AUSTIN (KXAN) — Travis County Sheriff’s Office deputies do not have rifle-resistance vests because Sheriff Sally Hernandez will not commit to hold all arrested undocumented immigrants for deportation.
In January, Governor Abbott announced the state would fund $23 million in grants to purchase 33,000 vests for more than 450 law enforcement departments. Every agency that applied for vests received them. Travis County did not apply for the grant because one condition from the governor’s office required the agency to “sign a letter confirming compliance with ICE detainer requests both now and during the grant term of at least one year,” according to Travis County Commissioner’s Court records.
The deadline to apply for the vests was Sept. 6, 2017, and Travis County officials were still thinking of applying days before the deadline.
On Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, county staff presented a grant summary sheet to the Commissioners Court. According to county documents, project manager Valerie Hollier planned on asking for a state grant of approximately $240,000, enough for more than 200 rifle-resistant vests.
“It is anticipated the number of fatal shootings will be reduced by equipping more officers with type III & IV body armor,” according to the recommendations.
However, county staff wrote to commissioners that the county wouldn’t apply and didn’t qualify because Sheriff Hernandez would not sign a letter committing to hold arrested undocumented immigrants for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Staff wrote Hernandez wanted to wait until the outcome of Senate Bill 4 was decided.
Lawmakers passed SB 4 in the spring of 2017. The law requires county sheriffs to honor ICE detainers or hold arrested people in jail until federal immigration officials pick them up for possible deportation. Opponents of the law sued the state and the case is currently awaiting a ruling by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. Both sides are expected to take the case to the United States Supreme Court afterward.
According to county documents, “If SB 4 is upheld, the Sheriff has stated that she would sign the letter and the grant would be submitted.” However, if the law is struck down or no action is taken, then the sheriff will not sign the letter.
Signing the letter also gives Abbott’s office “sole discretion” over approving the grants. The required letter and certification are laid out on Abbott’s website.
However, the governor’s office can require agencies to honor ICE detainers whether SB 4 is upheld or not. In short, the grants are from the governor’s office and Abbott can decide what the requirements are to apply.
A spokesperson from the sheriff’s office says Hernandez is complying with SB 4 but has no plans on signing the letter. If SB 4 is struck down in the future, they will revert to their old policy and only hold people arrested for very violent crimes.
Hernandez’s office declined to make her available for an interview or add anything to the documents available to the public.
KXAN reached out to the four county commissioners and Judge Sarah Eckhart to comment for this story. A spokesperson for them declined. Judge Eckhart would also have to sign on to honoring all ICE detainers to receive state grant money.
Currently, Travis County deputies do have bulletproof vests to protect against low-caliber bullets. The Sheriff’s office confirms they are searching for other funding sources to pay for body armor.
The money for rifle-resistant vests came about after a deadly night in Dallas. Several Dallas police officers were killed in the line of duty while they protected a Black Lives Matter march in 2016. In the 2017 legislative session, state lawmakers unanimously approved Senate Bill 12, a $25 million program to help police departments pay for protective vests.
KXAN reached out to Gov. Abbott’s office for a comment but has not heard back.