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Tarrant County commissioner urges transparency from sheriff’s office after jail deaths

Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Read the latest in our coverage of the death of Anthony Johnson Jr. and other issues in Tarrant County jail.

Tarrant County Commissioner Manny Ramirez announced Thursday that he will propose a plan to address “deficiencies” in how the sheriff’s office communicates and releases information about in-custody deaths.

Ramirez’s statement comes two days after Sheriff Bill Waybourn skipped a Commissioners Court meeting in which recent jail deaths were on the agenda, including Marine veteran Anthony Johnson Jr. in April. Instead of a briefing for commissioners, a county administrator read from two press releases the sheriff had used earlier to announce the deaths.

Johnson’s family has demanded information about how he died, including the release of video from inside the jail. The sheriff has refused, saying the case is under investigation. The Star-Telegram has also sought the video through public records requests.

Ramirez stopped short of calling on the sheriff to release the video.

“After observing the response to several recent critical incidents, including the most recent death in custody of Mr. Anthony Johnson, it has become apparent that we are not doing enough to share information with the public,” Ramirez, a former police officer, wrote in a one-page statement. “While every critical incident is unique and will undoubtedly demand a sensitive decision-making process, the public should know what the process is and what to expect as the process proceeds.”

Johnson, 31, died on April 21 after being pepper-sprayed in an altercation with guards during a routine contraband check of his cell, the sheriff’s office has said. He was arrested on April 19 in the throes of a mental health crisis, after his family says he was turned away from a mental hospital.

Commissioner Alisa Simmons has demanded that the sheriff’s office release video of altercation that led to Johnson’s death.

Simmons is one of two Democrats on the Commissioners Court. Ramirez is one of three Republicans. Their fellow commissioners have not publicly commented on the Johnson case.

Ramirez said his proposed policy changes for the sheriff’s office largely mirror best practices and will include proposed timelines to release video, notify next of kin and provide media briefings. Ramirez is the former president of the Fort Worth Police Officers Association.

“The Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office needs more transparent, structured, and consistent communication policies for handling critical incident reporting and releasing video,” Ramirez said.

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