DFW County Commissioners Grill Sheriff Over Jail Deaths

Tarrant County Sheriff Bill Waybourn | Image by WFAA
Tarrant County Sheriff Bill Waybourn | Image by WFAA

At the behest of Commissioner Alisa Simmons, Tarrant County Sheriff Bill Waybourn prepared a briefing for commissioners on Tuesday so they could better understand how difficult inmates are handled following the deaths of two inmates that occurred at the local jail.

As covered by The Dallas Express, Anthony Ray Johnson Jr. died last month after being pepper sprayed and held down by jailers after a fight broke out during a routine cell check for contraband. Johnson allegedly had two weapons in his cell and, as Waybourn said at a press conference last week, allegedly “had superhuman strength” during the altercation.

Both jailers involved in the incident were initially fired for not following protocols and potentially contributing to Johnson’s death. Waybourn ultimately reversed the terminations at the recommendation of the civil division of the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office.

“Though I do not agree, under an abundance of caution, I withdrew the terminations in order to assure that the process was completed and all evidence was gathered for this administrative purpose,” Waybourn said in a statement, as reported by KERA News.

Adding that it was “troubling” to him to have to place the two jailers on administrative leave despite there purportedly being “evidence of egregious behavior,” the sheriff vowed to see justice prevail.

Johnson had a history of mental health problems, which Waybourn said on Tuesday his jailers were trained to know the signs of.

As Waybourn explained, around 60% of inmates receive My Health My Resources mental health services through the county.

He also suggested during the hearing on Tuesday that what happened to Johnson was an outlier incident.

“The deaths in the Tarrant County jail on my tour, this is the only one that’s happened like this,” he said, per Fox 4 KDFW.

The other inmate who died in the jail last month may have overdosed, as previously reported by The Dallas Express.

Nevertheless, the commissioners demanded greater accountability and transparency from the sheriff’s office.

“[Jailers] will talk him into a pair of handcuffs, and that’s all we need. So, we use that method and that model all the time,” Waybourn told commissioners, adding that his employees are trained in de-escalation tactics and building relations with inmates, per NBC 5 DFW.

He echoed these comments while speaking later to The Dallas Express.

“Mental Health has been absolutely thrown on to law enforcement. We are doing everything we know to be that safety net for the community, including de-escalation training for officers dealing with exploding mental health issues,” Waybourn said.

“This issue must be addressed, including not only care but what is the root cause, one of which is the plethora of drugs including K2, marijuana, along with other hard substances,” he added.

During the briefing, Waybourn noted that while he does not have a special response team (SRT) to deploy, he sees such tactics as heavy-handed and stress-inducing.

“I’m telling you, [SRT] would spread fear and take any hope away that we have in the pods. That’s the reason that we don’t do it,” he told commissioners.

Practices at the Tarrant County jail have come under considerable scrutiny in the wake of the recent inmate deaths.

“I don’t think pepper spray has served as well in Tarrant County, and I’d like to see you find an alternative,” said Commissioner Roy Brooks, per Fox 4. “One death related to pepper spray is one death too many, and we’ve had more than one.”

Simmons also addressed the fact that only a six-minute clip showing the incident leading to Johnson’s death had been released by Waybourn’s staff despite there being approximately 16 minutes of video footage.

Johnson’s family, who waited for weeks for information about the in-custody death, has demanded the release of the full video as well as Waybourn’s resignation and the termination of any jailer or medical staff member involved in the incident, per NBC 5.

“When next of kin is briefed, what happens within 24 to 48 hours? What happens in the 30 to 60 days beyond? What is our set standard for releasing digital evidence, including all videos? I think we have to set those limits and make sure the public is aware of them,” said Commissioner Manny Ramirez, according to Fox 4.

“I think that a lot of unease, a lot of mistrust can be averted if you have clear policies,” he said.

Responding to this line of questioning in Waybourn’s absence, a spokesperson from his office said, “It’s very important to us that we make sure that the investigation is done well and appropriately at the beginning, and then as things can be released, we’re willing to release them, if it will not affect the investigation.”

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