AUSTIN (KXAN) — Early voting for the March primary election begins on Tuesday, and with two challengers vying to unseat the current Travis County Sheriff, the Democratic primary race is heating up.

Incumbent Sheriff Sally Hernandez is facing off with Liz Donegan, who led APD’s Sex Crimes Unit for nearly 10 years, and John Loughran, who served in the Travis County Sheriff’s office for nearly 25 years.

Hernandez won the race in 2016 with a vow to stop cooperating with federal immigration officials at the county jail.

After Senate Bill 4 became law and banned sanctuary cities in Texas, Hernandez’ approach had to change.

“The undocumented community are near and dear to my heart. I believe, just like the people of Travis County believe, that their safety is more important than their status,” Hernandez said. “That’s how we deliver service to them. SB 4 has made it harder to show that’s how we feel.”

Even so, Hernandez said connecting with marginalized groups and building community trust were her main goals when she started this job, and that’s what she wants to continue if re-elected.

Sexual assault cases

Meanwhile, Liz Donegan argues that one marginalized group, survivors of sexual assault, are feeling more disconnected from law enforcement.

“What we see, not just here in Austin, but across the country is a clear misunderstanding about the complexity of sexual assault and what it takes to be successful in holding rapist accountable.”

Liz Donegan, Running for Travis County Sheriff

Donegan has talked about her time at APD, when she claims she was told on two different cases to go in and clear suspended cases, using an “exceptional clearance” classification. Donegan said she didn’t comply with the order and was subsequently removed from her position in the Sex Crimes Unit.

“I did what was right. I spoke truth to power and was punished for it,” Donegan said. She later retired.

According to a ProPublica investigation, the department saw a substantial increase in the rate of exceptionally cleared rapes following her departure.

Liz Donegan

Sheriff Hernandez said, “I’ve yet to hear what I am doing wrong. What I have heard is critique about what APD is doing, and the Travis County Sheriff’s office is just different.”

Donegan went on to train people around the world in the handling of these types of cases. She said it’s all about changing the culture and how we talk about, think about and view rape cases, particularly the fact that most rapes are perpetrated by someone the victim knows.

Then, Donegan said she decided to run when Hernandez and her office pulled out of the Sexual Assault Response and Resource Team (SARRT), an organization Donegan had co-chaired, with experts on the issue from across the community.

“It’s so tied to the misconceptions and misperceptions of sexual assault,” Donegan said. “For us to move forward, we have to have healthy discourse.”

Donegan said that discourse can’t happen unless survivors, experts and law enforcement are all sitting at the same table.

Meanwhile the Sheriff argued that the conversations at SARRT meetings where contentious and not productive.

Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez

“We don’t attend the meetings because of the conflict: they moved from collaboration, to a lot of conflict,” Hernandez said. “We are still very connected to the advocates that are a part of SAART, we just don’t go to the meetings.”

She went on to say, “It has absolutely not hindered the way we handle sexual assault cases.”

As issues like the handling of sexual assault cases come to the forefront of the debate, many people have compared it to the race for Travis County District Attorney.

Hernandez maintains that her decision to pull out of the SARRT had nothing to do with the District Attorney’s choice to do the same.

“My whole career I have been fighting for victims, and it’s something that’s not going to change.”

Sheriff Sally Hernandez

She pointed out that right after she took office, she formed the first Sex Crimes Unit at the agency. She said that, coupled with their law enforcement specialist and victim service unit, helps them focus on victims.

“They give victim-centered, trauma-informed, justice-focused care for survivors of sexual assault,” Hernandez said.

Donegan argued that the move out of SARRT marked something bigger going on with leadership in the county.

“The change has to come from leadership,” she said. “If the leaders in this community don’t believe that sexual assault is important and don’t want to invest in these cases, then what is the public to think?”

Mental health

Hernandez also emphasized the importance of improving mental health treatment inside the jail, out in the community and even in her agency for her own deputies.

