By Joe Johnson
Athens-Clarke County police Sgt. John Q. Williams wants to bring order and maybe a bit of poetry to the Clarke County Sheriff’s Office.
The 21-year law enforcement veteran and published poet is challenging longtime incumbent Clarke County Sheriff Ira Edwards in a bid to lead an agency that has recently come under scrutiny for allegations of poor leadership and morale, perpetual short-staffing, inadequate training, and unsafe working conditions at the jail.
Edwards has been sheriff for nearly two decades, first elected in 2000.
Williams said that he was running on a platform to increase equity in the criminal justice system and make the local sheriff’s office more accessible and transparent.
He believes that a community cannot arrest its way out of social issues like mental illness, cyclical poverty, and systemic discrimination.
Williams believes that Edwards has been too aloof during his long tenure as sheriff.
“I think the most important thing a sheriff can do is be available and attentive,” the candidate said.
“The community will tell you what they see as problems and what they want you to address” he said. “Most of the times the public are the ones that see not only the problem, but the real source of the problem. You can’t just be in an office or in meetings and know what is going on. You have to build relationships and even more importantly you have to genuinely care.”
Williams said that Edwards “has been able to operate out of the public’s eye for some time now. I can’t recall hearing a personal response to any of the recent issues that have been brought up.”
The police officer, known to friends and coworkers as "John Q" or simply "Q" said, “I want people to feel they can come to me for help, whether it be to solve a problem or just get answers to questions.”
Williams believes that the sheriff should be an active leader in addressing such local issues as mental illness and violent crime and regional challenges like sex trafficking.
He said he would use the state constitutional authority that is given to the office of sheriff to lead the county’s law enforcement agencies in addressing chronic problems that challenge the community.
Williams said he would like to see sheriff’s deputies become more involved in the community.
“I have a vision of the Clarke County Sheriff’s Office being one of the premier employers of people from our community,” he said. “When people work in the county they live in, they tend to be more invested in making the community better and are more likely to treat everyone in the community better.”
Shortcomings and deficiencies within the sheriff’s office were highlighted earlier this year by a county audit.
The sheriff’s office disputed some of the audit's findings, including inconsistent prisoner and employee discipline, the effectiveness of a sick leave policy that requires a note from a doctor, and that “components of jail operations are unsafe.”
The turnover rate at the jail was 12-percent in each of the past five years, but last year it climbed to 17 percent, auditors found.
Williams said what stood out from the audit report by the county’s Office of Operational Analysis -- which documented 34 “findings” with recommendations for change -- were deputy complaints of poor leadership and training.
“When leadership is faulty, morale suffers, then good employees often choose to leave,” Williams said. “Overtime is expected when you work in law enforcement, but you have to monitor it so that you don’t burn people out.”
He said that working in the jail was particularly stressful, with deputies working long shifts and stretched too thin to safely and effectively staff a large, new detention facility.
“I would like to come up with a way to ensure deputies get a break from being in that environment so much,” Williams said.
He said one of his priorities upon becoming sheriff would be to create an advisory committee of senior and newly-hired deputies to discuss issues and concerns.
“Giving all employees a voice is critical to