Wannabe DeKalb sheriffs spar in Brookhaven
Seven hopefuls - Vernon Jones didn't make it - say why they want the job
- Maggie Lee
- About 50 people gathered at Marist School in Brookhaven Tuesday to hear seven of the eight candidates for DeKalb Sheriff say why they want the job.
There are eight people in DeKalb County who want to run the county jail, serve warrants, and protect the courthouse bad enough that they are running for sheriff. On May 20, voters will decide who gets to finish up the final two years left on the term of retired sheriff Thomas Brown, who is trying a run for Congress against incumbent Hank Johnson.
Last night, seven candidates touted their law enforcement credentials, which ranged from local beat cop to the Drug Enforcement Agency, at a Brookhaven debate for the elected post. The candidate forum was held at Marist School and was organized by the DeKalb GOP.
Raises for jail staff are a popular idea among the candidates. That comes as little surprise due to the difficulties associated with finding and retaining people for a job that's unglamorous, difficult, requires being unpopular with incarcerated persons, plus lots of gloves and soap.
The candidates are also broadly calling for measures to promote youth activities such as the Police Athletic League and cadet programs that they hope make kids less likely to go astray.
First up, if the alphabet is any indication, is Dale Collins, who spent most of his nearly 30 years in law enforcement at the DeKalb sheriff's office. "I think right now the jail is the most critical area," he said, pledging to staff it sufficiently. "If you don't run it efficiently, if it's not staffed the way it should be, you're going to have a lot of problems, a lot of issues and it's going to come back and bite us," he said, adding that his experience would allow him to start the job running without a learning curve.
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Ted Golden, a retired DEA agent, said "if they're using third grade reading scores to determine how many prisons they're going to build in 20 years, our biggest problem is trying to figure out how to cut off that flow to the jail house." That means the sheriff has to get into intervention programs, he said, like the Police Athletic League and a cadet program. He wants to see officers in schools in other ways too, pledging to work to get an armed officer on every K-12 campus. The career-long drug buster also said he wants to start a drug task force.
Tony Hughes has spent nearly two decades in law enforcement, starting as a jailer with the DeKalb sheriff and ending with the county police, minus a short stint to co-own a Chick-fil-A location. Hughes told the crowd that he is the only candidate with that kind of private business experience. He wants to return to "the glory days of DeKalb when we could leave our doors unlocked." Hughes called for an office liaison for offender re-entry programs, the kinds of nonprofits that will be eligible for funding under new state laws. His ultimate vision is a "half-empty jail." Some of the other tools for emptying the jail, he said, would include early intervention with kids before they get locked up.
Melody Maddox's latest law enforcement job was assistant police chief for Georgia Piedmont Technical College - the network of campuses formerly known as DeKalb Tech. "A positive community starts with good leadership," said Maddox, which happens to be a good fit with her heaps of education, including the PhD in business administration she's working on. Her emphasis on integrity extends to calling for good "customer service" for the people she called "customers" of the jail and courthouse. The language is unusual, but it's a shorthand for her vision of a "high level of integrity ... morals, standards and ethical values" among employees. "When they have that, it goes out to the customers and it goes out to better public safety," she said.
Incumbent interim sheriff Jeff Mann came to the job after being a lawyer, serving as an assistant county attorney before joining the sheriff's office as a legal advisor. He's been the no. 2 official around the place for a decade as Chief Deputy and touts that executive-level experience, and years at the top of letting contracts and managing what's now about an $80 million budget. He said all county departments are clamoring for the dollars out of the county budget and that his office has to make a good case for spending.
For one, he'd like "to fairly compensate our officers." For two, that budget plays into the 17,000 outstanding warrants in DeKalb, over which he's taken some criticism. But, he said, 95 percent are low-level stuff like traffic violations. "The department focuses on those more serious warrants ... we have to prioritize where we want our taxpayer dollars spent." He's also cool on the idea of putting a school resource officer on every K-12 campus. "You put an armed SRO in every school, do you know how much that will cost?" he asked rhetorically, implying that the answer is "a lot."
Melvin Mitchell comes to the race from a career with the Atlanta Police Department, where he's worked his way up to being a top aide to the police chief. Mitchell busted Mann's management and for the attorney never having been a beat cop. "Those 17,000 warrants, some of those are wife-beaters, some are taking advantage of the elderly," Mitchell said, saying they have to be taken off the street. He also charged that the DeKalb sheriff's office doesn't "know how to recruit," and has returned funds to the county instead of spending it like he would do on new deputies. "I'm going to use county money effectively," said Mitchell. And in a county where new cities are steadily nibbling away county jurisdiction, Mitchell pledged to meet with all those police chiefs and make sure they have what they need from the sheriff.
LaSalle Smith is a preacher now but spent the decades before that with APD, followed by short stints with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and as Pine Lake Police Chief. "There is a perception in DeKalb County ... that DeKalb is mired in controversy or that it is one of the most corrupt counties in the United States. I want to restore integrity, values, dignity honor and professionalism," he said. If elected, Smith wants to start an intelligence division. In Atlanta, he said, that helped prevent crime and may have helped stopped the shootings in Wade Walker Park at a huge, un-permitted party earlier this month.
Vernon Jones, former DeKalb County CEO, did not show up for the debate.