“The things that we have been working on, that can’t stop, that can’t slow down, we’ve got to keep moving forward on, is our mental health communities,” Hernandez said, “because jails across this nation are being forced to be hospitals and mental health facilities. “

She said 20-25% of the jail population are mental health consumers, even though she said jails “shouldn’t be” mental health treatment centers. She emphasized the importance of partnering with organizations who can get people in the public the help they need so the don’t end up behind bars.

“One of the ways is going to the Capital and lobbying for more funding and resources,” she said.

She also referenced the success of the crisis-training program they created for families and friends of incarcerated people, to help keep them from re-offending.

At her own agency, she pointed to the Peer-to-Peer group, overseen by the staff psychologist, she started in her own agency.

“They give help to people day-in and day-out,” Hernandez said. “They deserve help also.”

John Loughran said his own experience at the Sheriff’s Office was quite different.

“Police officers, corrections officer and dispatchers see hear and experience things on a regular basis, that no one is supposed to see hear or experience, ever. When they need help, they’re told to get back to work. The message in this administration has been sent that you should not ask for help.”

John Loughran, Running for Travis County Sheriff

He said that was the response he got when he experienced trauma.

“I was the Sergeant of a deputy who died in the line of duty: Jessica Hollis,” Loughran said. “It put me in a hole, without a doubt. I was able to get out of it with the help of people who had been in that hole. It let me to want to pay it forward.”

John Loughran

In the years following her death, Loughran was placed on administrative duty, then administrative leave, twice as he coped with Hollis’s death. Both current Sheriff Sally Hernandez and former Sheriff Greg Hamilton testified in a hearing, saying Loughran’s grieving was “getting in the way of doing his job,” according to a KXAN report from 2017.

After more than 24 years at the Travis County Sheriff’s Office, he was terminated from his position.

Loughran said he thinks his situation could have been handled completely different if the agency had more mental health resources. It’s a culture he’s trying to change.

He claims morale at the agency is at “all time low” and said the culture needs to change.

“Accidents will happen. They [deputies] will make mistakes,” Loughran said. “It’s trauma, on top of trauma, on top of trauma. I’ve been through trauma, so I know that its often not only the event that causes it, but how it’s handled after.”

He’s pushing for annual mental health assessments for deputies.

He also argued that the Sheriff could do more to improve mental health inside the jails. He recommends more screenings by a mental health professional, not just a corrections officer.

Women’s Jail

Donegan and Loughran have both been vocal critics of the new women’s correctional facility in Travis County.

After a vote by commissioner’s at the end of 2019, the nearly $79 million building is in the design phase.

Hernandez explained that female inmates are currently housed across three different buildings “designed for men.” She said it could be uncomfortable for female inmates to get to medical appointments and programs in the current layout. They hope by moving the women into one building, they will be able to better provide centralized healthcare and programs for women, along with more “trauma-informed” care.

Donegan pointed out that the $79 million designated so far only provides for the building itself, no services.

“You say you want trauma-informed care, but you are not willing to put any money towards trauma-informed care? It’s disingenuous,” she said.

She went on, “If we had programs in place, a hand-off — not a business card which is currently what’s happening, but a hand-off that addresses issues that keep people out of jail: housing, sobriety, mental health services and substance use disorder treatment. That is what keeps people out of jail, that’s where we need to be investing our money.”

Loughran agreed, saying, “We need programs for women, and for men, to rehabilitate them and actually try to make a difference in their lives.” In fact, he had a list of things he would rather see the money used for, including a new training academy building for the agency or body cameras.

The Sheriff maintains that it’s not “either/or.” She said diversion programs and better facilities for female inmates are both important.

“I would say look at what we have done in the last four years. We have the lowest jail population in over a decade,” Hernandez said. “20 years ago, we ‘warehoused’ people. We no longer do that. We are a correctional facility, and it’s our responsibility to take care of the men and women… there are always going to be men and women in our facility, and we have got to take care of them.”

Whoever wins the primary will face Republican candidate Raul Vargas in November. Jason Ryan Salazar will appear on the ballot as an Independent candidate.