & release, currently in use, and cite & divert, on the horizon, can help. “People are charged but don’t have to go through our booking process. It frees up our intake,” he said.
He also again referenced the bond and the jail expansion currently winding up. “We are expanding and renovating. The jail is over 30 years old,” he said, adding that the project is “moving forward, and we are looking forward to opening here in the next few weeks.”
For his part, Villalobos said the majority of the bond money is going to the Public Safety building going up behind the Government Center on Old Stagecoach Road in San Marcos. He also mentioned diversionary programs and alternative court programs like the Veterans Court. “We need to utilize those initiatives.”
When Marchand raised the question of how the candidates feel about de-escalation training and safe arrest practices, Villalobos again went back to basics. “We need to do a policy assessment and determine what types of issues we have in our department,” he said. “I support de-escalation training, diversity training and implicit bias training. These are programs that would create community engagement and better relationships with our community. Community policing can help prevent a lot of these issues.”
Cutler said training is the key. “We do de-escalation training that is mandated by the state, for jailers as well as patrol. We also do mental health training. We expand on that, teaching guys every day. We have a mental health civilian that goes out with officers and we will continue to do that,” along with incorporation of any additional mandates from the state.
When the question narrowed to guarding against racial profiling Cutler was blunt. “Racial profiling is not an issue in the Hays County Sheriff’s Office,” he said. However, in keeping with SB 4, he said officers will inquire about any arrested person’s immigration status and will keep them under detention if ICE requests it. “We will continue to work with ICE,” he said.
Villalobos said he believes “unintended consequences” create the “idea of racial profiling” and that the issue calls for “detangling the system.” He said, “we need to build programs within the communities where these people live, empowering them to understand how the system works. I believe a complete policy assessment would allow us to undertstand.”
When questioned about how, or if, they would ensure their staff enforced health and safety measures as ordered by Gov. Greg Abbott, Villalobos pointed to his experience with the pandemic as the county’s emergency management coordinator.
“Ensure that we have all the equipment and I did that,” he said. “Ensure they understand how the pandemic works, how they can be infected. Require them to wear masks when appropriate to protect themselves and the community. Ensure the isolation of people who are infected so you don’t spread it through your organization, through your jail, through your community.”
Cutler said the key is “educating the community and following guidelines, which we do.” He said the “entire staff” wears “masks and protective gear” and that those coming into the facility are tested if symptomatic, and that disinfection is practiced routinely. “They all know how serious it is. We al know about the deaths in the county and across the country. We abide by the rules.”
Regarding policies they would change or update, Cutler responded that it is an ongoing process. “We’re constantly changing and updating policies to fit the needs of the citizens we serve and the men and women of the Hays County Sheriffs Office.” He mentioned use of force guidelines among mandates that come from the state as well as issues relating to arrests.
“We change policies constantly to keep up to date so we don’t get into any issues.”
Villalobos said that if elected, he would within 90 days do a “complete and total” assessment of use of force, “how it affects officers and how it affects the community, then take those policies and update them to ensure we are providing the higher quality service.” He said he would also address “internal promotional and training policies and assessments and make sure we have an open door policy to allow individuals to come in and speak. It’s the only way to keep in touch with the front lines and the community.”
The next question concerned the essential qualifications and personal characteristics essential to leading a local law enforcement agency.
Villalobos said he would have an open door policy and be visible throughout the community, to be “somene who would be a student all the time.”
“You have got to be trustworthy and have high integrity,” Cutler countered. “We look at this in our hiring policy. If you are on the Brady list you will not get a job. The key is to have high integrity and credibility so the public will have trust in you. You have got to lead by example.”