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Pamerleau Hopes Experience Will Help Her Retain Sheriff Job

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Bexar County Sheriff Susan Pamerleau

In the race for Bexar County Sheriff, three candidates are trying to unseat the current Republican officeholder, Susan Pamerleau.  They’ve attacked her record on a variety of issues, including the number of jail suicides. It’s an issue that’s very personal for the 70-year old sheriff. 

“When someone commits suicide though, that doesn’t mean that they’re mentally ill. That means they’ve made a decision to end their life and I think I speak with a bit of experience because my first husband committed suicide.”

Susan Pamerleau well remembers the day in 1978 when she left her husband after eight years of verbal and physical abuse. Soon after she received a phone call saying he’d killed himself.

She says that horrible personal tragedy affects the way she looks at a spike in the number of suicides in the Bexar County Jail. Pamerleau says she’s initiated an evaluation of those arrested to identify those who might attempt suicide. It begins with a series of questions:

“Have you ever been treated by a doctor for mental illness? Have you ever been prescribed medication for mental illness? Have you in the past tried or considered killing yourself? And No. 4, are you today thinking about killing yourself?”

Those answering "yes" are given a comprehensive medical and mental health evaluation.

When someone commits suicide though, that doesn't mean that they're mentally ill. That means they've made a decision to end their life and I think I speak with a bit of experience because my first husband committed suicide.

Campaigning in North Bexar County, Pamerleau emphasizes her commitment to addressing problems like jail suicide, and she talks about her experience. In the gated Presidio neighborhood she meets with several dozen residents sitting beside the community pool. She highlights her 32-year Air Force career where she reached the rank of Major General.

“I rose through the ranks and had operational jobs at base level. I had base level staff positions, then I had end command as headquarters squadron commander and, also, this was back in the days when they had this, as a WAF squadron commander.”

WAF stands for women in the Air Force. She retired from the military in 2000 and almost immediately began working as a Vice President at USAA.

“Early on, military affairs was something I was familiar and so we were the face-to-face marketing piece of USAA out to the military community.”

Her successful foray into politics came four years ago.  She’d lost a race for county commissioner.  Then a Republican friend suggested she run for sheriff.

“’I said yeah, right I’ve never been in law enforcement’ but when he continued to say 40 percent of the county’s employees work for the sheriff’s office, 40 percent of the operational budget comes to sheriff’s office. That made sense, because what I had done throughout the Air Force and at USAA was lead very large organizations larger than the sheriff’s office and manage big budgets, a whole lot bigger than the sheriff’s office.”

Pamerleau won the race becoming the first Republican Bexar County Sheriff in more than 20 years,  pinned on the badge,  got her peace officer certification and her jailer’s license.  And she says she became the CEO of a $200 million agency charged with keeping the citizens of unincorporated Bexar County safe.  But it was way behind the times.

“When I and the team walked in, essentially the sheriff’s office was 30 years behind in technology, in workforce development, in procedures and in facilities.”

She lists handwritten incident reports, paystubs in easily accessible spaces, and long response times as some of the initial issues. In response she is implementing digital input systems to file reports and starting the county’s first sheriff substations to reduce call responses.

The sheriff’s Democratic opponent in this election has accused her of requiring jail personnel to work too much overtime.  Pamerleau says during summer months there is often a spike in the number of inmates which led to overtime, but her office is making progress.

“For instance, the first two months I was in office overtime spiked to 16,000 hours of overtime a month. This year, in 2016, the requirement was 1600 hours per month that’s a 90 percent reduction.”

The Sheriff’s Office is also being sued for holding immigrants long periods of time without charging them.

Pamerleau says her department works with Immigration and Custom Enforcement when it asks Bexar County to hold immigrants who may be in the country illegally. She says she’s concerned some may pose a threat to the community.

“Over 50 percent, 55 of them, had had previous convictions. And these are convictions such as assault, bodily injury, family violence, DWIs, and when someone has committed a crime of that magnitude but then they’re released what we’ve found in over 50 percent of the cases they commit more crimes. And I don’t think anybody wants violent criminals who are here illegally to remain in our country.”

As down ballot candidates everywhere wonder how the presidential contest will affect their race, Bexar County’s first elected female sheriff is hoping voters will look at her resume, like her experience, and believe she’s done a good job so far.