Analysis: In Cobb County, the race for sheriff has become a GOP stress test

Credit: Elissa Benzie

Credit: Elissa Benzie

If you want to judge whether a Georgia county is serious about switching its political allegiance, or merely flirting with the idea, keep your eye on the race for sheriff.

In most counties, in terms of both constitutional authority and actual armed force, the elected sheriff remains the foundation of the local power structure.

But to paraphrase the late great Stan Lee, it is also true that with great power comes great responsibility. And at times, great baggage accompanies both.

Neil Warren has been the sheriff of Cobb County since 2004, when he replaced six-term Bill Hutson. Their back-to-back careers encompass nearly the entire span of Republican domination in Cobb.

From 2004 to 2016, in an electoral version of “Groundhog Day,” Warren faced the same Democratic opponent. Gregory Gilstrap has been, by turns, a deputy sheriff in DeKalb County and the head of the Morehouse College police force in Atlanta.

Warren beat Gilstrap with 66% of the vote in 2004, 60% in 2008, 59% in 2012, and 56% in 2016. No doubt you’ve already spotted the trend line.

Gilstrap isn’t running against Warren in 2020 – or at least, he hasn’t announced yet. Two other Democrats have. Jimmy Herndon is a former sheriff department supervisor. Craig Owens is a major and 30-year veteran with the Cobb County Police Department.

True to form, Warren’s fifth campaign has a heavy emphasis on illegal immigration aimed at the GOP base. In June, the sheriff reenlisted the county in the federal 287(g) program, which allows local law enforcement to investigate the immigration status of detained individuals they suspect of being in the country illegally.

Credit: Christina R. Matacotta

Credit: Christina R. Matacotta

“Fox News named Warren one of America’s top 10 anti-illegal immigration sheriffs in 2012,” boasts the sheriff’s campaign website. It is a bragging point that has come to mean less in a county carried by Stacey Abrams in the 2018 race for governor — never mind Hillary Clinton in 2016.

But changing demographics are only one challenge facing Warren in 2020.

A Journal-Constitution report published in July found questionable accounting in Warren’s public campaign finance disclosures, including thousands of dollars in unattributed “petty cash.”

Some of the AJC's findings were echoed in a formal complaint filed against Warren in October, alleging he has misspent nearly $20,000 in campaign funds. The subpoenas suggest the scope of the investigation could include the possible misuse of county resources.

It doesn’t stop there. Consider the Cobb County Detention Center, an edifice off Powder Springs Road capable of housing 3,000-plus humans at a time.

Since December 2018, seven inmates in jail custody have died – the most recent in November. They include one suicide, an accidental drug overdose, an inmate dying of dehydration and four other deaths that were preceded by medical emergencies.

Jail occupants were subject to an extended lockdown beginning in September– kept in cells for as long as 23 hours and 45 minutes per day, barred from contacting family and attorneys. Neither were inmates were allowed to purchase snacks or hygiene items.

Credit: Elissa Benzie

Credit: Elissa Benzie

The lockdown was lifted in late October, a sheriff’s spokesman said, but to what degree is in dispute.

The details were the focus of a town hall gathering on Monday evening, just down the road from the jail, at Life Church in Marietta – sponsored by the ACLU of Georgia and several other organizations. The sanctuary was standing room only. Daughters spoke for jailed fathers, wives for husbands, and lawyers for the dead.

It can be hard to stand up for the locked-up, downtrodden and unwashed. Local pride can be an easier button to push.

“People of Cobb County, you have to speak up. You must do something. This is out of hand. It is crazy. I can’t even begin to tell you the lousy documentation, the skirting of necessary issues, the expired contracts for care,” said Laura Austin, a Woodstock attorney who represented the family of a 24-year-old man picked up on second DUI – an alcoholic suffering from liver failure.

The young man died in a local hospital, after three weeks of no treatment in the jail. “He turned from bright yellow to pumpkin orange and he died,” she said.

Austin was followed by a slight man named Bill Jenkins. “I just got out of jail last night,” he told the crowd. “I was in B Pod, Cell 49. I got arrested on July 23. I spent from the 23rd of September to the 28th of October in lockdown for no reason whatsoever – as did the whole rest of the jail.”

Jenkins said he’d been told that lockdown was likely to last into the New Year. “If you know you’re going to be on lockdown until Jan. 1, beyond Christmas, spending the holidays in lockdown, you’re going to agree to some sort of plea that you never would have agreed to. You will admit to things you never did, just to stand in the sun,” he said.

Jenkins, too, pushed the pride button. “I was guilty of what I did,” he said – though he didn’t specify. “I deserved to be in jail but didn’t deserve to be in lockdown.”

“This is Cobb County, Ga.,” he said. “Cobb County is a prestigious county. I come from New Jersey. Cherry Hill, N.J. They don’t do this stuff in New Jersey,” he said.

Credit: Elissa Benzie

Credit: Elissa Benzie

Warren was invited to the event, the crowd was told, but did not attend. His two Democratic opponents sat in the front row. Both Owens and Herndon were greeted with applause when they introduced themselves at the end of the program. Herndon was the more aggressive when it came to the Republican sheriff and his jail.

“It’s a much greater number than seven deaths. During Warren’s reign, since 2004, there have been 41 deaths in that facility. I’ve been working with many of the families here. I’m going to continue to do so, and continue to shine a light on what he’s doing and tear him down, brick by brick,” Herndon said.

We haven’t verified Herndon’s tally, but passed his allegations along to the Cobb County sheriff’s department for a response. Warren said he would answer Herndon this spring, when the latter becomes an official candidate. “When qualifying closes in March there will be a candidate from both sides of the political spectrum and at that point, I will be happy to discuss any and all issues with a legitimate basis of fact,” Warren said via email.

For more, the best we can do is point you to a letter Sheriff Warren sent to the Marietta Daily Journal for publication last Friday, alleging that inaccurate criticism of his jail is being peddled "to inflame the public for either financial or political gain."

“In reality, six inmates have died this year. Of those six, one was a suicide who actually physically passed in the jail. The remaining passed in local medical facilities while under the best care available to them paid for by the taxpayers,” Warren wrote.

“The sad reality is that many of our inmates come to us with pre-existing health problems that they may not even be aware of. Their health could have been affected by their lifestyle, their possible use of highly addictive drugs and an overall avoidance of the medical profession for reasons only they know,” he wrote.

Any innkeeper might say the same thing.

This is the problem that comes with being a sheriff. When you lock someone up, whether they are good, bad or ugly, you also take custody of their health and safety. It’s that great-power, great-responsibility thing. And people sometimes vote according to how well they think you’ve handled it.