The University of Houston-Downtown’s Center for Public Service and Community Research debuted its vitalalumni speakers’ series last week with Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez as its inaugural guest. He spoke to criminal justice students, faculty and staff about how his time at UHD paved the way for his current role as leader of the largest sheriff’s office in Texas, and the third largest nationwide.
Gonzalez was introduced by Dr. Juan Sánchez Muñoz, UHD President, who recalled the sheriff’s service to the community during Harvey.
“I saw him time and time again during the worst of the storm trying to inspire those who faced such difficulty,” Muñoz said. “This is what this College of Public Service and this University produces … this caliber of public servant.”
Gonzalez recounted his humble beginnings with pride, growing up in the Near Northside area of the Houston Heights. He spoke fondly of his hard-working parents who encouraged him to achieve success. Still, he acknowledged his surprise when discovering that his father faced his own challenges.
“Something very interesting happened to me when I was 6 years old. I found out that my dad couldn’t read or write,” he said. “And honestly, I was embarrassed.”
Regardless of this fact, Gonzalez’ father remained a lifelong hero who instilled a strong work ethic and sense of confidence in his son.
“He told me I could do whatever I wanted to do,” Gonzalez said. “And I believed him, so I believed in myself. I learned something from him that still sticks with me to this day. Some people need a navigator in life to guide you without judgement.”
In 2000, Gonzalez earned a Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice from UHD’s College of Public Service. He went on to serve 18 years in the Houston Police Department, first as a civilian, then as a police officer and member of the hostage negotiation team, as well as a homicide investigator.
“I feel that my time here, my education really prepared me for that, because it helped provide a foundation that I— and now all of you—could build upon.”
Gonzalez was elected to Houston City Council District H in 2009 and served as mayor pro tem and chairman on the Council’s Public Safety & Homeland Security Committee.
He credits his respected mentor and friend Adrian Garcia for sparking an interest in the political process. Gonzalez joined Garcia in his race for City Council, where he enjoyed working many aspects of the campaign. Years later, Garcia was elected Sheriff for Harris County, and became yet another mentor to Gonzalez.
“It’s funny because we just both followed similar paths in life, but it wasn’t on purpose,” Gonzalez said. “We’d come from the same neighborhood, similar families, met at HPD, and worked together in similar capacities. I just saw his passion for community engagement and admired it.”
After serving three terms in public policy, Gonzalez felt compelled to revisit his roots in law enforcement and placed his bid for Harris County Sheriff. During his campaign, Gonzalez returned to UHD for a debate against then-Sheriff Ron Hickman and was elected in November 2016.
“I missed my first chosen profession in law enforcement and everything I learned,” he said. “It made sense to me because it combined my passion for public service and law enforcement.”
During his first nine months in office, his momentum and determination as sheriff were on a triumphant path; until late August, when Harvey turned the entire greater Houston area and the lives of its residents upside down.
“It was an incredible experience for me,” said Gonzalez. “Being out there all day, doing rescues in water up to my neck, then at the end of the day, coming back to take care of more conflicts and trying to keep up the morale of detention officers, making sure 8,500 inmates were being taken care of.”
The community continues to recover from Harvey, and the work of a sheriff is never quite complete. Still, the long hours spent as the county’s top law enforcement officer and civic leader continue to pay off for Gonzalez. Case in point … the opportunity to share his insights with students at his alma mater and the continued inspiration from his father.
“One of my biggest highlights was being invited back [to UHD] not only tonight and for the Sheriff’s Debate, but as a commencement speaker here several years ago,” he said. “Being in front of that big crowd [at the graduation ceremony] was pretty amazing. In the moments before taking the stage. I thought again about my dad, not being able to read or write, the amazing country that we were living in—and the way that things worked out for us.”