Profile: Sheriff Lupe Valdez
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Profile: Sheriff Lupe Valdez
As the highest-ranking law enforcement officer in Dallas County, Sheriff Lupe Valdez might not fit the average bill of what historically comes to mind when you mention “Texas Sheriff.” She is one of four female sheriffs in the State of Texas and is the only Hispanic female sheriff in the United States. A featured speaker at this year’s Democratic National Convention, Lupe’s message to her officers and the community is clear: “The only way to serve your community is to know your community.” An advocate for equal rights—regardless of ethnicity, sexual orientation, or ethnic background—Lupe is a firm believer that getting to know and understand a person’s background (though different from your own) is the first step for establishing positive relationships in the community. She also recognizes how a physical environment can affect equity in neighborhoods.
Columns met Sheriff Valdez at her office in the Frank Crowley Courts Building to discuss some of the challenges in our society, the physical and social constraints certain communities face, and how access to livable amenities like reliable transit, new businesses, and vibrant public spaces are helping bridge gaps and create more equitable futures for our communities.
Let’s discuss this quote from your recent address at the Texas Democratic Party Convention this year: “I am Hispanic, female, lesbian, and Democrat.” How do these traits shape your perspective as Dallas County Sheriff? What challenges have you faced?
It’s like I tell my police chiefs: When we learn to speak in each other’s cultural language, we will understand each other a lot better. I think I’m blessed with the ability to speak to different perspectives. I have the ability to speak Hispanic, female, and lesbian, to name a few. I also speak “law enforcement,” which has allowed me to address the long-standing structural issues within the department I serve. It has helped me partner with the Dallas County Commissioner’s Court, Parkland Hospital, Dallas County Constables, as well as several judges in the Dallas County District Attorney’s office to improve the quality of our correctional facilities, our health care for inmates and to expand our highway patrol system to allow for greater coverage of in-county highways. There will always be challenges when dealing with the status-quo or with people who have different viewpoints. However, when you can connect with people on many different things, it makes you much more relatable.
If budget funds were available, what are some things you would improve in your department?
I would implement a 24-hour childcare service for current and potential employees. It would allow us to hire more qualified individuals who would not be turned away because they are concerned with who will take care of their children during their shifts. Many qualified individuals apply for positions in our department, but are turned away because of the question “What am I going to do with my kids?” What is a single mother with two children going to do? How do you fill a 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift without 24-hour childcare? We would also implement better training for our officers. There are tough hurdles to overcome in training, like de-escalating a tense situation and dealing with the mentally ill. We also have to train our officers for 100-plus mph car chases and where to do that is always a question. We have used abandoned mall parking lots like Big Town Mall or expansive land in Grand Prairie as training grounds for these types of chases.
Are there initiatives in your department that encourage or promote equity in the law enforcement workforce?
You can’t serve a community that you don’t know, so we have to know our community. We try to make it important to be a part of the different cultural events around our community. There’s Hispanic Heritage Month, Juneteenth, Black History Month, Kwanzaa, the Irish Festival, and Ramadan, to name a few. Every year I’m invited to at least two or three events for Ramadan. We call it “Duty Week,” where an officer is required to attend one of these events if it coincides with your Duty Week. It provides representation from the Sheriff’s Department at one of these events and shows that we care about what’s going on in the community. Sometimes these are new and different cultural experiences for our officers, but the people appreciate that we are there.
How can your department more effectively involve minority communities in ensuring the safety of our neighborhoods?
Hire them. … We need to recruit more minorities. There should be multiple nationalities out there working to ensure the safety and well-being of the community. It has to start from the top. Sometimes you have to be strong in your direction—even when it’s uncomfortable or unpopular. Have you ever gone to a party or event and seen people grouped up with their own kind? It’s a natural tendency to feel comfortable with your own. It can be natural human behavior. However, a pastor once told me if someone comes to church and doesn’t see themselves in the leadership, there’s a good chance they’re not coming back. I want my officers to connect with the community on a good basis before they have to deal with them in a confrontational situation. It’s service to the people who depend on you.
