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Prominent Texas Dems Join Tarrant County Sheriff Candidate To Make His Case Against Bill Waybourn

A screenshot of Vance Keyes, wearing a white shit and glasses, speaking during a virtual event. He's in a white-walled room with a bookshelf behind him.
Miranda Suarez
Vance Keyes speaks during a virtual Q&A about his candidacy for Tarrant County sheriff.

Bill Waybourn has caused controversy by signing the sheriff's department up for a program that lets his deputies act as ICE agents. Vance Keyes wants to end that program.

A 20-year veteran of the Fort Worth Police Department is running to unseat current Tarrant County Sheriff Bill Waybourn, who’s had a controversial tenure since 2016.

Vance Keyes served in the Marines before becoming a police officer, according to his website.

The first goal listed on his platform is to “Put an end to the divisive rhetoric and fear mongering tactics of the current administration.”

Waybourn has drawn criticism for his stance on immigration. He volunteered his department for a federal program that uses local sheriff's deputes to help Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detain undocumented immigrants. County commissioners voted to extend the ICE contract in June.

Part of Keyes’s plan is to end that policy, which is officially called the 287(g) program. At a virtual Q&A Wednesday, he said Tarrant County’s participation in the program makes it an outlier.

"There are over 12,000 local police agencies in the United States. Over 3,000 sheriff's departments," he said. "And the vast majority of those agencies choose not to have a 287(g) agreement because they realize that it negatively impacts their community."

Former Texas representative and presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke, who joined the Q&A to stump for Keyes, said that negative impact is fear.

"It demonstrably makes us less safe when some significant part of our community fears law enforcement instead of being willing to work with law enforcement," he said.

Last year, Waybourn spoke alongside ICE's director at the White House and defended the agency’s work. He emphasized what he considers the importance of keeping undocumented inmates with criminal convictions detained.

"If we have to turn them loose or they get released, they're coming back to your neighborhood and my neighborhood," he said. "These drunks will run over your children and they will run over my children."

During the Q&A, Keyes also challenged Waybourn’s level of experience.

"Not to disparage the city where he worked as a police chief, but it was a very small city of about 2,000 people,” Keyes said.

Waybourn was police chief of Dalworthington Gardens, Texas for 31 years, according to his official bio.

Keyes said his own 20 years of experience policing one of America's biggest cities has prepared him to become sheriff.

Kim Olson, who recently ran an unsuccessful primary campaign for a North Texas congressional seat, also joined the Q&A to advocate for Keyes. She said winning this race in Tarrant County — which is unusually conservative for a large Texas county — is one step to strengthening Democrats in Texas.

“The point is, we have to tip Fort Worth blue if we’re gonna have a chance with this state,” she said.

Keyes said although he is running as a Democrat, if he wins, he will operate the department impartially, and with reform and the community’s interests in mind.

“You’re gonna treat them with equity, and that’s not a right or a left agenda,” he said.

Tarrant County will vote for sheriff on Nov. 3.

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.