With the general election around the corner the race to elect the first new sheriff in two decades in Cameron County is picking up pace.
Candidates facing off to head the office are John Chambers and Eric Garza. Both candidates argued they’re ready for change and have the experience to bridge the gap in trust between peace officer and resident.
Chambers, who is running on the Republican ticket, last worked in law enforcement in 2016 as chief of the Indian Lake Police Department.
He was convicted that year on 14 felony counts for allegedly having an officer falsify firearms qualification records under pressure from the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, which was later determined to have lacked the jurisdiction to require the documents.
The former chief expressed frustration that his criminal history — which was since overturned and set for a new punishment hearing on misdemeanor charges that are now also on appeal in Austin — is the first point of criticism when discussing his candidacy.
Documents provided by TCOLE show that Chambers is “statutorily ineligible” to hold a peace officer license in the State of Texas following its revocation after his original conviction on the felony charges.
“Yes, my license was revoked for the conviction of a felony. That felony no longer exists. The criteria for revoking my license no longer exists, so they have to give it back,” said Chambers.
TCOLE did not respond to multiple requests for a determination as to whether a license held by a former officer with a partially reversed conviction must be reinstated.
According to TCOLE’s website, Class A or B misdemeanors mean that someone applying to get relicensed could submit a waiver request through an agency administrator intending to hire the applicant, then that packet would be reviewed by the executive director to determine if the request is placed on the commission meeting agenda for review.
The Cameron County Elections Department said it would likely be up to the Commissioner’s Court to appoint a replacement until a special election could be held if a candidate could not become licensed.
Chambers detailed his experience as the grounding factor in his campaign platform. “One thing I’ve learned working in a small town is that you deal with people from beginning to end. You’re not only the call taker — you’re the investigator, you’re the responding officer, you’re the forensics,” the candidate said.
“I’ve been in riots, I’ve investigated murders, I’ve investigated assault, I’ve been assaulted, I’ve been shot at,” he said. “You’ve got to control and understand your adrenaline in those moments.”
As for the administration of the office, Chambers said he plans to bring new staff and initiatives. “Technology is important and we need to bring in more tech but also adhere to the old tried and true concept of community policing,” said the candidate.
“We need to get back in touch with the public, we need to start community relations programs. I want to have the officers start engaging the public in a positive sense instead of just writing tickets — make contact with them, visit with them, get to know the population in their area. Every place is different.”
He envisions deputies being involved in their communities outside of the police force so as to gain greater understanding, as well as to operate without the usual mob mentality. Chambers said he would make himself available to anyone with concerns about employees or inmates to ensure needs are met.
Garza, who won the Democratic nomination in July, is emphasizing both the importance of his administrative background as former District Clerk and the fact that he does, in fact, have law enforcement experience. He is a licensed peace officer with TCOLE and has been since 2010.
“I wanted to make a change for Cameron County, so I decided to go to the police academy,” he explained, describing attending nightly classes and training for months while working full-time.
Garza was licensed through Constable, Precinct 1, then moved over to Precinct 4 in the Los Fresnos area, which currently holds his license, he said. He also addressed reports that he has promised a position to a donor in violation of election law, stating that nobody will be chosen until after the election, and in the event that he wins.
His administration would begin with an audit of all the equipment, ammunition, fleet, and anything else purchased by the office to ensure that all funds and grants it is receiving are accounted for, Garza stated.
Compliance issues with Texas Commission on Jail Standards at the county’s three jails would then be addressed, including training both jailers and administration to ensure that inmates are treated with dignity.
Garza said he would then focus on deputy salaries to ensure that resources and money the county puts into training employees don’t go to waste when deputies leave the area for better pay.
Other planned initiatives involve putting body cameras and dash cams to use, as well as developing the infrastructure to handle an increase in data. According to Garza, the Sheriff’s Office as it stands does not have a system where it can look up all cases it investigates online, operating instead with paper.
He added that transparency and rebuilding trust with vulnerable communities through direct engagement, work with schools and community organizations is integral to address sentiment among locals that law enforcement is here to punish and not to serve.
“Right now, the Sheriff’s office does not have an internal affairs division, they do not have a public integrity division. If something happens and they don’t tell you, nobody will ever know,” he said.
“If something happens, we’re going to tell you. We’re going to investigate both sides — the inmate and the employee.”