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Tarrant County commissioners push for change in jail after Anthony Johnson Jr.'s death

Sheriff Bill Waybourn, a man with a white mustache and wearing a black cowboy hat, sits and listens to a speaker while sitting at a table. Blurred shoulders frame him in the foreground.
Yfat Yossifor
Sheriff Bill Waybourn listens to a panelist during a town hall about the Tarrant County Jail in January. Waybourn told commissioners Tuesday, May 21, that about 60% of the jail population receives services from MHMR, which runs mental health care within the jail.

After Anthony Johnson Jr. died in Tarrant County jail custody last month, county leaders are looking for ways to prevent future deaths and improve transparency.

Johnson died after an altercation with Tarrant County jailers on April 21. His mother and sisters demanded to see video of the fight, which was not released until May 16. Sheriff Bill Waybourn also shared video clips with the public. One clip, captured on a phone, shows one jailer kneeling on Johnson’s back while he was restrained on the floor. At one point, Johnson told jailers he couldn’t breathe.

Waybourn fired the officer who knelt on Johnson and the supervisor who didn’t stop him. Johnson’s official cause of death has not been released yet.

Johnson’s death was one of more than 60 in county custody since Waybourn took office in 2017.

Waybourn and one of his chiefs addressed county commissioners Tuesday on the way jailers are trained to respond to incidents like this one, and efforts to guide communication after future jail deaths.

‘Shock and awe'

Democratic County Commissioner Alisa Simmons requested an explanation for why Tarrant County doesn’t have a special response teams in the jail. Those are teams dedicated to responding to violence behind bars, and other large Texas counties, like El Paso, use them.

Waybourn explained why with a photo of an officer he said serves on the special response team in the Bexar County Jail. The officer was decked out in black SWAT gear, including a helmet with a metal face screen, like a football helmet.

Deploying officers dressed like that just escalates situations, Waybourn said. It signals to prisoners they’re there for a fight.

“This would spread fear and take any hope away that we have in the pods,” he said.

Instead, Waybourn relies on detention officers to deescalate situations, which is part of their training, he said.

“I want you to know that our jailers on duty [are] often these people’s doctor, they’re often their chaplain, often their guardian, they’re often their social worker, and of course, their corrections officer, all rolled up into one for about $53,000 a year,” he said.

Democratic Commissioner Roy Charles Brooks agreed he would rather not see special response teams in Tarrant County — “that shock and awe business in the Star Wars type of suits,” he said.

But for Waybourn’s model to work, detention officers need to be committed to de-escalation in every situation, he said.

“It requires constant training and retraining to emphasize the techniques that we want those jailers to use, without fail,” Brooks said. “They’ve got to use them in each and every case. There’s no room for deviation from the best practice.”

“Right,” Waybourn agreed.

Roy Charles Brooks Tarrant County Commissioner of Precinct 1, listens to a speaker at the weekly commissioner meeting in downtown Fort Worth on Tuesday, March 14, 2023.
Emily Nava
Tarrant County Commissioner Roy Charles Brooks listens to a speaker at the Commissioners Court meeting in downtown Fort Worth on Tuesday, March 14, 2023.

Brooks also urged Waybourn to move away from the use of pepper spray. The Sheriff's Office has also said Johnson was pepper sprayed during the fight.

The jail’s current practices do not prevent deaths, violence and neglect, said Pamela Young, executive director of the activist group United Fort Worth.

She pointed to Chasity Congious, a woman who gave birth alone in her cell in 2020 and lost her baby 10 days later. At the same meeting Tuesday, commissioners approved a $1.2 million settlement in a lawsuit brought by Congious’ mother, the largest payout in county history.

“The answer is not more training and more police, more gear,” Young told commissioners during public comment. “The answer is to get people out of the jail who do not belong there.”

Waybourn has previously said the jail is the county’s biggest psychiatric hospital. On Tuesday, he told commissioners right now, about 60% of the jail population receives services from MHMR, which runs mental health care within the jail. Sometimes that percentage is even higher, though the existence of the Mental Health Jail Diversion Center does help, he said.

Johnson was diagnosed with schizophrenia. His family sought mental health care for him the day he was arrested, but a treatment facility turned him away because he wasn’t deemed a threat to himself or others, his mother has said. Johnson ended up in jail after he allegedly wielded a knife at a driver in Saginaw.

Tarrant County needs to offer more mental health care options outside the jail, Brooks said.

“We as a county, we as a community, have to figure out how to do that differently,” he said.

More transparency

The Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office also indicated Tuesday it plans to change the way it communicates about deaths in the jail.

Sheriff’s Office Chief of Staff Jennifer Gabbert told commissioners the agency will craft a policy about releasing information to the public, so people aren’t left wondering about controversial cases.

That policy may not include immediate release of video, she said.

“We’re not trying to have a lack of transparency in the Sheriff’s Office,” Gabbert said. “It’s very important to us that we make sure that the investigation is done well and appropriately at the beginning, and then as things can be released, we’re willing to release them if it will not affect the investigation.”

Republican County Commissioner Manny Ramirez proposed a communications policy earlier this month, when he criticized how the Sheriff’s Office handled communication about Johnson’s death. He called for greater transparency, for both the public and the family.

“If an event happens today, there’s no plan or guidelines for how we will respond to it,” Ramirez said Tuesday.

Ramirez suggested establishing a timeline for when video is released, and for what information the public can know within the first few days and weeks of an investigation. That would give people something to point to if the Sheriff’s Office doesn’t follow the policy, he said.

Manny Ramirez Tarrant County Commissioner of Precinct 4, listens to a speaker during the weekly commissioners meeting in downtown Fort Worth on Tuesday, March 14, 2023.
Emily Nava
Manny Ramirez, Tarrant County Commissioner Precinct 4, listens to a speaker during a Commissioners Court meeting in downtown Fort Worth on Tuesday, March 14, 2023.

Simmons said commissioners also need to be more aggressive with their biggest power: the power of the purse.

The Commissioners Court can’t tell other elected officials like the sheriff what to do, but they do control his budget.

“This body needs to be willing to exercise our one potent tool to ensure accountability,” she said.

Speaking directly to Ramirez, Simmons said his call for a new communications policy “means, really, absolutely diddly if you are unwilling to join me in putting an ‘or else’ with regard to funding behind this request.”

Simmons said last week she supports calls for Waybourn to resign.

She and members of the public also renewed calls to see all the video captured of Johnson’s altercation with jailers.

The Sheriff’s Office has resisted Simmons’ requests to show county commissioners the footage behind closed doors, she said. She wants to see the 14 or 15 minutes of video she said exists, beyond the five minutes the sheriff released.

“Court members should not be treated like the general public, because we have additional responsibility as elected officials who are responsible for governing this county,” she said.

Got a tip? Email Miranda Suarez at You can follow Miranda on Twitter @MirandaRSuarez.

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Miranda Suarez is KERA’s Tarrant County accountability reporter. Before coming to North Texas, she was the Lee Ester News Fellow at Wisconsin Public Radio, where she covered statewide news from the capital city of Madison. Miranda is originally from Massachusetts and started her public radio career at WBUR in Boston.