By Joe Johnson
When Walton County voters head to the polls to choose their sheriff on Tuesday they will be seeing a re-match between incumbent Joe Chapman and former Social Circle police officer Mike Sledge.
Four years ago, Chapman won with more than 90 percent of the vote against Sledge, who ran a write-in campaign after failing to get on the ballot as an independent.
This time, Sledge will be facing off against Chapman in the Republican primary. Since there are no Democratic candidates, the winner of the primary will be Walton County’s next sheriff. And now more than ever county residents need a new sheriff in town, according to a pair of Athens-Clarke County police veterans who want to oust the four-term sheriff and bring the skills and professionalism they developed at ACCPD.
In his 16 years as sheriff, Chapman has a history of “leading from behind,” which allowed for an environment of corruption and unethical behavior by deputies, according to Sledge, a 47-year-old former Social Circle police officer and a defense contractor who got his start in law enforcement with ACCPD in 2002.
If he wins, Sledge said he will appoint Sgt. Jimmy Carter, currently ACCPD’s homeland security advisor, as one of his two chief deputies. The other chief deputy would be Jason Stribling, an arson investigator who previously served with the Social Circle and Georgia Tech police departments.
“As for the remaining staff, we will attempt to find a position to relocate them within the WCSO,” Sledge said. “They are all very valuable assets to the success of the department.”
The extra value that Sledge and Carter would bring to the Walton County Sheriff’s Office will be second-to-none, they said, due largely in part to the leadership skills they developed while with the Athens-Clarke County Police Department, a nationally accredited law enforcement agency that is widely viewed as among Georgia’s finest.
“From the time we are hired our training for leadership immediately begins,” Carter said. “We are afforded the best training, mentoring, and leadership from our peers. We are not simply hired to be officers we are hired to have a career in law enforcement, to be leaders, to excel and learn all aspects of the job so that when the time comes for us to step up into the role of our supervisors we ready for the challenge and eager to train others to follow in our footsteps.”
Carter added, “Our leadership would be better than the current administration in Walton County because we will bring knowledge and new technology to a department who has not taken advantage of said technology. We will offer an open-door policy where all staff are treated equally and fairly. We will offer advanced training opportunities as we want the deputies to have not just a job but a career where we start to produce our own leadership from within.”
Sledge pledged to seek accreditation for the WCSO if elected.
Sledge said that he and his leadership team would bring much-needed professionalism to an agency that has been accused of such wrongdoings as planting evidence, and threatening juvenile offenders that they could be sexually assaulted in the Walton County Jail if they were ever arrested again.
Such an incident was captured by a Monroe police officer, which found its way onto YouTube. When Chapman found out he issued an order that no body cameras were to be turned on in the jail, according to Sledge.
Sledge has also used in his campaign a video of a 2016 bar fight in Florida that the current sheriff and one of his deputies were involved in to illustrate Chapman’s character. Chapman was arrested for battery, which was later reduced to disorderly conduct before the case was dismissed in 2017 after officials in Florida certified that Chapman and Maj. Damien Mercer completed a “deferred prosecution agreement,” the AJC previously reported, citing court records.
Sledge joined the U.S. Army in 1995 and later was part of the 3rd Infantry Regiment, “The Old Guard,” as an escort to the president.
He joined the Athens-Clarke police in 2002, then moved to the Social Circle Police Department in 2007.
After going overseas as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Sledge returned to Georgia and worked as a reserve officer in Comer, then back to Social Circle from 2013-16.
He accepted a defense contract position in 2016, working in maritime security.
Sledge described himself as “a humble, open-minded and fun individual once you get to know me.”
“I’m not perfect, but I try my best,” he said. “I believe business is business and sometimes I will have to be strict. Not everyone will always agree and like outcomes; however, I will be fair and equal to all.”
Sledge promised to work with youths “to keep them on the right path of life,” and said he’d be working alongside deputies to respond to calls.
“I love to fish so if you’re out fishing, don’t be surprised to see me stop by to say hi, see how they are biting and join the fun,” he said.
