My name is John Q. Williams, and I’m a Sergeant with the Athens-Clarke County Police Department. I’ve been an Athens resident for nearly 20 years and I’m running to be the Democratic nominee for Sheriff in 2020.
In the past year, the Clarke County Sheriff’s Department has come under a lot of scrutiny that suggests that it’s time for new leadership at the top. Last year, a very unfavorable audit report detailed several problems at the Sheriff’s Department, including chronic staffing issues and low morale.
I believe that a lot of those problems are caused by policies that come from the top. For instance, if a deputy needs to take a sick day, they are required to bring in a doctor’s note to prove that they were actually sick. How can we trust men and women to keep our community safe when we won’t even trust them to take a sick day when they need it? Furthermore, new deputies have a high turnover rate because they are stuck guarding the jail while veterans stay out on patrol exclusively. Working in the jail is difficult and extremely stressful, so I don’t blame deputies for moving on when an opportunity to patrol doesn’t seem to be in sight. I want to introduce a rotation system that is more fair and conducive to retention as opposed to turnover.
One of the first things that I’m going to do when I’m elected is review these policies with a panel of deputies and department employees from all levels and eliminate or change policies that are harming as opposed to helping. Doing things because “that’s the way they’ve always been done” is no longer acceptable.
It’s important to note that police and sheriff’s departments around the country are currently struggling with retention and recruitment issues. I’m not suggesting that these problems are completely the fault of Sheriff Edwards or any other specific individual. I have spoken with many of the deputies to assure them my intent is not to do a clean sweep of the department. We still need good deputies to turn things around.
The fact is simply that Sheriff Edwards has been in office for almost 20 years at this point. He has had his opportunity to address these challenges; I think it’s time for a fresh voice with new ideas to take a shot at things.
I’d also like to introduce new training programs at the Sheriff’s department, many of which I have been in charge of implementing in the past as a training officer for the ACCPD. For several classes of new recruits, I have taught a class about combating bias in policing. I would like to make an effort to introduce many of the recommendations made by the Obama Administration's Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which would involve several measures to increase the level of transparency and community outreach efforts at the Sheriff’s Department
Another reason I’m running is that the Sheriff’s Department was roundly criticized in 2018 for honoring ICE detainers, meaning that the department was holding Athens residents in jail to be processed by deportation. The immigrant advocacy group Dignidad Inmigrante en Athens estimated that two people were being held each week because of this policy.
Sheriff Edwards only changed the policy after an intense amount of pushback from many people across the community, and even then he framed the decision completely as a legal issue, with a press release saying that “the Sheriff wishes to avoid the potential risk to the county of civil litigation relating to ICE detainers.” The Sheriff also told the Red & Black that “The primary driver for [my] decision was more of a legal issue, and not one based on reaction from the community.”
Here’s my take: I don’t believe in tearing families apart. I don’t believe that honoring ICE detainers makes our local community more safe. It’s the Sheriff Department’s job to take actions that increase the safety of our community for all people. How could we possibly achieve that by simultaneously creating an atmosphere where a large portion of our population feels like they can’t trust the police? Instead of having an attitude of toeing the line that Sheriff Edwards has, I’m going to approach this issue with a people-first mindset.
I’ve spoken with many activists who were frustrated with Sheriff Edwards’ dismissive approach to their genuine concerns, particularly when this controversy was happening.
Outside of the aspect of separating families, here’s why honoring ICE detainers is a problem for our community’s safety. For a few years, I have been one of the two detectives in charge of the ACCPD section that handles domestic violence, sexual crimes, crimes against children, and missing persons. There have been so many times that those crimes have gone unreported, or instances victims have been reluctant to cooperate with us, due to fears about deportation or about police in general.
Finally, I support the commission’s efforts to eliminate cash bail and I also support the creation of additional diversion programs for non-violent offenders or offenders struggling with drug addiction. To this end, I have pledged to not take any donations from bail bondsmen, who have a direct interest in preventing these changes. In the past, Sheriff Edwards has fundraised extensively f