CANTON, Texas (KETK) – On the Van Zandt County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page are photos of newly elected sheriff Steve Hendrix supervising an inmate scrubbing the Van Zandt County Justice Center sign.
The sign sits on Highway 64 just west of downtown Canton. Thousands of motorists pass it every day. It is the first thing people see when they come to report a crime, meet with Hendrix or visit an inmate. For many, it is their first impression of the department.
Over the years, the sign had become dingy. Dark streaks extended from the top to the base.
To Hendrix, it was evidence that the department was not taking enough pride in itself. Having a dirty sign in front of the justice center was no longer acceptable.
“Today we spent a little time cleaning our sign in front of the Sheriff’s Office,” Hendrix wrote. “We are working hard to clean things up outside and inside. We are going to have some pride in the way we present ourselves and our sheriff’s office.”
Hendrix, who announced his candidacy in 2019, was part of a four-man race in the Republican primary that included Dale Corbett, the one-term incumbent sheriff; Tommy Monk, who had worked in the medical field; and Anthony “Big Tony” Katsoulas, who had a long career in law enforcement before moving to the county.
Hendrix campaigned that his background in law enforcement and business made him the best candidate.
He owns Gallant Restoration Management, a company in Edgewood he founded in 2015 that often does roofing work. Previously he worked five years in the Kaufman County Sheriff’s office, where he advanced from a deputy to a sergeant.
“Most aspects of the sheriff’s office should be run like a business,” Hendrix said during the campaign. “It is you, the citizens of Van Zandt County, who pay the price for lack of business experience and knowledge.”
He cited figures showing the county paid nearly $500,000 over three years to house a portion of the Van Zandt County prisoner population in Henderson County jail because the justice center did not have enough cells.
The solution, he said, is to spend money to reopen an auxiliary jail building that once housed low-risk prisoners.
He promised to create a Crimestoppers program in which people called in tips to help solve crimes. He pledged to spend the sheriff’s budget wisely and reduce overtime pay through better staff management.
In the primary, Corbett received 44% of the vote total. Hendrix had 30%, Monk 14% and Katsoulas, 12%. In the primary, Hendrix trailed Corbett by 400 votes.
Hendrix had ground to make up before the runoff election.
Hendrix held weekly online campaign forums during which he spoke about his vision for the department and answered questions.
On the night of the runoff election, Hendrix and his supporters gathered at the Kickin’ Mule, a restaurant in Canton. In early voting, Hendrix led 1,626 to 1,484 but as Election Day totals came in, his lead dropped lower and lower until it was almost gone.
Of the 6,708 votes cast, Hendrix won by the slimmest of margins – 18 votes. Corbett did not seek a recount. Hendrix did not have a Democratic opponent and became the sheriff elect.
Hendrix is one of several newly elected sheriffs in East Texas. KETK News recently spent time with some of the new sheriffs to learn more about their plans.
Other new sheriffs are:
- Cherokee County Brent Dickson
- Wood County Sheriff Kelly Cole
- Anderson County Sheriff Rudy Flores
- Henderson County Sheriff Johnwayne Valdez
Hendrix provided a tour of the justice center and spoke about the challenges of patrolling a county that covers 860 square miles and has a population of about 55,000 who mostly live in large expanses of unincorporated areas.
Heavily traveled Interstate 20 and highways 19, 64 and 80 all slice through Van Zandt County. And once a month, thanks to the popular First Monday Trade Days in Canton, the population in the county increases by several thousand.
Hendrix acknowledged that he has a lot of work to do.
“I love a challenge. … I like to find solutions to problems,” Hendrix said, adding that he is already solving what he believes was the department’s biggest problem: “Lack of leadership.”
“It starts at the top,” he said. “If you look sharp, your deputies are going to follow along and look sharp too. If you are professional, they are going to be professional. It is a trickle-down effect. It starts at the top and as sheriff, I’ll own that.”
In 2019, a female jail captain was charged with the crime of having an inappropriate relationship with a male prisoner.
“How could that have happened?” questioned Hendrix. “Either the sheriff knew about it and did nothing or worse yet didn’t know about it. That’s not going to happen on my watch.”
He brought up the arrest of the jail supervisor during his campaign. “When there is lack of leadership, this is what you get.”
Hendrix has a new leadership team in place and is working with other county leaders.
“Today I had a wonderful time meeting with all four of our VZ County justices of the peace and our county judge,” Hendrrix said in a Facebook posting. “We had a great discussion and we all share in the same goal of cooperation and working together to best serve the citizens of our county.”
Hendrix said one of his most pressing goals is to increase staffing and put more deputies in the county. On some shifts, only two deputies are on patrol, he said earlier.
“My mother’s house was broken into and you could see fingerprints on the windows,” one woman wrote to Hendrix during the campaign. “I was told that I didn’t understand how expensive it was to do fingerprinting. And no officer ever responded to my follow up calls. How will that be handled now?” she asked.
Hendrix replied: “When I am your sheriff, we WILL respond to each and every call! NO EXCUSES! Nothing will be more important than someone who is calling for help! I will restore your confidence in your sheriff’s office!”
Shortly after taking office, Hendrix posted a video in which he encouraged people to apply for vacant positions in the department.
Walking through the portion of the justice center that houses inmates, Hendrix stopped at the entrance to the kitchen where some inmates who helped the jail staff prepare lunch were eating.
Too many inmates commit crimes after they are released because they do not have jobs or hope, Hendrix said. He points to Hopkins County as a sheriff’s office that is addressing this problem and doing other things right.
“They are doing some great things for their citizens and county. They have turned the jail into a place that focuses on rehabilitating and also puts money back into the county funds,” he said.
Hendrix said Hopkins County significantly reduced its recidivism rate after starting job training programs in the jail.
Inmates who pass screenings and show a desire to learn are taught to be butchers and acquire culinary skills that can help them land jobs once they are released.
Hopkins County also uses inmates to clean county offices, set up the convention center for special events, repair equipment and keep trash off county roads. These tasks save Hopkins County money, Hendrix said.
He praised the county’s jail ministry. He said chaplains come into that jail to counsel and pray with inmates.
“We can do these things here. I am confident of it,” he said.
Hendrix said he is using social media to let the public know about what is going on and “stay connected with residents.”
On the morning of Jan. 17, Hendrix released information that deputies had arrested a Grand Saline man for sexual assault of a child.
“I will not tolerate this type of activity in Van Zandt County, our children and grandchildren will be protected and we will do everything we can to keep them safe,” he said in the post. He thanked the Grand Saline Police Department and the Precinct 1 constable deputies “who assisted us in taking this child predator off of the street.”
He plans to hold online community forums to answer questions and is speaking to groups about his plans.
After attending a Fruitvale ISD board meeting, the school district posted the following. “The board was impressed with how safety for our children and training was emphasized. We plan to work closely with the department and they offered support and help in several areas to all school districts.”
CHANGING THE CULTURE
Hendrix acknowledges that perhaps his biggest challenge is establishing and maintaining a new culture within the department.
“This is a customer-service business. You have to put the needs of the citizens first. When people call (the sheriff’s office) whatever their situation is … that is the most important thing to them. It means everything to them.”
Hendrix said all in the department “will treat everyone with respect and that employees will be better trained and held to a higher standard. … I will make you proud of your sheriff’s department again,” he said.