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Sheriff candidates focusing on experience
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Gerald Couch

Age: 49

Occupation: Retired lieutenant from Hall County Sheriff’s Office, 30 years, last in charge of major violent crimes for the investigations division; most recently spent eight months as assistant chief of police at the rank of major for Gainesville Police Department

Website: teamcouch2012.com

Education: North Hall High School, 1980; Northeast Georgia Police Academy, 1982; 3,000 hours of advanced law enforcement training

Political experience: None

Family: Wife Sharon of 17 years

District history: Lifelong resident of Hall County; member of Gainesville Kiwanis Club; serves on Board of Directors Rape Response; immediate past president of executive board of directors for Rape Response

Jeff Strickland

Age: 47

Occupation: Retired colonel and chief deputy from Hall County Sheriff’s Office, 28 years

Website: stricklandforsheriff.com

Education: Gainesville High School, 1983; Northeast Georgia Police Academy, 1984

Political experience: None

Family: Wife Linda of 17 years; two daughters, Jennifer and Notchea

District history: Lifelong resident of Hall County; member of Georgia Sheriff’s Association and National Sheriff’s Association; attends both Lakewood and Chicopee Baptist churches

The two men seeking to succeed Hall County Sheriff Steve Cronic have some 58 combined years of experience in law enforcement.

But each sees his experience in a different light.

Jeff Strickland, when he retired in October 2011, was the agency’s second in command behind Cronic.

Gerald Couch, after some 30 years with Hall’s agency, left in March 2011 and spent the next eight months as the second in command of the Gainesville Police Department before leaving to run for sheriff.

The merits of their experiences will be determined by voters on Tuesday.

Couch and Strickland finished a five-man race in July with little more than 500 votes standing between them.

Strickland received some 33.4 percent of the support at the polls that day; Couch’s tally made up 31.3 percent of the votes cast.

Each man says he will work to reduce the agency’s budget in a way that preserves law enforcement. Couch says he will “trim the fat” he says exists at top-level management.

Strickland says he can eliminate furlough days for employees by eliminating five positions through attrition.

But in the final days of the campaign, the two focus on their differences in experience.

Strickland continues to tout what he says is a “higher level of experience” than the experience Couch has.

Couch, who joined the sheriff’s office in 1981, actually came to the agency two years before Strickland.

Strickland, however, managed to climb to the agency’s highest rank before retiring last October.

In forums, Strickland often says that he has been preparing himself to be sheriff his entire career.

He says he has been “highly involved” in the planning and implementation of the agency’s budget for the last 12 years and as commander of the police services division was in charge of several more officers than Couch.

“I’ve been working hard for you,” Strickland told those gathered at a forum in South Hall on Tuesday night. “If you elect me, I’ll continue that.”

But even though he did not climb the ranks in the sheriff’s office the way Strickland did, Couch touts his training, saying he has received more training specific to supervising law enforcement than Strickland.

Couch says he spent much of his career training new recruits and said his experience has allowed him to know what the needs of the employees are.

He also says he focused his career path on investigations, which he found rewarding.

“I felt like I was doing something for the community,” Couch said.

And this week, Couch began to openly question whether Strickland’s leadership was for the county’s benefit, saying the agency had seen increases in officers who had resigned to go elsewhere or had been arrested for criminal offenses.

Still Strickland says the firings and the arrests speak in favor of his and Cronic’s leadership, not against it.

“Anytime you have a department with 450 employees, you’re going to deal with issues,” Strickland said. “When we had an issue arise in the sheriff’s office, we took action. If our people violated the law, then they were arrested and they were treated no differently.”

Strickland calls the accusations “political posturing.”

“I think it’s just political posturing, trying to put himself in a favorable light and shed a dim light on me,” Strickland said.

Throughout his 30-year career, Couch has accrued 3,022 hours of law enforcement training, according to reports The Times obtained from the Georgia Peace Officer Standards Training Council.

According to a similar report for Strickland, the former chief deputy had 2,049 hours of training.

On the campaign trail, Couch often talks about training. In a forum, Couch said he wanted to work with local colleges to improve deputies’ education levels.

“Training is important,” Couch said.

But Strickland also said he feels training is important and wants to “improve and increase” training for deputies if elected, though he said the agency “took a hit” with training levels as the economy weakened.

Strickland and Couch also differ on policies for the agency. Couch wants to drop the agency’s national accreditation, saying it is too costly for the results it provides.

In previous forums, Couch has said the agency gets more for its money on state certification.

But Strickland said the national review, done by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, is “a cornerstone of our accountability and professionalism.”

He plans to continue pursuing the national accreditation, and says any plan to get rid of it would be leading the department in the wrong direction.

Strickland said his main goal for the department is “to take our successes of the past and I want to build on them in the future.”

“The Hall County Sheriff’s Office is highly respected across the state of Georgia,” Strickland said. “We have excellent employees there, and I think that we have always operated at a high standard. If I’m elected sheriff, we’ll continue to operate at a high level.”

Couch’s main goal, if elected, is to increase the level of officers’ community involvement.

“I want the citizens to know the officer that works in their area, and have a very positive contact instead of always being in a negative way,” Couch said.