As one who spends time in different communities across Dallas, what are some of the challenges you see facing areas that might be physically or socially disconnected from the greater city? Do you think the lack of resources, infrastructure, or low quality of life determines the inequity certain individuals face?
We have to recognize the issues and start a conversation. We have to give individuals that face economic disparity opportunities to succeed and better their situations. We have initiatives that can encourage this type of action like the anti-poverty task force [that] Mayor Mike Rawlings has put together that aims to put individuals on a pathway to financial stability by providing employment support, job skills training, and financial education. Look at the success of Klyde Warren Park in the city. We need more parks like this that connect to other neighborhoods around the city that have been isolated due to poor urban planning and slow economic growth. To use the analogy of the internet as a “superhighway of information,” I remember years ago when the internet was being introduced to the masses. An individual said to me, “That’s great that they’re bringing the internet and flow of information to everyone. This new highway of information will be great, but you know there won’t be an off-ramp to my neighborhood!” He was concerned that his neighborhood would be glanced over when funding or infrastructure improvements were set in play. Therefore, I think it’s important that we have an “off-road” or accessibility to all neighborhoods for them to grow and thrive.
What about affordable housing initiatives in Dallas or other ways communities can help alleviate poverty and allow individuals a path to better their economic situation?
It depends on how you define affordable housing. If you put all the poor folks in one area and expect them to change their behavior and economic situation, it is not always successful. Sometimes by changing a person’s environment you can change their perspective and outlook. There is a four-plex housing model that I have seen work successfully in encouraging positive behavior. Take areas that have seen recent economic growth of new business, infrastructure, and amenities—like Bishop Arts or Deep Ellum—for example. The market rates for rent might be higher than some can afford. By leasing three of the units at a fair market rate and leasing one unit at an affordable housing rate to someone who might not be able to afford the area otherwise, you have changed that person’s environment and given him or her access to new amenities. The other three tenants are going to influence the behavior of that fourth person and it’s going to make a total difference in their life. It’s important to create new opportunities for people to better themselves and their situation.
What are some ways architects and planners can influence and change the trajectory of those affected by poverty and who generally lack the essential components of livability?
I love what the mayor is doing with reviving the connectivity of certain communities and bringing in new businesses and jobs, and creating a more decent quality of life. Oftentimes, this is a community-wide, cross-sector effort that looks to build a stronger system. In some of these communities, it is very obvious that there is no grocery store, no public transportation, no good schools, and therefore no jobs. If you have an area that lacks these basic building blocks, then it will suffer from low economic growth. Architects alongside smart urban planning can influence these decisions. If we work toward equity and build stronger, more resilient communities, then it will be difficult for poverty to attach itself to these areas. Obviously this isn’t always the case, but with new infrastructure and urban planning we now have bridges, highways, and transportation modes that are reconnecting our city. Now we have ways to move in and out of Dallas.
Outside of being sheriff of Dallas, do you have any dreams or goals you would like to achieve?
One thing I have learned from working with women in our system is that most have always relied solely on a male figure. My dream would be to run an organic farm operated by women who are re-entering society. This type of program will bring confidence in these women, many of whom were abused early in life. However, if we can teach them to learn to use tools for a year, how to grow, manage and operate the machinery needed in growing a farm, then they’re going to come out with the confident feelings that they can achieve anything. We could even turn it into a community-based effort where, under the proper supervision and resources, these women work alongside one another and build a sense of community, with amenities like a cafeteria, kitchen, and dormitory.
It has been a busy year for you. What do you enjoy doing in your time off? … Any vacation destinations?
Every year, I take a silent retreat. There are several monasteries that cater to silent retreats for three to four days and many are in great locations across the country—on mountains or lakes and with surrounding landscapes that help you totally relax. It’s like a detox for me. The phones are off and it’s total silence as you let your mind reset.
Interview by Ezra Loh, Assoc. AIA with Corgan.