New Cobb sheriff plans massive overhaul of department

It’s been two weeks since Cobb Sheriff Craig Owens took office and the county’s top lawman is already planning big changes to how things operate at the jail, including how inmate deaths are investigated.

Owens has rolled out a 100-day action plan, which includes a slew of initiatives and operational changes for the Adult Detention Center, which is run by the Cobb County Sheriff’s Office. The plan focuses on COVID-19 procedures, organization management, the health of detainees and community engagement.

Moving ahead, the sheriff’s office will follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance related to COVID-19, including increased sanitizing and disinfecting of areas in the detention center, installing hand sanitizing stations throughout the jail and requiring people who are waiting to be booked to undergo rapid COVID-19 testing.

The department has also partnered with Cobb & Douglas Public Health to provide rapid COVID-19 for current detainees and employees, said Col. Temetris Atkins, commander of the detention center.

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Owens, a Democrat, defeated longtime sheriff Neil Warren in November’s election. Warren, a Republican, held the office for nearly 20 years. Owens told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that jumping into his new role has been “difficult” because Warren’s administration did not help with the transition between the election and Jan. 1 when Owens’ term began.

“I was left with nothing, so I’m coming in and trying to figure out some things I didn’t know and what I should have been told,” he said. “We didn’t have a transition, which set me back, but we’re going to overcome that and drive through it.”

The department has also separated inmates who are either showing signs of COVID-19 or have tested positive. The Adult Detention Center has about 1,400 inmates, 12 of whom are currently positive for COVID-19. Owens said they are waiting on test results for three additional inmates.

Owens, who was diagnosed with COVID-19 last month while attending a weekslong mandatory training course offered by the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association, also said he plans to get vaccinated next week to set an example for the agency’s 800 employees. The sheriff said an internal survey showed about half of those employees planned to get vaccinated.

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The sheriff’s office will no longer investigate deaths of inmates, but will ask the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to perform that task in the future. Since December 2018, nine detainees have died while in custody.

Several local and statewide organizations and families of inmates have been pushing for more than a year for the Cobb Sheriff’s Office to provide more details about conditions at the Adult Detention Center. Their efforts picked up steam last year when it was revealed that several inmates died in less than a year.

Owens said he hopes the office’s decision to bring in the GBI for investigations into detainee deaths will help restore confidence among local activists and organizations that have raised questions about the Sheriff’s Office’s handling of those deaths. He also said he’s ordered a review of the contract the Sheriff’s Office has with the company that provides medical services for detainees.

“I think that gets us in the right direction,” he said. “For the citizens who come here, they are still human beings. If they are in my custody and control, they are my responsibility.”

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Owens also said he expects to make an announcement next week about the status of his plan to end the office’s participation in the federal 287(g) program. The program allows local law enforcement to help enforce federal immigration laws in local jails and state prison systems. The program gives them the authority to investigate, detain and transport people facing deportation.

Owens said he met with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials last week and is waiting on the county’s legal team to review documents needed to move ahead with scrapping the program.

The Cobb sheriff’s office will also re-establish relationships with business and civic organizations, schools, churches and religious organizations, hold quarterly meetings with citizens, hire a Spanish-speaking community liaison, re-introduce the chaplain role for detainees and launch a use of force review committee.

Sally Riddle of Cobb Smart Justice: Cobb Coalition for Public Safety, one of the organizations that has been critical of the Sheriff’s Office’s handling of inmate deaths, said having the GBI look into inmate deaths will help establish more transparency. She also said she agrees with Owens’ plans to end 287(g) and ensure detainees have access to quality healthcare while at the detention center.

“These are the changes that I think are moving (the Sheriff’s Office) in the right direction,” she said.