The men also have differing opinions on how the agency’s partnership with Immigration and Customs Enforcement should be implemented.

Couch says the agency should use the partnership to focus on violent offenders. Couch alleges that nonviolent offenders, who are deemed to be illegal, spend two to three nights in the county jail at taxpayers’ expense, only to be released by the federal government.

“They only have bed space for violent offenders,” Couch said. “They have to pick and choose who is held and who is deported — it comes down to a question of economics ... we’re not getting the end result of deportation — it’s simply not happening now because the federal government does not have the bed space to board an inmate on a nonviolent traffic crime.”

Strickland doesn’t agree, calling the 287(g) partnership “one of our best weapons in ensuring quality of life.”

Over and over again, Strickland has said the program has decreased the volume of drugs moving through the county and the number of violent offenders.

When Strickland retired from the sheriff’s office in October 2011, Cronic gave him the meritorious service award for his 28 years of employment.

At the time of his retirement, Strickland received $45.89 per hour.

Couch started at the sheriff’s office in October 1981, starting as a detention officer and working his way up to a position as the lieutenant in charge of major violent crimes for the investigations division

He retired in March 2011, leaving the sheriff’s office to become the Gainesville Police Department’s assistant chief of police. When he left the county, Couch was making $27.01 per hour, according to his personnel file.

Throughout his 28-year career, Strickland repeatedly scored high in annual evaluations of his job performance.

In 1985, just two years after he started working at the department, his supervisor wrote that Strickland “has the making of a number one officer.”

Reporters who worked with Strickland wrote letters to a national accrediting agency about the way Strickland accommodated the media.

One reporter, who said he had worked with several public information officers, wrote that the agency had “top-notch media relations” under Strickland’s watch.

Strickland received at least three commendations from the sheriff between 2002 and 2008.

One letter in his file, from a former DUI court participant who had been arrested after he was caught drinking during a home visit, thanked Strickland for his help during that time.

Strickland had, according to the letter, gotten the man out of the Hall County Jail and moved into the county’s work release facility, which allowed the man to go to work the next morning and keep his job.

Couch also had high marks on his performance evaluations.

Under his watch in the county, all homicides in 2008 and 2009 were solved or cleared by arrest, according to his personnel evaluations from those years.

He received the sheriff’s commendation award for an “unusually quick conclusion” to an investigation of a Marlow Drive murder in December 2010; the suspect in that case, Valentin Garcia, pleaded guilty to the charges earlier this summer. He received other praise for his team’s investigation of the February 2010 murder of Richard Schoeck in Belton Bridge Park. One of the three suspects in that case has been sentenced to life in prison without parole; another, Schoeck’s wife Stacey, plans to plead guilty with the same sentence. A third, alleged triggerman Reginald Coleman, will face trial later this year.

Throughout his career, attorneys with the district attorney’s office wrote letters thanking Couch for his help in criminal trials. One letter, written in 2004 by juvenile court Judge Cliff Joliff, said Couch’s intervention allowed children whose father had shot their mother and killed himself to spend the last moments with their mother in the hospital before she died.

Joliff wrote that the children would have been placed in the care of the Department of Family and Children Services and missed those moments with family had Couch not intervened.

Several of Couch’s annual performance evaluations say he often worked after hours and on weekends without compensation.

One July 2003 evaluation said Couch, then a sergeant, “continues to set the standard in investigation of major cases.”

Neither man was perfect.

In at least five annual performance reviews, supervisors urged Strickland to work on his physical fitness.

A few evaluations also mention a need for Strickland to monitor his employees better.

Throughout the campaign for sheriff, Couch has said he wants to implement a physical fitness program for deputies, which the agency currently does not have.

“We need to bring our standards up, not keep them low where they have been,” Couch said.

Strickland, however, has said he would not implement a mandatory physical fitness program for deputies.

A few of Couch’s annual evaluations urge Couch to be more stern with his employees and to work on time management.

Couch, in 2007, was suspended without pay for two days for a botched warrant service in which the deputies involved entered the wrong home looking for a suspect, damaging the door in the process.

The officers who entered the wrong home did so because of clerical errors in a warrant that attempted to locate an armed robbery suspect.

At the time, Strickland told The Times that Couch and another officer who was demoted in the incident “were veteran officers that had near spotless records and continue to be valuable assets to the department.”

Couch’s personnel evaluation that year mentioned the incident.

“While Lt. Couch made an on-call response error during this evaluation period, he typically makes sound, accurate decisions based on all available information,” the supervisor wrote.

Strickland handed down the two-day suspension, because Couch was the highest-ranking officer in charge of the detail.

When questioned on the incident this week, Couch used it as an example for one of his platforms in the campaign, railing against what he has repeatedly called “unfair and unequal treatment” of officers in the agency. Couch compares his punishment with that of Hall County Jail Capt. Mark Bandy, who was suspended one day for kicking handcuffed inmates in the head.

“We’ve got to guarantee fair and consistent treatment of the officers with both praise and disciplinary action,” Couch said.

Strickland said the disciplinary actions in each incident were fair.

“Every policy violation is different and every policy violation has variables,” Strickland said. “During my time at the sheriff’s office, I tried to look at all of the information that was gathered by Internal Affairs and any other sources available.”

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