Sheriff Waybourn says Tarrant doesn’t need jailers in SWAT-like gear to keep inmates safe

Tarrant County Sheriff Bill Waybourn, right, and Public Safety Regional Director Jeremy Sherrod stand by while the media is shown the video of events leading up to Anthony Johnson Jr.’s death while in custody. Two employees were fired earlier in the day for a technique used that’s not allowed and violates training protocols.

Read the latest in our coverage of the death of Anthony Johnson Jr. and other issues in Tarrant County jail.

Sheriff Bill Waybourn responded to questions Tuesday from Tarrant County commissioners about why the jail does not have a special response team of officers with tactical gear who could respond to emergency situations.

The topic was raised by Democratic Commissioner Alisa Simmons, who has been a critic of Waybourn and conditions at the jail. The April 21 death of inmate Anthony Johnson Jr. has brought further scrutiny to jail operations and policies.

Waybourn told the commissioners that his department focuses on deescalating emergency situations in the jail rather than using heavily armored officers like those who respond to riots.

The sheriff gave a presentation that showed an example of a jailer in Bexar County who is part of a special response team with tactical uniforms. Waybourn said that if officers dressed this way, it would intimidate inmates.

Waybourn said he used Bexar as an example because it is similar size to Tarrant. There have been over 80 deaths at the Bexar jail since 2017, and 64 in Tarrant over the same period.

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Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar, a Democrat, could not be immediately reached for comment.

Waybourn then showed photos of two officers from his department who do not wear tactical gear. He called the pictured jailers “superheros” and said that they were “the inmate’s advocate.”

Waybourn said the jail is ahead of best practices by focusing on deescalation tactics. He showed footage of a skirmish at the jail where he said inmates rushed to defend the jailer.

Democratic Commissioner Roy Brooks agreed with Waybourn that he did not want officers dressed like “stormtroopers” in the jail. But, he said, Tarrant’s model of deescalation requires training on techniques.

Brooks also called on the Sheriff’s Office to stop using pepper spray.

“One death related to pepper spray is one too many. We’ve had more than one,” Brooks said.

Waybourn said nobody has died from pepper spray.

In 2022, a Star-Telegram investigation found that inmate Robert Miller was pepper-sprayed at least three times by jailers at close range before he died. His cause of death was listed as natural due to a sickle cell crisis, which his family and several experts told the Star-Telegram was impossible.

Johnson’s death in April remains under investigation, including the autopsy, but the Sheriff’s Office has released video showing what happened in the jail. The 31-year-old former Marine fought jailers during a routine inspection and was pepper sprayed. Two jailers were fired last week for violating policies in restraining a handcuffed Johnson on the ground with a knee on his back.

Simmons, the commissioner who questioned Waybourn about the lack of a special response team, said Tarrant should establish one like in Dallas County’s jail. She said a commissioner in Dallas County told her their team has reduced jail deaths.

Simmons also asked if a crisis intervention unit responded to the altercation with Johnson. Waybourn responded that every one of those jailers was trained in crisis intervention.

Republican Commissioner Manny Ramirez thanked Waybourn for the presentation and said he was implementing a “21st century model” of policing. County Judge Tim O’Hare said he has never known an elected official with as much integrity as Waybourn.

Waybourn added during the presentation that the jail passed a Texas Commission on Jail Standards inspection “with flying colors.”