Hall County Sheriff Gerald Couch faces three challengers — including two former employees of the Sheriff’s Office — for his position as the head of the department.
Kris Hall, Mitch Taylor and David Williams all qualified for the June 9 general primary for the sheriff’s race.
When: 5:30 p.m. May 26
Where: Zoom video, register
Couch has served as sheriff since January 2013. In an interview with The Times this week, Couch said he has demonstrated his ability to manage the agency of nearly 500 employees.
“I have proven that I can meet that challenge and provide for growth and still stay within that budget,” he said.
Hall, a Habersham County Sheriff’s Office corporal, started his law enforcement career in 1996 after serving in the U.S. Army.
Having lived in Hall County since 2002, Hall said his interest to join the race started after “seeing some of the things going on and not being real happy with some of the responses from law enforcement within the county.”
As the only candidate who has not worked previously for the Hall County Sheriff’s Office, Hall said he can bring a “fresh-faced” outsider view.
Taylor joined the Hall County Sheriff’s Office in 1991 and retired in October 2013.
Following a stint as the Athens Technical College assistant police chief, Taylor has been a police officer with Braselton Police since September 2017.
His key issues concern community projects and competitive pay and benefits.
“My two biggest things that I’ve been really wanting to target is the community involvement in the sheriff’s office and our employee retention,” Taylor said.
Williams, who worked for the Sheriff’s Office for 11 years, said he wants to remove political favoritism from the sheriff’s position and will insist on term limits.
“I will do one term, maybe two, but no more than two,” he said.
Williams said research he has done since 2013 “ignited my fervor so to speak to say things have got to change.”
Williams filed a civil suit in April 2017 against Couch alleging violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act. The lawsuit concerned a weapons course certification and a subsequent medical certification to return to work.
A $20,000 settlement was reached.
“This matter was resolved by the county’s insurance carrier, and the settlement was paid for by the carrier. The county strongly denies anything improper was done and there was no admission of liability whatsoever. Resolution of these kinds of claims is commonplace by insurance companies and ultimately is a business decision given the exorbitant cost of federal court litigation,” attorney Bill Blalock said in a statement.
Williams acknowledged people may just write him off as a disgruntled employee.
“If they make the decision that perhaps there’s more to it than just a disgruntled employee, they can rest assured that the politics or the political favoritism will be removed out of the office of the sheriff, and it will be substituted with sound principles of public administration in terms of management practices, fiscal practices and community relationships,” he said.
The Times recently interviewed all four candidates for sheriff to discuss the issues of the race including immigration enforcement, gang activity, pay/benefits for employees, accountability courts/reentry programs and personnel management.
Experience: 38 years in law enforcement, serving as a Hall County jailer, patrol deputy, field training officer, investigator, sergeant, lieutenant, Gainesville Police deputy chief. Sheriff since 2013.
Experience: Army veteran and 24 years law enforcement
Experience: 27 years law enforcement experience. Law enforcement instructor. Promoted to patrol lieutenant in 2005 and retired in 2013.
Experience: 45+ years in public service including law enforcement, city management. Naval Intelligence Command - Pentagon
Couch said he has not received an update on signing any sort of extension with the federal government regarding the 287(g) program, which flags inmates potentially eligible for deportation.
“I would anticipate that if it stays the same as in previous years that I would sign that agreement.”
Couch said the laws on the books should be enforced.
Hall said members of the Latino community have reached out to him regarding the 287(g) program.
“They feel that maybe 287(g) targets them unrealistically, and I’ve tried to explain to them my point of view. I see the program as targeting the gangbangers, targeting the drug dealers, targeting those that are doing human trafficking. Those are dangers to our community,” Hall said. “I am not looking to have somebody that’s locked up for driving without a driver’s license, some sort of non-violent crime … to be taken out of the community and deported under that program.”
Taylor said we must make sure to not incur extra expenses while housing an undocumented person.
He referenced Sheriff Butch Conway in Gwinnett County regarding immigration holds.
“The feds are notified and (if) they place a hold, then they have say 30 days to pick them up or the hold will be dropped by the sheriff. I think that (those) are some protocols that we need,” said Taylor, adding this is a way to ensure Hall County taxpayers are not footing any larger bill.
Williams said the laws have to be followed, but must be “done in a fair and impartial manner.”
As sheriff, Williams said he would be upfront and open with those who may disagree with the law.
Williams said he has not yet read the memorandum of agreement with the federal government regarding the 287(g) program.
“Once I have a chance to read it, if I object to it, I will object to it.”
Accountability Courts and Re-entry Programs
Couch said we have “come a long way” in recognizing and handling mental health issues in the corrections field, but still have a ways to go.
“The county jails have become the mental health hospitals, and when the state and basically when the nation started closing a lot of mental health hospitals, that’s where a lot of the people that have issues would … come in contact with law enforcement and go to jail.”
In addition to its GED program, the county has worked with Avita Community Partners, an agency providing counseling support for those with mental illness and addictive diseases.
Couch said he would like to see greater follow-up with some accountability courts such as Veterans Court.
Hall said he believes the accountability courts “all are good resources” to help people get through their issues and become productive members of society.
“On the flip side of that, we need to do more within the Sheriff’s Office with those that are incarcerated.”
Hall said he would like to see more vocational and drug counseling programs come into the Sheriff’s Office. He also mentioned a Gwinnett County program in which offenders who are veterans are incarcerated separately from the general population.
