Tarrant County commissioner says she’ll ask feds to investigate latest jail death

Tarrant County Commissioner Alisa Simmons said she will ask the U.S Department of Justice to investigate the death of Anthony Ray Johnson Jr. after he died in the Tarrant County Jail on Sunday morning.

In a statement on Monday, Simmons called the jail’s death rate “incredibly high” and said her request was due to the “continual problem of people dying in Tarrant County jail facilities.”

As of April 2023, there had been 54 deaths in the last five years in the Tarrant County Jail. In nearby counties with a similar population size, the numbers are in a similar range: In Bexar, there were about 63 deaths and in Dallas County there were 44 deaths.

“I want accountability, I expect transparency and I want a full investigation into everything that occurred, before, during and after the altercation and the subsequent death of Mr. Johnson in our jail, including video footage,” the statement from Simmons said.

The Star-Telegram has also requested video footage of the altercation.

Simmons said she hopes her Commissioners Court colleagues are as interested as she is to mitigate jail deaths and hopes they will support a Justice Department investigation.

Johnson, 31, a Marine Corps veteran, died after he was pepper-sprayed during what the sheriff’s office calls a routine contraband check.

The Texas Rangers are investigating Johnson’s cause of death.

A spokesperson for County Judge Tim O’Hare said O’Hare trusts Sheriff Bill Waybourn will handle the situation appropriately.

“Judge O’Hare has complete confidence that the Texas Rangers will conduct a thorough and reliable investigation,” the spokesperson said. “He intends to await the conclusion of that investigation before making any additional statements.”

The sheriff’s office declined to comment and said information about the case would have to be requested through the Texas Rangers.

The Texas Department of Public Safety, who oversees the Texas Rangers, did not respond to a request for comment.

Johnson’s death marked the second in-custody death in four days at the jail.

Simmons’ call for a Justice Department review of the jail is not the first time those concerned about the conditions have asked for federal intervention.

Last year, Broadway Baptist Church’s Justice Committee, United Fort Worth, ICE Out of Tarrant and the Texas A&M School of Law Legal Clinics cosigned a 39-page letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland asking for a federal investigation into the 2019 death of an inmate who was pepper-sprayed repeatedly at close range.

“A year ago, Broadway Baptist Church joined with other community organizations in calling for a Department of Justice investigation of the Tarrant County Jail. The grossly disproportionate number of in-custody deaths and the use of chemical weapons by jail staff were listed as specific concerns in our complaint,” Jennifer Nelson, director of communications and membership engagement at Broadway Baptist Church, said in a statement.

“As the number of deaths continues to rise, we express our sympathies to all families whose loved ones have died in detention and we continue to call upon the Department of Justice to begin a complete and exhaustive investigation of the policies and practices of the Tarrant County Jail.”

There have been 65 jail deaths since Waybourn took office in 2017.