“My office door will always be open and ready to hear from the citizens and the community. Please understand it might not be at the very moment you wish but will be as soon as my schedule allows — you will be heard.
“Once given the great honor to serve as the new sheriff, we will lead the Walton County sheriff’s department to new heights and a new direction, making all deputies public servants of the year every year.
“Public service is in my blood. It’s part of who I am,” Sledge said. “I want to help make the lives of not only the citizens of Walton County better, but also the deputies, jailers and entire staff of the Sheriff’s Office.
“I want them to be proud of the job they are doing and give them the respect they rightfully deserve. I hope to build morale and bring the department closer together as one big happy family. I want them to know they can come to me; my door will always be open.
Sheriff Chapman is a lifelong resident of Walton County, where he and his wife raised three sons.
He served six years in the United States Marine Corps. After being honorably discharged he enlisted in the Georgia Army National Guard. Chapman retired as the 178th Military Police Company's First Sergeant after a 16-year career with the National Guard. During his career. Chapman completed a tour as guard commander at Camp Delta in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
His law enforcement career began in 1987 with the Monroe Police Department. Chapman has served as an investigator with the Walton County Juvenile Court, after transferring to the sheriff’s office he held the position of investigator/sergeant in the Criminal Investigations Division. He was elected Sheriff in 2004.
Among the changes under a Sledge administration, the sheriff’s office would utilize a greater number of uniformed deputies.
“By creating a reserve program, this will allow and ensure that we will have more numbers of deputies on the streets in order to effectively respond to a higher call volume throughout the week,” Sledge said. “This will be provided at no additional cost to the citizens of Walton county. Average counties with a population of close to 100,000 have approximately 12-20 officers. However, Walton county on average has 8 on a good night.”
Sledge said he would implement a reform program for inmates at the county jail.
“The new department will provide at no additional cost to the taxpayer, an education system to help inmates become better individuals if desired. We can no longer allow a revolving door for criminals. Allowing them to sit in jail and swap stories on how to become better criminals, as currently promoted, is no longer an option,” the candidate said. “We will be putting into place a general education program, and trade school programs so that when an inmate with the desire to change his or her life has that option to enter the world again with diplomas and certificates. This will give them a new light on life with hope and possibilities.”
Also under a new administration, Sledge said that deputies would receive additional skills and training, including cultural awareness classes.
“As years pass, people and their culture change,” he said. “We as a people, deputies need to realize how certain things we say affect others. As we want to be spoken to properly, we will return the same courtesy to the citizens of Walton County.
Sledge also vowed to bring accountability to the sheriff’s office.
“We will be courteous to others as they respectfully deserve,” he said. “If the deputies act in a non-professional manner they will be dealt with in a professional way,” from verbal and written warnings to suspension and termination.
Sledge said he would use asset forfeiture funds to annually help the Walton County Recreation Department to purchase new equipment.
“The Walton County Sheriff's Office will also be looking for some donated land to build a youth playground-park,” Sledge said. “This facility will be maintained by the trustee division of the jail.”
Sledge promised to create a professional standards/internal affairs division.
“This division will be responsible for all complaints and will be one of the highest areas of attention and education under a new administration,” he said. “We need to be held to a higher standard and this department will be ran professionally, honestly, and ethically.”
Sledge added, “From day one, I will have an outside source come into our department to assist with getting us on track to state certification so we can qualify for state and federal grants and monies that will assist and allow this department to grow.”
Other new divisions Sledge promised to create are Traffic Enforcement and a countywide narcotics task force.
Traffic Enforcement’s responsibilities would include monitoring the roadways for speeding and other traffic violations, and conducting accident investigations.
“This is a required unit as Walton Cunty has a high number of traffic accidents weekly and the majority are due to not obeying traffic laws and having protocols put in place,” Sledge said. “Enforcing the Uniform Rules of the Road will not only save our lives, but also the lives of our children.”
Carter would bring experience to those areas, as he spent several years with ACCPD’s Traffic and Motor Patrol units.
The aim of the drug task force would be to stem the flow of illegal narcotics into the county. Sledge said the task force would be made up of Walton deputies and officers from the Monroe and Loganville police departments.