“They are a unique group, so to speak, because of their experiences, because of some of their mental health issues, and because of their drug and alcohol addiction issues that have put them where they are.”
Taylor pointed to a Gwinnett County program that focuses on helping inmates find jobs as they near release.
“I would like to implement something to where before these ladies and gentlemen get out of jail that we can help find them jobs. Once they get out of jail and not go back to their same habits, not go back to hanging around that same crowd … I think it will help them turn their life around.”
Williams said education programs are vital for people to get jobs that can better support their families.
“I agree with accountability courts. It gives people a chance, but I would like to see part of the accountability court is that instead of just making it voluntary that getting your GED is mandatory.”
Couch attributed a decrease in property crime to ongoing community partnerships, active law enforcement, community awareness and new technology.
He said there were roughly 83,000 calls for service in 2018 and roughly 77,000 calls for service in 2019.
Couch said they are using real-time crime data, strategy and efficiency to determine how to allocate manpower.
He also touted the doubled neighborhood watch programs
“One huge manpower savings that we’ve had was when I put in the community service officers at both precincts and here at the headquarters. They take a lot of reports that allow the patrol officers to stay out in the field.”
Hall said the current organization plan is divided into a handful of bureaus, where one commander is responsible for numerous duties.
“I think we need to broaden that out a little bit and design an organizational plan … that kind of shrinks that span of control, so that one individual who is responsible for that particular group, that’s their only responsibility. That’s their only function at the Sheriff’s Office. They don’t have all this other stuff that’s pulling their attention away.”
Hall said there are POST-certified employees holding jobs that could be done by civilian personnel. Those POST-certified employees then could be moved to enforcement.
POST-certified refers to the Peace Officer Standards and Training Council.
Taylor said there is a pay scale issue in which new employees coming in are making as much as longer-tenured employees
“Those people who have been there that long need to be rewarded.”
Taylor also said the organizational chart is too top-heavy.
Williams said he wants to flatten the levels of middle management and put more employees in the field, investigations and in the jail. He referenced the high rates of turnover.
Regarding pay, he said he has received information regarding employees who have the same rank and years with the Sheriff’s Office while receiving different salaries.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation announced in February the Georgia Criminal Street Gang Database was up and running, and the Hall County Sheriff’s Office was part of the pilot program.
Couch said Hall County was picked because of experience in combating gangs and gang problems. Multi-Agency Narcotics Squad investigators are also gang-certified.
“We have some very good investigators over there that I would say are experts in that area. That’s why we were chosen. I think as we progress as a community and especially on the state level, that there will be more attention given (to) that.”
Hall noted big drug trafficking cases in Habersham and surrounding counties sometimes originate out of Gainesville and Hall County.
“I think we need to really take a step back, look at what’s going on and start devoting some real resources and not just talk about it.”
Hall said he would like the MANS unit to focus on vice and narcotics while having a specific group focusing on gangs. This group would still collaborate with MANS and other law enforcement.
Taylor said he thinks it is an underlying problem that people don't want to discuss.
“I place a lot of importance on that. I would really love to give those guys all the means necessary to fight those gangs and try to keep our quality of life up in Hall County.”
He lauded the effort by Gov. Brian Kemp regarding the information-sharing initiative.
Williams said there would be aggressive enforcement on gang activity, but there must be solid probable cause and investigation to support their work.
There would be analysis and work with local, state and federal partners to find “which gangs are upwardly bound, so to speak, or engaging in more activity and then aggressively go after them.”
“You protect their due process, but you go after them.”
Pay/benefits for employees
Couch said the starting salary has increased by about $11,000 in his time as sheriff, and other employees have also seen an increase.
“You don’t just stop with that. You have to maintain that competitiveness.”
The retirement match is back up to 7%. Before the Great Recession it was 8%.
Couch said his goal is to get back to an 8% and “continue past that.”
“I want to provide an anchor point for those officers who have been here, say eight, 10 years at least, to be able to maybe even get a 10- or 12% match depending on their years of service … to keep those good quality officers here in Hall County.”
Hall said there has been a great deal of turnover related to pay or morale.
If elected, he said this would allow him to be an outsider who can relate to the average deputy.
Employees are being drawn away to departments in other jurisdictions, Hall said.
“It’s going to take a strong person to go up in front of the commission and say, ‘Look, these people need to be paid their worth. They need to be valued. You need to find the money somehow.’”
Regarding benefits, Hall said employees would prosper more by putting retirement outside of the control of the county.
Referencing the class-action lawsuit filed over pension benefits and currently under appeal, Taylor said it is important to have competitive pay and benefits.
Taylor said the current family insurance plan is as much as a house payment.
“As competitive as the insurance market is in today’s time, I think that we may be able to do better than that.”
Referencing the pension lawsuit, Williams said he “hopes the appeal works.”
“If I’m going to be asking for, for example, four more deputies to put on the road, I understand that will increase the budget, but it won’t be because we haven’t streamlined our own operations.”
Raises would be dependent on money left in the budget as well as state/federal grant money available, he said.
Every organization is facing issues with health care costs, and “you’ll probably see, local governments especially, starting to share a lot of that cost along with their employees.”
“You can try to resist that, but until the health care costs are controlled, you’re never ever going to stop the rise in health care costs.”