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 improving morale,” Williams said. “Those doing the job every day usually have a pretty good idea of what they need to be more efficient at their jobs.”
Some of the county audit report’s recommendations have been or will be implemented, according to the sheriff’s office.
Williams thinks he has a plan to stop the bleeding.
“The sick leave policy, lack of trust, and an overall lack of support would be what I think contributes to the turnover rate,” he said. “We must do a better job of acknowledging the value of every human being we come in contact with -- deputies, supervisors, administration, and inmates.”
Williams added, “When you treat people better, you get respect in return and with that respect comes safety. Starting the advisory committee, working on better policies, and building up relationships in our community all will help bring up morale and make people want to stay.”
Williams is currently a supervisor in the Athens-Clarke County police Criminal Investigations Bureau and oversees domestic violence and missing person cases.
He began his career in law enforcement in 1998, as a communications officer with the University of Georgia. After a stint as lead telecommunicator for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department in North Carolina, Williams returned to Athens in 2005 and has been a fixture in the community ever since. He was UGAPD’s assistant communications coordinator from 2005-2007. He then became an ACCPD communications officer, and two years later became a patrol officer. Williams was the resource officer for Cedar Shoals High School in 2011, the same year that he was named the police department’s Sworn Officer of the Year.
Williams was promoted to senior police officer in 2013 and became his department’s training coordinator, teaching classes for new officers about community policing, sensitivity, and combating racial bias in policing.
When Williams was promoted in 2017 to corporal in the Uniformed Patrol Division, he continued his work with the Career Development and Training Unit. He was promoted to sergeant in 2018.
Williams grew up in Gary, Indiana, in the 1970's. It was a time when poverty, crime and drug abuse became rampant with the collapse of the industrial city’s manufacturing base.
He said he witnessed abuses by members of the city’s overwhelmingly white police force against the majority minority population and personally experienced such racism.
Williams said that he and family members were often was stopped or detained by the police for no reason.
As a result of those experiences, Williams said resolved to be an officer who treats everyone equally regardless of race, ethnicity, or citizenship, and as sheriff, he would work toward re-shaping the criminal justice system into one that meets those same standards.
Williams lives in the Winterville area with his wife, Meshondra, and has two sons, a stepson, and three stepdaughters who are all grown or in college.
He said that he would like to become more actively involved in the Athens poetry scene.