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There’s a new sheriff’s law in town: You need a peace officer’s license to become one in Texas

Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar
Joey Palacios

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In Texas, 774 new state laws took effect last Friday. Under one of them, SB 1124, candidates for sheriff now need to have a peace officers license. Up until now, there was no law enforcement certification required to run.

Texas has 254 counties. And, according to the state’s constitution, each one needs to elect a sheriff every four years. Think of it as the county’s top cop. The Texas Legislature has the power to determine the duties, qualifications, and perquisites for the office. But until recently, this wasn’t top of mind.

“I actually was not aware that you could run for sheriff and not be licensed as a peace officer and as I understand it right now all the deputies have to be licensed as peace officers,” said Democratic State Sen. Chuy Hinojosa of McAllen and Corpus Christi earlier this year, commenting before a Texas Senate vote on SB 1124.

The measure was authored by State Sen. Phil King, a Republican from Weatherford. King told his fellow lawmakers he didn’t feel comfortable that someone without a peace officer's license could be elected county sheriff.

“Somebody can be elected sheriff, be handed a gun and badge who's never been a law enforcement officer, never been to an academy, never had any experience or training at all, they can be handed a gun and a badge, they very next day they could be in charge of a mass shooting at a school or some other dangerous situation,” he said. “They also the next day would be taking over a jail and all of the liabilities and responsibilities.”

Previously, someone without a license had two years to get one after being elected. SB 1124 passed, and became law Sept. 1, upping the qualifications for candidates to make it on the ballot.

King says the new law also requires at least five years full-time experience as a paid peace officer or federal special investigator. “So that we know you understand some things about search and seizure, 4th and 5th Amendments, active shooters and this type of process,” he added.

Joey Palacios
Texas Public Radio
Former Bexar County Sheriff Susan Pamerleau served in the office from 2012 until 2016. At the time of her election, she did not have a peace officer's license but did have 32 years of military experience in the Air Force. She received her peace officer certification about a year and a half into the job.

The new rules only apply to county sheriffs and not other elected law enforcement. While the change had bipartisan support, there were some objections. Some called it government overreach, and there were concerns Texas’ less populated counties would have trouble finding qualified candidates. But the law also expands eligibility in other ways.

“SB 1124 also allows veterans who have a ten years combined active duty or National Guard service experience to run for sheriff,” said Robert Vargas, a Democratic political consultant who led Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar's 2016 and 2020 campaigns. “In my opinion, what this does is it ensures that folks that want to hold the highest ranking law enforcement officer title in their county to be a more qualified person.”

Vargas compared it to other professions that require licensing.

“It's kind of like going to someone who wants to be a doctor and says, ‘Hey, treat me for diabetes, and you can get your medical degree and training later on down the line.’ We wouldn't do that for doctors. Why would we allow that for the highest ranking law enforcement officer in the county?” Vargas added.

The Deputy Sheriff's Association of Bexar County is led by Ron Took. He said the new law modernizes the office.

“It's not like we're in the 1800s in Texas, where you just had to be good with a gun. You really have to know the law,” Took said.

Had SB 1124 been in effect earlier, some recent county sheriff candidates probably wouldn’t have been able to run.

In 2020, Salazar was challenged by a former county clerk with no law enforcement experience. While Salazar says he welcomed opponents, he thought the new requirements just make sense.

“It's a little bit more than wearing a hat and carrying a gun that's involved in running a law enforcement agency like this. So if you don’t even have the ability to go get the basic license at some point in your career then maybe you maybe ought not be thinking about the top cop job in the county,” he explained.

He also thought it’ll weed out people who aren’t serious about the job.

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Joey Palacios can be reached atJoey@TPR.org and on Twitter at @Joeycules