Tarrant County commissioners demand more transparency from sheriff's office after inmate's death

The recent death of an inmate at the Tarrant County jail has commissioners taking a closer look at its policies and procedures.

In a briefing to the Tarrant County Commissioners Court on Tuesday, Sheriff Bill Waybourn showed a video of inmates attacking jailers. He said that is not the Tarrant County jail.  By contrast, the sheriff pointed to a second video that does represent the Tarrant County jail, showing inmates helping jailers in distress.

"They’re coming to the aid of the officers. They stopped that. They got the other inmate off and held him until other officers could get there to assist," he said.

Waybourn says his crisis intervention team has a focus of de-escalation. His briefing is in the wake of the death of inmate Anthony Ray Johnson, Jr., who was shown struggling with jailers in a video released last week. He was pepper sprayed, restrained and died, despite medical response.

Two jailers have been fired as a result of the ongoing investigation.

"The deaths in the Tarrant County jail on my tour, this is the only one that’s happened like this," the sheriff said.

"The bottom line is we need something because we’ve got to get better," said Tarrant County Commissioner Manny Ramirez.

Johnson’s family said they waited three weeks after his death without any updates, calling into question the department’s lack of policy for releasing timely information after critical incidents.

"When next of kin is briefed, what happens within 24 to 48 hours? What happens in the 30 to 60 days beyond? What is our set standard for releasing digital evidence including all videos? I think we have to set those limits and make sure the public is aware of them," Ramirez said.

"We are not trying to have a lack of transparency at the sheriff’s office. It’s very important to us," said Jennifer Gabbert, the sheriff's office’s chief of staff.

Tarrant County Commissioner Alisa Simmons urged Ramirez to go a step further by voting to use the county’s purse strings to hold the sheriff accountable.

"We can recommend policies and procedures to be followed until the cows come home," she said. "But unless we exercise the appropriations power that we collectively have, there is absolutely no reason for the sheriff to take us seriously."

Tarrant County Commissioner Roy Brooks urged better training of jailers to be made a priority, and he wants something else done away with.

"I don’t think pepper spray has served as well in Tarrant County, and I’d like to see you find an alternative," he said. "One death related to pepper spray is one death too many, and we’ve had more than one."

Johnson is the fifth inmate to die at the Tarrant County jail this year.