Former Deputy Chief of the Hall County Sheriff’s Office Jeff Strickland came under fire by his opponents and audience members for previous decisions as the agency’s second-in-command at a more than two-hour debate sponsored by a student organization at Gainesville State College on Monday.
Particularly, the colonel came under scrutiny for the agency’s handling of a 2010 incident in which handcuffed inmates, who were believed to have started a jail riot, were hit and kicked by a jailer and the jail’s highest-ranking officer.
Gerald Couch, a veteran of both the Hall County Sheriff’s Office and the Gainesville Police Department, first raised the issue, noting the light the news media shed on events that otherwise would have remained in the dark.
“You’ve had a captain of the jail, where he kicked eight African American inmates in the head — that was all on video — and there was another issue at Lake Lanier Islands, a young lady reported she was a victim of rape and we failed to take the report,” Couch said. “Those things are inexcusable and will not be tolerated.”
Cameras at the Hall County Jail captured a December 2010 incident in which jail commander Mark Bandy kicked three handcuffed inmates in the head, an incident the U.S. Department of Justice was investigating as recently as January.
Bandy was suspended for one day for his misconduct. The issue came up again, moments later, when Anwann Hill rose from the crowd. Hill questioned why Bandy was still employed, and alleged that command staff “has done a sorry job at command staff.”
He asked how the candidates would improve relations with the black community after that incident.
The question gave Chuck Hewett, who once led security at the jail, a chance to target Jeff Strickland. Hewett said he stopped the December 2010 incident and reported it to his higher-ups.
If he had been sheriff, Hewett said, Bandy and the other deputy captured hitting a handcuffed inmate would have been fired immediately.
John Sisk also said he would not have tolerated excessive force.
“You don’t hit any handcuffed inmates, no matter what color he is: black, white, yellow, orange, red, whatever ...” Hewett said. “You call it a tap, you call it a kiss, you call it what you want — it should have never happened. If it happens under my command, all of them were gone.”
Jeff Strickland said Bandy’s punishment was a decision made by a “team” of leaders in the Hall County Sheriff’s Office.
“Our deputies are human. They get caught up in the heat of action. They get caught up in those kind of things; they make mistakes,” Jeff Strickland said. “Should we crucify them for one mistake? Maybe so. That was a decision made. That’s how we gain experience.”
After he finished speaking, members of the audience began to speak out of turn.
One woman balked at Jeff Strickland’s comments, saying the sheriff’s administration’s handling of the incident did not qualify as a “learning experience.”
Hill asked the former chief deputy if he, Hill, would have been arrested for kicking the handcuffed former chief deputy in the head.
“If you were cuffed and I kicked you, would I be in jail? Yes or no?” Hill asked.
“I think everything’s situational,” the colonel responded. “Everything has to be looked at situational, and that’s what we did at the time. I agree with you that somebody cuffed should not be struck at any time.”
Earlier in the night, the former chief deputy was on the defensive with a question from the audience asking if he would proceed with his campaign if found at fault in a federal investigation of the agency. He said he is not under investigation by a state or federal agency.
“I am not under the investigation by the FBI, GBI or anybody else,” said the colonel. “I am not under investigation, so there’s no way to be found guilty. ... I’ve heard that a number of times throughout this campaign.”
The debate, sponsored by the university’s Politically Incorrect club, garnered one of the largest audiences of any event in the 13-year history of the club, said faculty supervisor and political scientist Douglas Young.
After the event, audience members voted on their favorite candidates. Young said Couch and former state patrolman Jon P. Strickland tied for the most votes from the audience, with 36 each.