Editor's Note: Jade Esteban Estrada is the writer of Glitter Political, a series of articles detailing San Antonio's political scene.
On a bustling Tuesday morning, I spot Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar in the back dining room of Mi Tierra Café y Panadería.
The American Dream mural to my left, which features an artistic interpretation of San Antonio’s most celebrated movers and shakers, serves as an unrehearsed icebreaker as I sit down with the county’s highest-ranking law enforcement official.
Salazar, who’s currently working out the kinks of a new cite-and-release program, says he hopes a lifelike image of himself will one day be added to Jesus Diaz Garza’s sprawling art piece.
“To me, [being added to the mural] means you’ve made it in a big way,” he says. “That’s how I’ll know that I’ve made it in Bexar County politics.”
Salazar, now 48, has always felt certain that he’s meant to achieve something important. He’s often on the lookout for a defining moment when it will become apparent.
Life’s challenges came early for Salazar. He was born a few months premature and describes himself as “a sick kid,” having had meningitis twice by the time he was 2. Doctors told his parents that he’d never walk or talk.
“For whatever reason, I was saved from that and came out to be a happy, healthy kid,” Salazar says with the buoyant energy that’s become a hallmark of his public persona.
Indeed, Salazar not only recovered from his illnesses but went on to play football and soccer and act in plays. Growing up, his parents often told him that God saved him for a reason. So, at every new stage in his life Salazar has asked himself, “Is this the reason?”
After graduating high school, Salazar got a job as a hotel bartender. He needed a way to pay for college, so he took advantage of the hotel chain’s tuition reimbursement program. The caveat was that the classes had to be related to the food and beverage industry.
“Not that there’s anything wrong with food service, but to me, it was like watching paint dry,” Salazar recounts with exasperation. “I was dying — studying, you know, at what room temperature does chicken go bad.” He laughs. “I was dy-ing inside a little bit every day!”
Salazar always knew he wanted to be in some kind of public service. However, he’d ruled out the military, since that might take him far from home, and starting a family was part of his long-term plan.
Instead, he joined the San Antonio Police Department as a patrolman. He got off his shift at 6:30 a.m. and caught naps in his truck before his first class at 7:45 a.m. The schedule made for long days, but it allowed him to attend San Antonio College on his own terms. He fell in love with criminal justice and soon made it his major.
Though the hours were rough, he had an instinct that things would eventually pay off.
During his 23 years at SAPD, Salazar made a name for himself as a social-media trailblazer and Chief William McManus’ right hand man. Salazar also won attention with his work as the director of the department’s Integrity Unit.
“Since the very first police officer put on a uniform, misconduct has been a part of policing,” he says. “Right now, the public demands that we hold ourselves accountable and hold each other accountable.”
In early 2016, Salazar ran for Bexar County sheriff while still working full-time at SAPD. During the campaign, he bolstered himself by thinking back on his difficult days at SAC.
“I’d go block walk in the afternoons, and I was tired, man. The last thing I wanted to do was put on a campaign shirt and jeans and go knock on doors. But I did, because why? Because it has to pay off at some point.”
And by a thin margin, it did.
Even though he’d never run for public office before, the campaign messaging about his qualifications helped clench an upset victory over Susan Parmerleau.
Salazar hit the ground running with a new leadership approach enhanced by a big-picture view of the office. As part of that, he doubled the required in-service training for deputies to 40 hours a year — twice the amount required by the state.
He also found that some deputies were uncomfortable reporting misconduct, such as DWIs, by their peers. Last year, under his watch, nearly two dozen deputies were arrested for crimes including sexual assault, drunken driving and domestic violence.
Not all deputies have a drinking issue, Salazar said. “But as an agency? We have a drinking problem. I think you’d be hard-pressed to try and deny that.”
The department is now offering Alcoholics Anonymous and Family Violence Prevention Services workshops. Those efforts won’t fix the problems overnight, he acknowledges, but he’s confident they’ll pay off in three to ten years.
I ask Salazar what crime and justice have taught him about people.
“That there are bad people in the world,” he says. “They will prey upon children. They will victimize the elderly. They will steal your life savings if need be. There are people like that in the world. Do I think that all humanity is bad? No. Monsters are real, but for the most part, people can be fixed. People can fix themselves. They just need the right impetus to make that happen.”
I pose another question: What advice does he have for the sheriff of Bexar County in 2069?
“I’ll be 99 at that time, so I’m assuming you’re thinking I’m not going to be the sheriff at that time?” Salazar asks with a poker face. “Wow, that’s kind of insulting!”
But seriousness sets in and he continues. “My advice to the sheriff in 2069 is just do the right thing, even if it’s not the comfortable thing to do. Just keep doing your job and don’t let the naysayers discourage you.”
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